Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents—a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions.
The Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity when published in 1928. It became an international bestseller, and for decades was the single most famous lesbian novel. It has influenced how love between women is understood, for the twentieth century and beyond.
People in Great Britain and the United States originally banned The Well of Loneliness (1928), obscene novel of British writer Marguerite Radclyffe Hall.
Mother on the south coast of England perhaps battered Radclyffe Hall, whose father, a playboy, known as 'Rat', meanwhile ignored her. In the drawing rooms of Edwardian society, Marguerite made a small name as a poet and librettist. In 1907, she met a middle-aged fashionable singer, Mrs Mabel Batten, known as 'Ladye", who introduced her to influential people. Batten and Radclyffe Hall entered into a long-term relationship. But before Batten died in 1916, Radclyffe-Hall, known in private as 'John', had taken up with the second love of her life, Una, Lady Troubridge, who gave up her own creative aspirations (she was the first English translator of the French novelist Colette) to manage the household which she shared with 'John' for 28 years. With Batten, Radclyffe-Hall converted to Catholicism; in the company of Una, she pursued an interst in animals and spiritualism. In later life, Radclyffe-Hall chased after a younger woman named Evguenia Souline, a White Russian refugee. She died from cancer of the colon in October 1943. As Radclyffe Hall (no hyphen; prefixed neither by 'John' nor 'Marguerite'), she published a volume of stories, Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934), which describes how British society utilised 'masculine' women during the First World War and then dropped them afterwards, and a total of seven novels. However, the novel on which Radclyffe Hall's reputation rests primarily is The Well of Loneliness (1928). The novel was successfully prosecuted for obscenity when if first came out, and remained banned in Britain until 1948. Vilified as 'the bible of lesbianism' by fire-and-brimstone reactionaries. In the seventies, the halcyon days of radical feminism, it was hailed as the first portrayal of a 'butch' woman.
it should be MANDATORY that everyone reads this book. everyone. there isn't anything too astounding about her writing style, and nothing too "deep" about it either. anyone could pick up this book and see clearly everything she's very clearly alluding to, so there isn't much mystery, but instead, a whole lot of straightforward honesty about an aspect of the world most overlook without even realizing.
what broke back mountain failed miserably in doing, ratcliffe did with ease. this isn't some kinky, soft core porn, fantasy, lesbian sex thriller. it isn't a sob story about rights denied gays either.
it's just the tragic story of someone who is. but her state of being, by no fault or choice of her own, disallows her from the honor given to even the most degenerate people of society.
it's just her story-- without bias, without the evil conspiracy of the "homosexual agenda", without hope of guilting the readers into self loathing, or repentance of unfair treatment to diverse populations-- it just is.
i wish my mom could/would read this book. not that she is like the extreme mother in this book- just because it would be a way for her to see aspects of my heart that she would never be able to imagine a way to understand otherwise.
If you are looking for cheerful and uplifting, don’t start here: the title gives it away. The main protagonist is Stephen Gordon, named Stephen because her father wanted a boy and stuck with the chosen name when a girl arrived. This is a very English novel:
“Not very far from Upton-on-Severn–between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills–stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramberly; well-timbered, well-cottaged, well-fenced and well-watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in exactly the right position to feed two large lakes in the grounds.”
Stephen is upper class and whatever else she suffers in the novel, she is never poor. It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the trial for obscenity in 1928. The impetus came from the tabloid press and the obscenity? "she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover" and "and that night, they were not divided" It was really about the depiction of a lifestyle, especially the sections set in Paris after the First World War. However battle lines were drawn and writers like Shaw, Eliot, the Woolfs, Forster, Smyth, Jameson and Wells amongst others. Although only a limited number (such as Woolf and Forster were prepared to testify). The outcome was a foregone conclusion and the novel was not published in the UK until 1949, after Hall’s death. Inevitably there has been a great deal of debate about this book over the years with views and opinions changing and ebbing to and fro. One ongoing discussion is whether Stephen as she is described was transgender. As she says to her mother: "All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it." There is a particular use of language as well. The use of the term invert stems from the work of Havelock Ellis. It is not, thankfully, a term that has survived. Hall covers a good deal of ground in the 450 pages and the depiction of the bars and sub-culture of Paris in the 1920s are well drawn. France did not have the laws against homosexuality that some other countries had. One particular aside, some of the minor characters are very strong. Puddle, one of Stephen’s later governesses, who is clearly lesbian is well portrayed. The animals in particular play an important role and are well written. Reactions to this novel have been strong in both directions, for many it was the only lesbian novel they had heard of. Mary Renault, who read it in 1938 recalls it as being earnest and humourless. However one Holocaust survivor noted: "Remembering that book, I wanted to live long enough to kiss another woman."
The ebb and flow go on. Hannah Roche has recently reassessed The Well:
“Was Hall cleverly turning to a Victorian mode in order to critique the politics of modernism, challenging the value of aesthetic experiment and obscurity? I argue not only that The Well was stylistically as impressive as the most celebrated of ‘difficult’ 1920s novels, but also that, by boldly appropriating an accepted (and heteronormative) genre, Hall makes a statement about the rightful position of lesbian writing that dares to strike its readers in ways more direct and profound than the audaciously avant-garde.”
For me, I understand its importance and I wasn’t expecting a happy ending (I wasn’t disappointed in that). Puddle’s advice to Stephen is powerful:
“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.”
There’s still an element of apologizing for who you are and carrying a burden, but then even today the struggle continues. Many problems in the novel arise from a lack of communication, but nothing has changed there! You can see the ending coming from a long way off, although the means is not obvious until late in the book. It’s not that well written and doesn’t stand up well to Orlando, which was published in the same year. Another point is that pity is not the best way of trying to get people on your side. The interesting contrast between Stephen and Valerie Seymour is also illustrative. Seymour hosts a salon and is a pagan, no religion and has no problems with ethical dilemmas as a result of her lesbianism. Stephen holds onto the structures of Catholicism (on and off) and can’t manage to square her sexuality with her faith. Stephen’s relationship with her mother (who rejects her) also runs through the novel. I can understand the importance of this novel at the time, but that time has gone and it feels more like a historical document, but I am glad I read it. The story is unbearably sad, but you can’t always have happy ever after.
what could have been a fascinating chronicle of a tough butch interloper challenging mainstream society becomes the drippy tale of a woman who just wants to be loved, and the cruel little bitch who leads her on. oh what a deep well! the writing's pretty swell though, that can't be denied. tres elegante. i was reminded of e.m. forster's equally drippy, equally beautiful (but rather more enjoyable) Maurice. plus i actually preferred the wish fulfillment of Maurice, sad to say. guess i'm not such a hardcore queer polemicist after all.
here's an update: got into a great argument over this book. Well of Loneliness' passionate defender insisted that the character of the so-called cruel little bitch needs to be understood in the context of the time period. the CLB had few options others than being, well, a CLB. apparently she was not the villain after all; she was a victim of fate and circumstance, just making do with the options she was given. a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do to make the rent. ain't nuthin' goin' on but the rent.
okay well i suppose that's a pretty good point. but is it enough to posthumously award an extra star to the novel, to even revivify it in my memory? i think not; the Well of Loneliness and its eye-rolling histrionics still feel dead to me.
‘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!’
First things first, the cover on this edition is absurdly unrepresentative of the book.
Second, I liked the book. I would even recommend the book - it's just that it should come with a few notes:
1. It is endlessly long. And detailed. For no purpose. Whatsoever. If the length of the book was sustained by beautifully formed expressions it might not feel so long but....
2. I should not have read this so soon after reading the works of some master wordsmiths. Halls famous work is not as clunky as and slightly less preachy than The Unlit Lamp but it just isn't one of the books that would have been remembered for its evocative or imaginative writing.
3. The book was written with a purpose - a plea, if you like, that is expressed very openly in the closing chapters. As an example of cultural history or changes in society and attitudes, it is a fantastic read because it contains a lot of information about (and more detailed description of) British upper-middle class society of the early 20th century. So, if you read the book with a purpose of finding out more about these attitudes, this is a great read.
4. The character of Stephen seems to be based - at least to some extent - on Radclyffe Hall herself. As a result, the perspective taken by the main character and the book as a whole is limited to the experience of only one individual - which I guess is the point, but it doesn't make for a complex reading experience. In short, there does not seem to be an attempt to investigate other points of view, or experiment with angles of perception, or layers. There are other characters but few of them are given a real voice.
5. I could not help but smirk at the hint of hypocrisy in the books attempt to strive for acceptance of a minority when at the same time there is underlying attitude of snobbishness and chauvinism towards other minorities.
And yet, for all I criticise, there is an also an honesty to the story and Radclyffe Hall's forthright writing style that impresses me and this is worth the hard work of reading it:
The Well of Loneliness was published at the same time as Woolf's Orlando - touching on similar themes of identity - but where Orlando shrouded the issue in mysticism, Radclyffe Hall dared to write openly about sexual identity.
The book was banned under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The ban was not lifted until 1959 when the Act was amended. Originally, the test for obscenity was "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall". In 1959 the Act was amended to differentiate controversial works of art and literature with social merit.
The Well of Loneliness was not only book with a lesbian theme to be published in Britain in 1928, but it was the only one banned - because of its forthrightness and its explicitness - though hardly what would pass as such in today's terms. Arguably, it is the book's fate, the notoriety it gained by being banned, that helped The Well of Loneliness to remain in print today.
"You will see unfaithfulness, lies and deceit among those whom the world views with approbation. You will find that many have grown hard of heart, have grown greedy, selfish, cruel and lustful; and then you will turn to me and will say: “You and I are more worthy of respect than these people. Why does the world persecute us, Stephen?” And I shall answer: “Because in this world there is only toleration for the so-called normal.” And when you come to me for protection, I shall say: “I cannot protect you, Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless, I can only love you”.’
It's incredible to discover that less than a hundred years ago in 1928 James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express, wrote an article calling for a ban of “The Well of Loneliness” stating: “In order to prevent the contamination and corruption of English fiction it is the duty of the critic to make it impossible for any other novelist to repeat this outrage.” His campaign successfully led to the book being formally banned in Britain because of its representation of homosexuality as being a natural facet of identity and it wasn't made legally available again in this country until 1949.
This is the first time I've read this classic novel. I can only imagine what it would have meant to a gay person early in the 20th century to read it and discover a kinship of feeling – not just for the book's portrayal of female protagonist Stephen Gordon's emotional and sexual closeness to people of the same gender or Stephen's desire to dress in more masculine clothes – but the overwhelming sense it gives of being made to feel different and wrong for your very existence. The first section of the book describes Stephen's coming of age and feeling continuously frustrated “for she did not know the meaning of herself.” Nor does she have language available to describe her difference. Those that seem to understand her queerness (even her own father) refuse to name it so for many years her estrangement and isolation is felt all the more intensely.
Of course, to me and any sensitive or queer person who read it at the time of publication, it's perfectly obvious what Stephen is. Her early passionate crush on a beautiful maid and misguided affair with a married American woman are so touchingly portrayed because they are expressions of longing which can never be fulfilled in a satisfying way – not just because Stephen's feelings can't be equally reciprocated but because there's a fundamental miscommunication of desire. What's wonderful is that over the course of the novel Stephen discovers the words with which to describe herself and this leads to her liberation.
Recently in these parts I declared that this novel was so dull that today it is essentially unreadable, and that its lasting importance has everything to do with history and not a thing to do with art. And I still generally stand behind these sentiments.
I read it. And I kind of enjoyed it, at least in parts. I had based the above judgements on reading the first 60 pages or so (in retrospect the weakest section of the entire novel) and upon my decision to incorporate it in a paper on the queer writing of Djuna Barnes and Charles Henri Ford, I felt it was my duty to give it a fair assessment. As expected, it was about twice as long as necessary, and there are whole chapters that serve no purpose than to reinforce the inherent moral virtue of the main character Stephen Gordon, a British writer with an aristocratic background clearly modeled on Hall's own life. Hall's prose has its own unique sense of lyricism, but it's about as delicate as a bulldozer, which also accurately describes Hall's approach to the self-proclaimed purpose of the novel: to justify the existence of "the congenital invert." This means that we get a number of polemical proclamations that are as jarring narratively as they often are in regards to content: "with the terrible bonds of her true nature, she could bind Mary fast, and the pain would be sweetness, so that the girl would cry out for that sweetness, hugging her chains always closer to her. The world would condemn but they would rejoice; glorious outcasts, unashamed, triumphant!”
As usual, Virginia Woolf gives a crystalline, beautifully backhanded summation that expresses the situation better than I possibly could: "the dullness of the book is such that any indecency may lurk there—one simply can't keep one's eyes on the page."
And yet, and yet… I can't help but find some merit in it as well, and even feel something for it almost bordering on affection. This novel has undoubtedly meant a good deal to countless gay people since its first publication in 1928 (that quickly turned into a notorious, frenzied censorship trial a la Oscar Wilde), and there are moments, quite a few moments even, that are genuinely moving in their characterizations of the plight non-heterosexuals experience within a often hostile society, and the internal turmoil this inevitably creates. And if it's not exactly art, there is something to be said in Hall's defense that she made the conscious decision to boldly render, if sometimes inelegantly, "the love that dare not speak its name" in no uncertain terms. And while I might (vastly) prefer the labyrinthine, high modernist obfuscations of Barnes, Ford, Stein and other contemporaneous queer writers, with The Well of Loneliness Hall established a place amongst this illustrious group that is in its own way unique, and ultimately well deserved.
I desperately need E.M. Forster to rewrite the ending of this book. I simply will not accept this ending.
Stunning, beautiful prose and so so many incredible quotes.
The last sentence of the book left me starring into my wall for 10 minutes; 'God,' she gasped, 'we believe; we have told You we believe... We have not denied You; then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, O God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence! "
Feeling very sad and numb.
“I can’t mourn her without bringing shame on her name - I can’t go back home now and mourn her. (…) I want them to know how much I loved her. Oh God, oh God! I can’t even mourn her…”
If one thinks of "The Well of Loneliness" as having been written by a homophobic, sexist straight man then it begins to make sense. The central character (and stand-in for author Radclyffe Hall) is not a self-loathing lesbian at all, he's a transgendered man, and he's not exactly gay-friendly. The identification of Jonathan Brockett as gay by describing his hands as being “as white and soft as a woman’s,” for example, emphasizes Stephen’s conflicted feelings about his own sexuality and the feminine sex, as well as his blossoming sense of gender dysphoria, as he feels “a queer little sense of outrage.” If one regards Stephen as a woman it seems completely illogical for Stephen's hands are not, after all “white and soft.” Rather, Stephen is full of the sense of smug entitlement that goes along with being an upper class gentleman, and so while this "Well" is certainly fascinating as historical trans-fiction, the reader is likely to find himself/herself in the end feeling as though he/she has spent way too much time with an insufferable prick, and wondering why.
I read The Well of Loneliness because of was very interested in reading novels on homosexuality. I needed something to relate to. The book centers around a girl whose father desperately wanted a boy and so named her Stephen. Throughout her childhood Stephen is shown as a girl unlike others. The way she carries herself, the way she acts and the fantasies she has about seeing herself as "Nelson", stress the fact Stephen sexuality is in question. As she grow, Stephen begins to find love in women and eventually settles down with one in particular. Until the dreadful ending.
I found the book up until the end to be very interesting and pleasant. However, throughout the novel one could not help feeling a sense of self-hatred in Stephen, as well as some other characters. Most of the time they would not even give themselves a name, could not see themselves as whole and thought mostly that outward achievements such as great writing that would make them famous, would make up for the fact that they were homosexuals.
This book to me seems like a cautionary tale to gay women in society. The morals that Ms.Radclyffe presents is that heterosexual couples are more acceptable and comfortable then a homosexual couple and that a heterosexual relationship is one that can truly provide the safety and dignity in this world. It's a shame Radclyffe wrote such beliefs.
this book was banned in England on publication in 1928, which of course made it a huge bestseller. and as it was published in France and the USA, it was easy to obtain copies.
and, of course, it is so tame by today's standards. the most explicit line in the book is "she kissed her full on the lips, like a lover". but the powers that be in England judged anything even hinting at lesbianism to be immoral.
in any event, it is a very fine novel, on it's own merits, and I really enjoyed it. the author uses the word queer extremely often, every few pages it seems, but not in the context of referring to the lesbians in the book, so I was wondering if that led to the word's current usage of referring to gays and lesbians?
throughout the book, the author is obviously trying to get across the point that lesbians should be treated the same as anybody else, which of course they should be. but the main character, Stephen (who is a female, despite the name) is portrayed as being very lonely and unhappy for most of the book, and the ending kind of makes you wonder whether the author thinks it's better not to be a lesbian.
anyway, it's an excellent book, which was republished by Virago in 1982 and has been reprinted almost every year since, so it is obviously finding new readers even now.
James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, wrote," Am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today. They flaunt themselves in public places … I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel."
‘’If our love is a sin then heaven must be full of such tender and selfless sinning as ours’’
‘’-Why does the world persecute us? -Because in this world there is only toleration for the so-called normal.’’
This is a 3.8 for me. i mean it was kinda boring at the start and it could have been a bit shorter. Also I’m not really into romance. I’ve read like what? 3 books? Okay probably more. i don't fucking care. It has to be really good for me to get invested. Yes we are gonna pretend like the two books of Nicholas Sparks *almost typed Cage* were masterpieces (Lucky One, Last Song). For a weird reason i really like them…. Why am I talking about this? Classics are just a hit or miss with me… ugh that reminds me, I need to finish Anna Karenina. It’s too long. Anyways, the reason I bought this is that I read it’s the lesbian bible, a must have and when it came out it got banned for obscenity so I was like ‘bitch yeesss’. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have picked it up. I’m glad I did. They said merry Christmas many times. See i read a xmas book during the holidays. My holiday spirit is truly amazing. Btw I read it in four days. One of them was on December 26 and somehow ended up reading the Christmas part.
Alternative title- The deep, deep, pitiful well of loneliness.
I mean, I knew this would be sad, but I hoped it wouldn't be quite as despairing. I suppose the clue was in the name and the fact this is early 20th century lesbian fiction, which we all know didn't end well. After all, we can't be encouraging the ladies.
Aside from the sexuality, this reminds me why the 1920s are my favourite period in literature. There's something so evocative about the time and although the writing style, of course, differs between authors, they all have a certain quality to their work that mesmerises me.
This was a fascinating story, dealing with the life of Stephen from when she's a young girl, through to her teenage years when she makes fateful friendships and love affairs. Onto her adult life where she lives on her own terms. It captures the period of English country houses, Lords that go shooting and Ladies that lunch. We also have a great big generous slice of Parisian culture and the trauma of WW1. There's so much packed in, yet it's a slow sensual read. Not in a sexy or explicit style, but in the mood of the time and the tone of how the story unfolds. It's about the joy and pain of being 'other', at a time when this was not allowed. It's wonderful and heartbreaking all at once.
4.5 stars The Well of Loneliness is a touching exploration of gender identity, sexuality, and family relations. I'm beyond impressed by Radclyffe Hall's writing prowess and shocked that this classic is not a part of more curriculums.
1. butch vulnerability and sensibility; she draws stephen as an incredibly compelling character, both powerful and sensitive, defiant and yearning for acceptance. i can appreciate what the novel’s trying to do, and how groundbreaking it was for its time; it’s essentially a plea for acceptance, and i think considering the way you can trace a lot of contemporary gay narratives back to it (“born this way”; “love is love”; etc) it was largely successful, in the long run. 2. very well-rounded characters, actually, no matter how unlikeable you find them. special mention to stephen’s family dynamics and all the paris gays: valérie seymour, power femme, and her circle of “outcasts”; jonathan brockett and all the party gays are incredible characters, despite hall’s painful moral superiority when describing them. (she describes their partying as “the Dance of Death”, lol.) 3. incredible attention to detail that makes the novel a lot more interesting as a historical artefact than as a literary work. the emphasis on clothing and appearance was especially delightful
reasons why the well of loneliness drove me hysterical:
1. appallingly racist 2. somehow manages to be unspeakably cheesy without a single hint of fun 3. every time she humanised an animal (she makes the domestic animals call their owners “gods”) i physically cringed 4. completely fixated on an upper-class entitlement and incomprehension that it has been taken away. has all the signs of hall’s later fascist sympathies, actually: the novel hinges on concepts of birthright, the nation-state, the social order as natural & divinely ordained. a reminder, i guess, of the dangers of privileging wealthy white historical gay figures & their writing, and that gay-tinted fascism has a much longer history than we’d like.
This was the first openly lesbian novel to be ever published in the world (England 1928), and I was gonna give it 4 stars bcs it was a little bit slow, but MY GOD. WHAT AN ENDING!! (That’s a Maurice by E. M. Forster reference, someone pls get it). It wasn’t happy, I’m literally so mad rn, but it also has a little hope in it?? The whole book treated homosexuality like something normal (Like, of course it is, I am, but this is from the 1920s, yk) and it was SO BEAUTIFUL WRITTEN. This was too much of a masterpiece, tbh. I can’t gather my thoughts rn, but I’ll write a review soon.
For now, some songs I associate to this:
The Man - Taylor Swift I Know Places - Taylor Swift coney island - Taylor Swift Outlaws - Green Day Ordinary World - Green Day Born To Die - Lana Del Rey State of Grace - Taylor Swift We could be the same - maNga peace - Taylor Swift exile - Taylor Swift
I read this book as a teenager and was so riveted by the story I still have my copy, yellowed pages and all.
Reading ‘The Well of Loneliness’ gave me an insight into something that people, in those days (1950’s) spoke of only in horrified whispers. It spoke of people who were misunderstood and denigrated because of how they felt, which seemed wrong to me even at an early age.
I re-read it a couple years ago and got the very same feeling as I did the very first time. I would never call this book depressing, but I would call it sad. To me, it is a sad love story.
I believe it is as topical today as it was when it was written. It is a poignant beautifully written story of Stephen Gordon’s struggle for a self image that was honest and true.
Stephen Gordon is born in a body that restricts her to the person she yearns to be and the life she wants to live. The novel refers to Stephen as an invert, a term I had to google, as my best guess would have been transgender, which is a fairly recent concept and not around when this novel was published in 1928.
From the start, there is a sense of tragedy, maybe I got this more from the audiobook’s narrator, Laura Kirman, than the text itself. Listening to it, from the go I had the sense that something awful was about to happen to eventually realise this is the tone for the entire book. So, for over half of it, I was completely caught up in the suspense, first I was wondering how would Stephen work out why she felt so different. Her father, Sir Phillip had guessed, and so had her second home tutor, Puddle, whilst young Stephen continues and yet aware there’s something different about her in how the town responds to her and treats her.
Throughout, the tragic is counterbalanced with how beautifully and well observed this tale is told, it’s a vast narrative that also touches on the themes of hope and belief; wanting to be accepted by society and god; motherhood and the bond she feels with her child; loyalty and friendship; the awfulness of World War I; and the right to love, protect what you love and be loved.
This was published in the same year as Orlando in 1928, but it would face censorship and not be reinstated for another two decades, if I was to guess I think it’s because Stephen Gordon so blatantly rejects the sexual identity she is born with. A quick Google search tells me this novel has not been censored since, this is a good thing because through Stephen Gordon, Radclyffe Hall broadly shows how prejudice is created between the complex dynamics of identity, language and the status quo. In how this story unfolds I too could see the plight that was set before Stephen Gordon, ahead of her lay a long and difficult road in wanting to be true to herself. This is tough as others are trying to whittle her down to conform to their ways but not seeing the courage it takes to resist. So, to the end I was hooked wondering if Stephen Gordon would be requested the one small thing she asks for, to simply be accepted as she is.
This book moves slowly and thoughtfully through many shades of tragedy. There's a sort of integrity to it. Not all readers will appreciate the Christian symbolism and theology but I did- the constant please for meaning and acceptance by a sort of outcast. A few times I sort of experienced Stephen as unrelatable because of how ridiculously wealthy she was, but then there were people like Jamie and Barbara to add counterpoint to it, there was just enough shown of the servants to undo the idea that Stephen's class were the important people.
The tragedy was many layered in that Stephen's ill-fated attempts to find a place and meaning in the world crossed over with many other dissatisfied grey figures such as Puddle. Love in the book is rich and not always sexual, but sexuality is important both for identity and as an experience of love and being.
As a 2016 lesbian I find the concept of "inversion" inadequate to understand who/what we are, but I can see that in terms of society's negative and silencing attitudes to the sexually different, this was a way of trying to make sense of it. What is portrayed well in the novel is the way personal worthiness or unworthiness is not the point, it is society that excludes people from full participation. The book is quite judgemental on decadent lifestyles, but shows them as a product, not a cause of the casting out of lgbt folk. There are also the contradictions that are present in most types of prejudice (for example someone can be valued in war-time and then resume their lower status after the war).
I actually wanted to yell at Anna. I was so angry with her and her stupidity. In the time of the book, I suppose her attitude made more sense but she caused pain to herself as well as others. Ditto some other characters. I didn;t always like the way the gender binary was portrayed in the book (especially "women" as weak and helpless) but I could enjoy the small gaps in the text where it verged on questioning or undermining its own authority in these things.
I am nowhere near as strong-minded and courageous let alone as fit and physically strong as Stephen but I related to her and her emotional pain and needs as I relate to few literary characters. For a book so slow-paced and relatively long it held me in its thrall uncommonly well and charmed both joy and tears from me (especially ultimately tears). It seemed a true account of the humanity of lgbt people and a more deep and complex illustration of the idea that "love is love".
This is possibly the most beautiful book I have ever read. The prose is simply exquisite. Hall proves that imagery does not have to be tedious and overwraught. I felt a hundred times while reading this novel that I had never heard such a sentiment expressed so perfectly. In fact, sometimes the prose was so beautiful that the context almost faded away entirely, and I was simply left with a breath-taking sentence, paragraph or more...
Sadly, this book is still relevant 90 years after it was penned. I thought I would burst when Stephen rehearsed the speech she planned to give Mary about what would happen if they became lovers. So little has changed since then.
Though I was warned that the ending was disastrous, I have to disagree entirely. The book is a tragedy, but not one that is contrived or forced. There is no oracle, no announcement that our lovers are star-crossed, just a very sad reality of the time and an inevitable conlcusion. I think that Stephen's sacrifice is greater than any most of us selfish mortals could make. She felt she must save Mary, that her salvation would come too late to preserve her, and so she did the only thing she felt she could... she let Mary go.
This book is both exquisitely written and extremely relevant. It should be required reading in high schools and colleges. Everyone should experience the life and writings of Hall.
This novel is not without its faults - it is too long, over-written and heavy-handed in places. That said, it is an incredible depiction of what life can be like for those who follow their instincts and are told they sin (thanks Pet Shop Boys). And it was obviously immensely more difficult to do that a hundred years ago. The book really does have some truly tender and heartbreaking moments throughout.
It is interesting that Whitehall was outraged by the book’s publication in 1928 calling it a “perverted” novel. Others, including Rudyard Kipling, considered it little more than pornography and supported its ban which lasted until 1968. Perhaps the book’s controversial history adds to its appeal today rather than solely the quality of the writing and the story itself. I still feel that it has some poignant comments to make about difference and acceptance today.
I enjoyed reading this dense, weighty novel, however Hall’s earlier work, The Unlit Lamp, captivated me more.
I love reading books that have at some point been a source of controversy, the books that have been banned and censored, questioned and attacked. The Well of Loneliness is one of those books, and by looking at the cover of the edition I read there's a clue right there as to the reasoning for the controversy: "A 1920s Classic of Lesbian Fiction".
Steven Gordon is a wealthy English woman who is clearly not like other women, even from a young age. Her father had hoped for a boy and pinned those hopes on her name, Steven, while her mother was horrified and disgusted by Steven's less-than-feminine behavior in her early years. It's a long story, starting with Steven's youngest days and her earliest infatuation with someone of the same gender, and follows her into her late adolescence as she discovers just what exactly does make her different from other women. It is this self-discovery and outward behavior to fulfill this epiphany that causes strife between her and her mother. Eventually she leaves home and has a series of affairs with other women, each relationship different, each relationship special to Steven in some way.
What makes this story important is not just because it's a positive portrayal of women in love with one another, but because of the time in which it was written. Published in 1928 it is one of the earliest books of lesbianism, preceding and paving the way for Virginia Woolf and others. This is not a cautionary tale - it is not a story meant to deter women from having relations with other women. Instead it embraces it as in it's an autobiographical story based on Hall's own experiences. She brought her experiences into a public light; despite it's publication falling at the end of the Jazz Age which is popularly considered to be a time of failing moral and social systems, to read about lesbians at the time was still shocking. Would Woolf have written Orlando had Hall not written The Well of Loneliness? It's hard to say, but it's almost guaranteed that Woolf would have had a harder time getting Orlando published if Hall hadn't paved the literary (and feminist) way.
I read this the first time around in 1988, during my first term at university, hiding it from my room mate, under the covers. I enjoyed it then as the third lesbian book I'd ever read (after Patience & Sarah and Annie on My Mind), but found it harsh.
Slogging through it a second time now, for the Lesbian Book Club book of the month, it felt interminable. No detail is left unmentioned. Oh wait ... "and that night they were not divided." Just the odd detail lacking. That one sentence caused the book to be judged "obscene" and banned.
I did enjoy the cry out to the future from 1928. The author knows that being gay is natural and that one day gay people will be equal: "They must just bide their time--recognition was coming. But meanwhile they should all cultivate more pride"
There are pleas to God, too: "If our love is a sin, then heaven must be full of such tender and selfless sinning as ours."
It tickled me that Angela Crossby's telephone number was 25.
I don't know what to think of The Well of Loneliness. I read it because it's a lesbian classic, and someone said that it was one of the first novels where horrible things don't have to happen to its lesbian protagonists. I can't actually imagine anything more agonising than what the protagonist, Stephen, does -- voluntarily giving up her lover to a male close friend to give her safety and security, acting as a martyr for her... And Barbara and Jamie: both of them die because of the life they lead, the way they have to live to be together. No, I can't say it's true that terrible things don't happen to the protagonists because of their sexualities.
On the other hand, their sexualities are presented as a part of them: not a choice, but something irrevocably stamped into them from birth. The last lines are a plea to God to allow 'inverts' their existence. So there is that hope in it.
It's sentimental, overwritten, melodramatic. It's stereotypical. But yet I'm glad I read it, and yes, it made me feel -- feel for the lives of those such as Radclyffe Hall and her characters, who couldn't imagine the kind of life I and others lead today. Yes, it's worth a read, and yes, I'm going to keep my copy.
This book is pretty Problematic™ (being a product of its time - content warnings for racism [inc. use of the N-word], sexism, homophobia, and some very outdated theories). But it's still a valuable read in terms of LGBTQ+ lit. If nothing else, it reminds us that there is history. Gay people didn't just appear out of nowhere a few decades ago. Having an identity is not some "trend", as is sometimes accused. That's important to remember. 🌈
Maybe I'll have more to write about it another time. Don't hold your breath though.
this book is honestly one of the best expressions of lesbianism and queer community and queer specific emotions I have ever witnessed. I think it goes kind of misunderstood by many, but I found it to be incredibly profound, deeply upsetting, unbearably so at times, but in some ways life affirming. for the most part a lot of the dynamics and emotions feel alarmingly modern and so connected to my personal experience as a somewhat gender non conforming lesbian. A lot of people insist on viewing Stephen and even radclyffe hall's gender and sexuality experience through a modern lens, insisting that she would have used specific modern labels, but the context of the book is very specific to labels that coexisted with early 20th century queer theories and psychologies. If the identities spoken of feel dated or inappropriate to you, then cope tbh, because the entire book is wrapped around Stephen's specific experience with these specific labels. I think also that a lot of people neglect the inherent complications with gender that come with lesbianism for many people. Existing outside of patriarchy in a world so centered around patriarchy calls for a unique experience to gender and expression that thousands of lesbians experience. I found this book to be so beautifully written; there were times in which I underlined almost everything on the page. It touches on so many important emotional experiences of growing up in general but especially while queer and the specific heart wrenching experience of needing your partner to be safe and happy in a society where they can't be if they're themselves, along with the desperation of continuing to find honor in a way of life which is looked down upon and assigned a dirty quality by your contemporaries. This book has managed to properly articulate a lot of things I could have never thought to put to words. It's deeply heartbreaking and so horribly relatable. I really found myself getting to know and sympathizing with most of the characters, who felt fleshed out and real despite the books decidedly classic literature-y , aristocratic stylings at times. The last two pages are the best finale to any book I have EVER read, and that's saying a lot. They are so deeply deeply upsetting and yet vivid and gorgeous. They make everything so abundantly clear and yet leave us with so many questions. The book certainly lives up to its name, and is full of desolation and despair. But it is too full of self advocacy, courage, unending love, community, and the human experience. It is legendary as a lesbian novel for very good reason, and I have never before felt so deeply affected by a work of fiction.
Reading this book proved incredibly difficult. I was unsure how to rate it, but decided for 2 stars in the end: the story is a very good one, extremely interesting, but the writing is so dull you can't begin to understand if you haven't read it. I'm sorry to have to say this, but it's what I felt about this book.
I understand why it is such an important book in literary history, but I really, really disliked it.
First of all, I don't really know why this should be considered as a story of lesbian love, since it is quite clearly the story of a transgender person. Stephen Gordon is a woman who has always perceived herself as a man, and consequently dresses like a man and acts like a man. She consequently likes women, but that's just a consequence of her perceiving herself as a man. I wouldn't say she is lesbian, on the contrary she is quite simply a transgender man. That makes the story very interesting, since it's not often that we find stories about the lives of transgender people in the beginning of the 20th century. They must have had an extremely difficult life, and this book is a great document on this issue.
The writing, however... It is so incredibly boring and repetitive, the unfolding of the story is so slow, that I thought all the time that the novel might have easily been half the length or even shorter. The writing style is important in a novel, and also in a non-fiction book. So that's what made me dislike this book so much. I simply can't judge a book on just the storyline, it also has to be well-written. And this novel was a real pain to read.
I remember checking this book out of the public library near my house and hiding it from my parents, so I must have been about 12 the first time I read it. It lived under my mattress for about three days while I read it. I think I checked out "One in Ten" along with it, heh.
The first time I read this book, I thought it was amazing. A queer love story from what seemed like forever ago! Wow! At the time, I felt alone and isolated, and it spoke to me. My second reading in college was not nearly as magical. I walked away from it disliking Radclyffe Hall (at least, her vision of herself and how she saw women) immensely. That being said, this book has its place in the queer lit. canon AND in my memories. It's a must-read for anyone interested in queer history.