Saying when a genre began is usually so difficult it’s not worth discussing. So we can’t say Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness began lesbian literature in Britain, but it definitely started something. It was banned in Britain after its 1928 obscenity trial (part of the same run of trials as Lady Chatterley), but the printings from France that made their way over the Channel in the next few decades managed to make the book into the founding text of a twentieth century, British, explicitly lesbian canon. The influence of its impassioned, political discussion of ‘sexual inversion’ was extraordinary, for queer literature in general and lesbian literature specifically.
Unfortunately, the defining feature of the canon it inspired was relentless depression. Emma Donoghue commented in her history of lesbianism in fiction that every lesbian narrative in this period seemed to be identical. According to literature, queer women only exist in very dark rooms on overcast days under the threat of something terrible. The terrible thing invariably happens, and an astonishing number of novels ended with double suicides. The trend towards devastating misery, which was overwhelming in the first part of the twentieth century, has petered out eventually. This process seems to begin with t he pulp novels that arrived in Britain from the USA, with part comedy, part soft porn titles like Sin Girls and Her Raging Needs. In the last few decades, critically acclaimed and influential writers including Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson have given fictional lesbians wellreceived and well-written happy endings. It is still worth wondering, though, why there is such an emotional black hole at the beginning of the canon.
The most likely answer is probably that there had never been a cohesive lesbian identity in Britain before. Lesbian histories of Britain never have much material to write about before the 1920s. The gay male community, which was more heavily persecuted in the nineteenth century and earlier, had something communally to rail against that they could define themselves through. The first hint of a lesbian rallying cry in Britain inspired writers hungry for a feeling of community to mimic it and emulate its style. And so the twentieth century British lesbian writer was shaped by the tragically bleak, desperate final words of the novel, Stephen’s prayer as she watches the love of her life abandon her for a man, “‘God,’ she gasped, ‘we believe; we have told You we believe… We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”