There are various reasons for picking certain books to read. Sometimes it’s the cover, and indeed, the Ubaldo Oppi painting on the Virago edition of The Well of Loneliness is extremely stylish. It can be through reputation, and this novel does appear in a large number of ‘must read’ lists. Sometimes it’s through personal recommendation. The last criteria does not apply here, I certainly have never been recommended this book – and I receive lots and lots of recommendations, for all kinds of books.
The Well might be ‘The bible of Lesbianism’ (The Irish Times) and ‘The archetypal lesbian novel’ (TLS), two quotations which appear on the cover of my edition, but both these statement imply historical significance rather than contemporary popularity. I’ll be focusing this blog on how the novel holds up in the 21st century. The heroine of the story is Stephen Gordon, so named because her father desperately wanted a son. She is educated as if she was a son. She loves riding and dresses up in boy’s clothes. She hates everything feminine. She looks masculine and refuses to use a side saddle. Frankly, she is very hard to take seriously. Even if the gender theory was less dubious, the discovery that she likes girls is as surprising to the modern reader as the fact that Count Dracula is, wait for it, a vampire.
In 1928 the novel was banned from publication and was the centre of a massive obscenity trial. As with so many previously banned books, modern readers will look in vain for the dirty bits in Hall’s work. It was the topic that was considered to require censorship, not the novel itself which is, frankly, Victorian in its approach to technicalities; the most explicit it gets is a hinted acknowledgement that Stephen and her love spend the night together. The Well’s identification as ‘the bible of Lesbianism’ comes rather from the extremely long, and extremely dated, discussions of homosexuality and homosexuals (called ‘inverts’ in the novel). The characters and plot are really a case study of ‘inversion’; this was the novel’s strength and is now its weakness. When it was the only known ‘Lesbian novel’ out there, giving hope to young girls that they were not alone and could be successful, no doubt it played a more than literary role in supporting and comforting its readers. Fortunately, times have changed. There are other, and better, novels which follow in its footsteps, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and The Colour Purple, to name two seminal examples. The Well of Loneliness is a period piece, of historical value, and we should celebrate the fact that it is no longer recommended reading.