The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall is not a particularly famous or well known novel amongst general reading circles. Written in 1928, three years after The Great Gatsby, and at the height of the popularity of Virginia Woolf, it was published in the UK during an exciting time for literature. However, Hall’s novel did not reach the wide audiences of her contemporaries- it was banned shortly following its publication, and not made legally available in Britain again until 1949.
The controversy that surrounds The Well‘s publication often eclipses the story at its heart- that of Stephen Gordon, a woman who, like many, just wants to find love. However for Stephen, open love is impossible, simply because she finds she is in love with another woman. The novel documents Stephen’s life- from her lonely childhood, to her struggle to find acceptance and a life for herself as an adult in a world that despises her.
Published quietly and with little publicity in July 1928, the book soon sparked outrage- the idea of such relationships being presented positively at this time being unthinkable. This led to a lengthy trial, with Hall herself facing questions of morality- Hall was unapologetically open and unashamed of her own sexuality.
By November of that year, the book was banned. The judgment delivered by the chief magistrate of the day, who criticized Hall for presenting the case of such people in a sympathetic light, said:
“The whole note of the book is a passionate and almost hysterical plea for the toleration and recognition of these people who, according to the view presented in this book, are people who ought to be tolerated and recognized.”
This blatant rejection of Hall’s plea for tolerance seems so cold and unthinking in a world where we now know better. Virginia Woolf even offered to testify on behalf of the Bloomsbury group to assert the novel’s literary merit, but this was deemed irrelevant to the trial, highlighting the strict nature of censorship at this time.
Despite being banned in Britain, the book did not go to trial in France and America, and so enjoyed success in sales abroad. Yet the negative light this shone on Hall (below) and her writing could explain Woolf’s own favoring of an increasingly subtle approach when presenting similar themes in her own writing.
Hall’s complete disregard for censorship and general public opinion during this time was something that can be seen as incredibly brave. She published the book with the knowledge that it may cause an outcry, thus defining and overshadowing her entire career- but she did it anyway.
Such a courageous act is so heart-warming, with Hall’s early pleas for tolerance now being heard and listened to. A cause of great anguish for Stephen throughout the book is her inability to marry the woman she loves- if only Hall had lived to see us now.
This book is so important. Now labeled ‘pioneering,’ it is finally accepted and read with a sense of comfort, that we no longer live in such times. But to publish something like this into a world of hate and misunderstanding was something so incredible for Hall to do.
And if all this isn’t reason enough to read it, The Well is also beautifully and movingly written, presenting a compelling insider view of a world of prejudice and love.
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