Among the earliest novelistic depictions of homosexual love and life, Hall’s book movingly expresses the solitary pain of living out a prohibited nature. Her protagonist, Stephen Gordon, enters this life a contradiction – christened with the name of the male child she is not – and ends it in the same way – professing love for one woman in order to free the other woman she truly loves to live a more conventional life – the very conventional life for which Stephen has longed since adolescence but can never have.
That conclusion may sound melodramatic, and it bears a bit of that taste, but the tale in its entirety is far more individual and nuanced than any melodrama. It is, given the date of publication (1928) , an amazingly deep and subtle reflection of what living a secret can do to a person; the isolation, doubt and self-destructiveness which it may often engender. More than just a woman who loves women, Gordon’s inner life, expressed through third person narration, seems more truly that of the transgendered; wishing with all her heart to live the sort of life her father had, and which those who happen to be born male may take for granted.
Noteworthy also is Hall’s depiction of louche Paris nightlife among the ‘inverts,’ that crowd of homosexuals, lesbians, gender transcenders and others who seek out one another’s company in the few establishments which tolerate them, and where many take refuge in reflexive excess. This is not a pretty picture, but one of desperation and degradation – and exploitation, as at least one proprietor carefully records his customers’ identities for future exploitation. Other episodes reflect the democratizing effect of war, wherein women are briefly allowed to take on less-gendered roles, and the impact of snobbery and societal rejection, how friends become enemies the moment one’s secret is exposed. One gets the feeling these scenes are written from personal experience, or at leas those of the author’s close acquaintances.
In what seems a typical pretense of fiction from this period, Stephen’s dilemma is one of personal fulfillment rather than survival; being born into substantial wealth, she travels and writes and publishes for personal reasons only. Working for living is never an issue, thus insulating her from the even greater impacts some of her other gay friends suffer (an artist couple are movingly depicted as they struggle, starve and die, one of illness, the other of suicide borne of despair).
As easy as it might seem to call this an historical curiosity, that things are much better now, one must remember that is only true of some ‘liberal’ cultures; in many places and cultures around the world (and even here in the good ‘ol USA) repression is still the norm. In truth, The Well of Loneliness is very much as timely today as it was a hundred years ago.