By Megan Powell, Michael Calder, Hannah Spruce and Lucy Carr
Many classic LGBTQIA+ novels helped to establish the visibility and inclusion of queer characters in mainstream literature as we know it today. With their publications spanning from 1928 to 1985, the books we've chosen highlight the complexities of sexuality, religion and societal gender expectation. Despite the differing settings and time periods, the plots are united in their exploration of the struggles with identity and self-worth. Although the treatment of some of the characters can be distressing to a modern audience, it is important to evaluate how the times have changed and remember the tribulations the community had undergone to get to where we are today. First and foremost, this issue is a celebration of queer characters and writers and their importance in shifting public perceptions and breaking through the dominant heteronormative literature. The team’s recommendations shine a light on early examples of queer fiction, written during periods of greater scrutiny, intolerance and consequence. Therefore, we celebrate the progressive nature of these works while acknowledging the struggles and difficulties intrinsic to the writing of queer history and literature.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Published in 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was one of western literature’s
imperative roots in publicising a lesbian identity in literature. Not only has this remarkable novel remained a staple for lesbian but it contextually stood as a source for visibility to young readers of the time. Like the novel, Hall proves to be ahead of her time with her progressive and open discussions surrounding her sexuality, lending its way to the plot having an autobiographical essence. The reaction to the novel unsurprisingly caused it to be banned, however, Hall’s novel remains one of the most famous pieces of literature to overtly depict lesbianism.
The Well of Loneliness follows Stephen Gordon, who was named after her parents' desired name for a son. This disappointment and rejection straight away stirs the themes of social rejection as Stephen falls in love and explores her sexuality. She has been aware of her homosexuality very early on, and her father, Sir Philip, is exploring the studies of his daughter’s ‘sexual inversion’. Stephen refuses to conform to polite society and feminine expectations by appearing to dress masculine and refuting the restricting conventions. As Stephen falls in love and develops herself as a writer, Hall is able to socially comment on the experiences of lesbians in society. It is without a doubt that this novel is a staple in LGBTQIA+ literature and is perhaps one of the most substantial to discuss the themes of homosexuality in a repressed society.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Published in 1956, James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, is a testament to the author’s literary prowess. The story is set in 1950s Paris, where an American man, David, is caught between his desire to live authentically and his determination to live the ‘conventional’ life expected of him. After his girlfriend leaves for Spain to contemplate the idea of marriage, David begins an affair with an Italian bartender, Giovanni. This affair is an intensely passionate one, which ignites a torturous inner turmoil in David as he tries to navigate and contemplate his sexual identity during a time when he is socially bound to repress it. Baldwin masterfully captures a complex internal reality of a man suffering from society’s antiquated, toxic and oppressive notions of sexuality and gender. It not only explores the effects of heteronormativity and homophobia but bi-erasure and toxic masculinity. Giovanni’s Room is an incredibly moving, heart-breaking story of passion and love, which looks at themes of repression, shame, guilt and desire, all in under 200 pages.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published in 1985 and addressed several themes, including the multifaceted nature of humanity, the overbearing weight of expectation, and misdirectional nature of history. The novel was immediately awarded the Whitbread Award for a First Novel upon publication and continues influencing social movements as an educational text regarding stigma, self and social acceptance and liminality.
Based loosely upon her own youth spent in Accrington, Lancashire, the author cultivates a
retrospective journey that begins with her protagonist and namesake, Jeanette, recreating
unsettling instances of her childhood, and giving character to her adopted mother – a devout Christian.
It is her mother’s belief that Jeanette will become a missionary and change the world, becoming a servant of God. However, with age, Jeanette becomes separated from her peers by religion; with independence, she questions the teachings of the congregation; and with understanding, discovers her sexuality. Navigating the treacherous boundaries surrounding her, Jeanette becomes isolated from everything she has ever known and, eventually, seeks refuge within herself, teaching not only herself, but her mother, that the world isn't also good or bad, and oranges aren't the only choice.