WHILE The Well of Loneliness has generally been granted pride of place as the first lesbian novel, can a case be made for it as the first “gay” novel, broadly defined to include both men and women? Published soon after Proust’s magnum opus was translated into English, Radclyffe Hall’s novel, unlike Proust’s, had an “invert” as its central character and dedicated itself almost exclusively to recounting her same-sex relationships. Whether Stephen Gordon was a “lesbian” in our sense remains an open question; some critics have argued that she would be considered a transgender person in today’s sexual taxonomy—which only means that Hall was pushing a different set of social buttons, those governing gender conformity.
What may be the Well’s most radical element is precisely Hall’s use of the categorical term “invert” to label her central character—and herself in real life. The suggestion is that a class of such persons exists who share certain characteristics and life experiences. In short, they partake of an “identity” that begins to satisfy the gold standard of what we mean by “gay” (or “lesbian,” “GLBT,” etc.). It isn’t a huge leap to imagine these folks banding together in common cause—not something the patrician Hall ever envisioned, though she did plead for tolerance and understanding of the inverts in our midst.
What launched the book into the public consciousness were the widely publicized trials on both sides of the Atlantic (conviction in the U.K., vindication in the U.S.), which gave The Well of Loneliness a notoriety that may have exceeded its literary merits. For many years after its 1928 publication, it was the go-to book for women, as well as for many men, who were questioning their sexuality or looking for fellow travelers. As a practical matter, it was undoubtedly the “first gay novel” to be encountered by countless readers from the 1930s to the ’70s.
This essay comes from the July-August 2008 issue. —RS
Diana Souhami’s books include The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (1998) and the forthcoming Gwendolen: A Novel (2015).