Published by Wordsworth Editions on January 7th 2014 (first published January 1928)
Genres: Classic, LGBT+
‘As a man loved a woman, that was how I loved…It was good, good, good…’
Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents – a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
I picked up this book nearly a year ago for the first time, but never read beyond the first few chapters (although I liked it back then). I picked it up again because it’s a perfect read for both the LGBTQIA 2016 Reading Challenge and the Women’s Classic Literature Event.
This is not a classic that is universally loved. Scanning through some of the reviews before I started reading, I was fully prepared to not like it much either. Hall was apparently not such a nice person, and this book is a ‘thinly disguised story of her own life’. But much to my surprise, I loved it.
The Well of Loneliness tells the life story of Stephen, an ‘invert’ (the word used for ‘lesbian’ – although we could argue about Stephen’s sexuality and gender identity). The book is really just that, a life story. Considering the time period, I was expecting a really dramatic and sad story. Instead, it was often full of hope. Stephen has to endure hardship and social stigma, but also has good people in her life who support her, and Stephen herself is not afraid to fight for her existence. It’s a realistic life story, not exclusively happy but not so sad either. Although I have to confess, the ending… 🙁
What surprised me furthermore was how completely unapologetic this book is. It’s absolutely no surprise that it was banned upon publication in 1928 (considering the time period). There is no explicit sex, but the book is also not hiding anything, everything is said outright and there is very little subtlety. And although Stephen occasionally struggles with her place in society, she is never sorry for what she is. Even in the final chapter, which was heart-wrenching, I believe she made the decision for a reason other than her being ashamed of herself. It was refreshing to say the least – I’ve read modern LGBT+ books that weren’t this unapologetic.
Finally, I have to mention Hall’s writing. It’s absolutely gorgeous, just the right level of lyrical without getting tiresome. The book on the whole was a relatively easy read. The end of my edition (a Wordsworth classic) had endnotes which were helpful, although many of them weren’t necessary.