“It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity. It even suggests that their self-made debasement is unavoidable, because they cannot save themselves.”
James Douglas on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, “A Book That Must Be Suppressed”, Sunday Express, 19 August 1928.
It has been almost ninety years since the publication of Radclyffe Hall’s ground-breaking novel, The Well of Loneliness, the story of a young woman from an upper-class family who falls in love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver during World War I. Their relationship is met with abomination, and Stephen struggles to come to terms with the social isolation that follows. Hall was at the pinnacle of her career when she wrote the novel, and risked ruin by doing so, but she hoped her writing would bring about better social understanding, and told her publisher at the time that “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world… So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.”
The reader could be forgiven for missing the novel’s only sexual reference: “and that night, they were not divided,” but one man, James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, was so incensed that he embarked on a vicious campaign to rid the nation’s bookshelves of this ‘indecent publication’. In his editorial dated August 19th, 1928, he wrote that The Well of Loneliness only highlighted the need for society to “cleanse itself… of these lepers.” Children, he said, were most at risk from the dangers of this scandalous of book.
Despite significant support for Hall and her novel, the Home Secretary ordered publisher Jonathan Cape to withdraw it from sale, otherwise criminal proceedings would be brought. However, with all the publicity, demand for The Well of Loneliness was high, and it continued to be sold illicitly. An obscenity trial followed. The court ruled that all copies of the book should be destroyed and that the defendants should pay legal costs.
In the dark decades that followed, LGBT authors were often very careful about the characters they created and indeed their own private lives. Understandably so, when you consider that homosexuality between men wasn’t decriminalised until 1967 in England and Wales, even later in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Books which LGBT readers could identify with were difficult to come by. This was true not only in literature, but in television, film, and the music industry. I remember the first gay character on EastEnders, the first lesbian kiss between Beth and Margaret on Brookside, and the day Boy George exploded onto our television screens singing Karma Chameleon. I saw these people as trailblazers, who opened up a wealth of opportunity for LGBT voices to be heard.
As a writer, I am fortunate to live in a more enlightened society, where LGBT authors can write openly, from their own experience. Human beings, who happen to be LGBT are part of the fabric of society, and increasingly are being represented in literature, not only as protagonists but as characters incidental to the story, in a way we have never seen before, across every genre. No longer are our books placed in small sections in forward thinking bookshops, with a discreet sign saying LGBT Fiction.
It is a shame that some readers still find LGBT novels offensive. There are some wonderful writers who have received scathing reviews, not because of the quality of their work, but simply because of the LGBT content. I have yet to see a review berating a book for being too heterosexual! A couple of readers have said that they didn’t enjoy my novel The Women Friends: Selina because it contained lesbianism and bisexuality. In fact, the sex scenes make up only about three percent of the story. The rest of the novel centres around a young woman who leaves her troubled past, and moves to Vienna to model for the notorious artist Gustav Klimt. It is set against the backdrop of 1920s bohemian society and sinister developments in Europe leading up to World War II. There is much more to the story than the few paragraphs with sexual content.
I was inspired to write the novel by Gustav Klimt’s sensuous masterpiece of the same name, (below). Nothing is known about the two women in the painting, but it is thought that they were lovers. The fate of the painting itself was a tragic one, and I wanted to reflect that in the story itself.
My favourite novels aren’t stories about lesbianism or bisexuality, but these themes usually run through the book to a greater or lesser extent. I love historical fiction; at no point in history has society been wholly heterosexual, and increasingly this is being reflected in literature. Moreover, I would argue that in historical fiction, the portrayal of LGBT characters is more important than in any other genre, precisely because of the nature of our histories. There are countless stories to be told, stories which previously would have been suppressed, because by telling them, people faced being shunned, ostracised, and in some cases, imprisoned or executed, as is still the case in many parts of the world.
The books that have influenced me the most are Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Emma Donoghue’s The Sealed Letter.
In The Colour Purple, the lesbian relationship between Celie and Shug is the catalyst which transforms Celie from a submissive, downtrodden woman, into one who is strong and fiercely independent. In Shug, Celie finds love for the first time since she was taken away from her sister, Nettie.
In Affinity, Margaret Prior’s feelings for disgraced spirit medium are shady and almost invisible. The story is a deeply sensual one, despite there being no sex in the entire novel.
The Sealed Letter is based on a real life Victorian scandal, a delicious tale of secrets, betrayal and forbidden love. An intriguing story of a courtroom drama and the appearance of a sealed letter whose unknown contents could destroy more than one life.
All three writers weave complex stories, in which lesbianism is only a part. The novels all highlight the choice women were faced with in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of remaining true to themselves, or conforming to what was considered the ‘social norm.’
The Well of Loneliness remains a controversial book, criticised for inspiring shame and self-loathing, and for portraying lesbian women as masculine figures. However, along with a handful of other books, it paved the way for many of the novels we know and love today.
Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham – a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son who keeps her very busy and very happy. Emma left school at 16 and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.
Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards with Five Guns Blazing in 2014. Her novella The Women Friends: Selina, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published on December 1st, 2016 by Crooked Cat Books. She is currently writing her third novel, Delirium, a Victorian ghost story.
Emma is an avid fan of live music and live comedy and enjoys skating, swimming and yoga.
For more information visit her Amazon author page.