The Well of Loneliness is the first novel in English to make an unabashed plea for an understanding of lesbians, or “female sexual inverts,” the term used in Radclyffe Hall’s time. In many respects the novel falls short of literary greatness—its heavy-handed moralizing, scenes of exaggerated melodrama, and frequently ponderous diction dull its effectiveness. It remains unique, however, in its era as a wholly sympathetic story of a lesbian’s struggle to forge her identity. It stands first in a long succession of “coming out” novels, and continues to inform and inspire readers. If Hall’s principal purpose was to persuade her readers that a lesbian minority not only exists but should be permitted to participate in society and contribute to its welfare, there can be little doubt that she has achieved considerable success through the years.
At the time The Well of Loneliness came out in both England and the United States in 1928, publishers of novels that portrayed homosexuals faced charges in these two countries of violating laws against obscenity. Hall’s publisher was brought to trial, in both England and the United States. The British judge, who refused either to read the book or hear from the notable authors, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, who came to testify on its behalf, considered the work’s literary merit irrelevant to the question of whether it was obscene, and banned it. The U.S. court, however, after a heated trial, refused to deem the book obscene.
The portrayal of the character of Stephen Gordon is colored by the psychological thinking of Hall’s day, particularly by the work of Havelock Ellis, who insisted that sexual inverts, far from being sociopaths who posed a danger to society, were capable of leading useful and honorable...
(The entire section is 742 words.)