3* (out of 5*)
‘God,’ she gasped, we believe; we have told You we believe . . . We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’
First things first, the cover on this edition is absurdly unrepresentative of the book.
Second, I liked the book. I would even recommend the book – it’s just that it should come with a few notes:
1. It is endlessly long. And detailed. For no purpose. Whatsoever. If the length of the book was sustained by beautifully formed expressions it might not feel so long but….
2. I should not have read this so soon after reading the works of some master wordsmiths. Hall’s famous work is not as clunky as and slightly less preachy than The Unlit Lamp but it just isn’t one of the books that would have been remembered for its evocative or imaginative writing.
3. The book was written with a purpose – a plea, if you like, that is expressed very openly in the closing chapters. As an example of cultural history or changes in society and attitudes, it is a fantastic read because it contains a lot of information about (and more detailed description of) British upper-middle class society of the early 20th century. So, if you read the book with a purpose of finding out more about these attitudes, this is a great read.
4. The character of Stephen seems to be based – at least to some extent – on Radclyffe Hall herself. As a result, the perspective taken by the main character and the book as a whole is limited to the experience of only one individual – which I guess is the point, but it doesn’t make for a complex reading experience. In short, there does not seem to be an attempt to investigate other points of view, or experiment with angles of perception, or layers. There are other characters but few of them are given a real voice.
5. I could not help but smirk at the hint of hypocrisy in the books attempt to strive for acceptance of a minority when at the same time there is underlying attitude of snobbishness and chauvinism towards other minorities.
And yet, for all I criticise, there is an also an honesty to the story and Radclyffe Hall’s forthright writing style that impresses me and this is worth the hard work of reading it:
The Well of Loneliness was published at the same time as Woolf’s Orlando – touching on similar themes of identity – but where Orlando shrouded the issue in mysticism, Radclyffe Hall dared to write openly about sexual identity.
The book was banned under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The ban was not lifted until 1959 when the Act was amended. Originally, the test for obscenity was “whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall”. In 1959 the Act was amended to differentiate controversial works of art and literature with social merit.
The Well of Loneliness was not only book with a lesbian theme to be published in Britain in 1928, but it was the only one banned – because of its forthrightness and its explicitness – though hardly what would pass as such in today’s terms.
Arguably, it is the book’s fate, the notoriety it gained by being banned, that helped The Well of Loneliness to remain in print today.
“You will see unfaithfulness, lies and deceit among those whom the world views with approbation. You will find that many have grown hard of heart, have grown greedy, selfish, cruel and lustful; and then you will turn to me and will say: “You and I are more worthy of respect than these people. Why does the world persecute us, Stephen?” And I shall answer: “Because in this world there is only toleration for the so-called normal.” And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: “I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you”.’