In my novel The Wings to Fly there is a scene in which heroine Midge is hauled over the coals by her Commanding Officer for reading “an obscene book”. He is furious that she should be reading The Well of Loneliness in full view of other young female pilots where they might be corrupted. His anger is something hard to understand in a modern context. It borders on extreme over-reaction, but is representative of the public attitude towards homosexuality before the long, slow ride to acceptability began – a journey that still continues in some societies. Midge is given the book by Rose the Land Girl after their “brief encounter” and I included it in my story as a historical artifact. The Well of Loneliness plays a role in my novel – almost that of a character – because in the past it was handed to female friends as a hint that there could be something more than friendship on offer. I also thought it was about time I reviewed the book. I read it about ten years ago and found it profoundly upsetting. It is a book that, like Marmite, is either loved or despised by modern readers. Here is my take on it:
It is quite a while since I read this book and I am still trying to understand why it was banned and why the ending left me so very angry. Angry, desolate and gutted to be honest. This book is a classic of LGBT literature and, once banned, I gather it was passed from woman to woman as a clue to sexual identity rather than a simple book loan but if you are looking for erotic content you will be disappointed. It is totally devoid of explicit content and the sentence “and that night, they were not divided” was cited as the reason for the ban. Wow! How much society has changed! On the level of literature, the heightened language is full of romantic yearning and tragedic musings that will not speak to many born after, say, 1985. That is an arbitrary date of course but I think it was not until the mid 90s that the stigma went out of being LGBT for young people. For those who are older, some will still be conflicted about sexuality and gender identity issues and that is something recent reviews about this book fail to take into account. In some communities it will never be acceptable and those who escape those communities will always seem quaint to young people today.
Firstly, I didn’t mind the flowery, old-fashioned language. Just as I enjoy Shakespeare and the good old King James version rather than Eastenders and the Good News Bible, I enjoy heightened and poetic language and this book is full of it. So, spoiler number one, if you don’t like poetry, cryptic language or romanticism you are not going to like this book at all.
Secondly, if you despise anyone struggling with a gender binary you consider no longer relevant, you are going to dislike Stephen intensely. I am not sure whether Stephen is trans or butch but in all honesty I don’t think that matters. She could never be happy as a woman at a time when being female had such particular expectations of dress, manners, behaviour and so few opportunities other than marriage, spinsterhood or teaching girls. When you get angry with Stephen, remember she does not live in this modern world where, it seems, any expression of gender is valid and when the restrictions on women no longer apply.
Thirdly, the ending is sad beyond belief and if you are looking for a lesbian happy ever after you should avoid this book. Seriously. There is little point in reading a book you are unlikely to understand with an ending that is depressing beyond belief. In its defence, the ending is sadly believable. People actually DID think that way. Some sick individuals still think that is the way it should really be for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people and that is where The Well of Loneliness STILL has a voice and a role to play even in our permissive world. It has a role because not everyone is inclusive, even those who say they are open-minded often fail when it comes to the crunch and it is not that long since the mere mention of homosexual love would have made most people’s hackles rise.
Bearing that in mind, you SHOULD read this book, if only to understand how the mildest allusion to sexuality could instigate a ban. You should read this book and wonder how the author could bear to live at a time when this discrimination was completely normal. You should read this book to remind yourself that in places the battle for acceptance has not yet been won and that nobody should ever be complacent about the changes that have taken place since the book ban was lifted.
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