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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
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The Well of Loneliness (original 1928; edition 1990)

by Radclyffe Hall, Havelock Ellis (Commentary)

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1,837353,786 (3.43)186
Member:MsCellophane
Title:The Well of Loneliness
Authors:Radclyffe Hall (Author)
Other authors:Havelock Ellis (Commentary)
Info:Anchor Books (1990), Paperback, 437 pages
Collections:Your library, Illinois library
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Tags:fiction

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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

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English (30)  French (2)  Finnish (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (35)
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‘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”.’

This review was first posted on BookLikes: http://brokentune.booklikes.com/post/1045117/the-well-of-loneliness ( )
1 vote BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
Boy, was this book a product of its time. The title is spot-on in describing the mood of this novel. The Well of Loneliness is a thinly veiled account of the author’s own life as a lesbian in the 1920s and earlier, and it was very depressing.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and I’m very glad to have read it and experienced it. But I struggled through it. It was draining.

The main character, a lesbian named Stephen, grows up feeling very different from everyone around her, although she doesn’t have a name for this difference. She begins an affair with a married woman who abandons her, and eventually she falls in love with a woman she met during WWI. The entire book paints lesbians and gay men as social outcasts, sexual deviants, freaks of nature–which is how society viewed them at that time. Stephen is hyperaware of just how extremely heavy the burden of her “deviant sexuality” is. She is rejected by her mother and by others in her life, she struggles to find friends and to create a social life, and eventually she tricks her lover into ending their relationship with the hope that her lover will marry a man and thus be saved from the difficult life of a lesbian.

This book was immediately banned in many places when it was published, and it almost ended Radclyffe Hall’s career. I think she is remarkably brave for having written it, and I think it does inspire sympathy and increase understanding of the burden that society placed on gay people back then. (One minor lesbian character committed suicide; another struggled with immense guilt because of religious oppression.)

Although I would have loved to see Stephen take joy in her sexual orientation, that is perhaps not realistic for its time. Stephen did the best she could in an extremely oppressive society, even maintaining faith in God despite the way the world treated her. ( )
  blackrabbit89 | May 6, 2016 |
This novel moved me very much when I first read it, around the time this edition was published - 1968. I had heard of it for years, but finally was able to buy a copy. The plot has been summarised by many other reviewers and I find myself agreeing with a lot of the criticisms of it now - its negativity, Stephen Gordon as martyr, class snobbery and racism, etc - but I believe it should be appreciated as a work of its time. No, Radclyffe Hall was not a great writer, but she was a successful "middlebrow" novelist who had won a couple of literary awards and earned a respectable place among novelists of the twenties. I don't believe she realised quite what the publication of The Well would cost her - she may have hoped to cause a stir, but I doubt she'd have wanted the book banned.

What gives the book its power - power to still affect us today? I find it hard to account for this, or the effect it had on me. The sympathetic portrait of Stephen - who would make an honourable, law-abiding, God-fearing and attractive English gentleman, except that she was born a woman - goes part of the way, so that her awful fate can tug at the heartstrings. The total rejection by her mother, the cowardly refusal to "explain" her to herself by her father and the disgraceful treatment of her by the bored, unhappily married Angela Crossby seem more unfair when contrasted with Stephen's good character. And the surrendering of Mary Llewellyn to Martin Hallam means that Stephen effectively loses a good friend, as well as her lover. In fact, you wonder what on earth will happen to Stephen in the future - will she ever love again? And will she ever write another novel?

One of the most interesting characters in The Well is Valerie Seymour, supposedly modelled on American expat, Nathalie Clifford Barney, who held regular literary "salons" in Paris. Valerie is a sane and rational breath of fresh air in the novel, who cannot understand Stephen's decision to sacrifice her own happiness. "You were made for a martyr", she scolds her. But she does allow Stephen to "use" her - pretending they were having an affair - to drive Mary into Martin's arms. I guess if Radclyffe Hall had a major strength, it lay in her portrayal of characters. She seems to invent a character and really go to bat for them. This characterises other works, too - notably The Sixth Beatitude and the short story, "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself". I haven't read Adam's Breed, but I've no doubt I'd find myself sympathising with its protagonist, too.

In all, I can actually see myself re-reading The Well of Loneliness again some day. ( )
1 vote SharonBT | Apr 25, 2015 |
There are lots of reasons not to like 'the first lesbian novel'. The take home message of 'she knew her girlfriend would be better with a Real Man, who could marry her and give her babies, so she lied to make her leave her' is never going to win over all the audience. And it is of its time, with all the implicit racism and classism you'd expect.

That out of the way, I adore this book. There is something about it that just sings true to me - what it says about love, and the beauty of the world, and how people cope with being different. A book that manages to capture how terribly cruel and awful the world can be to people, and yet also captures moments of pure joy, and about how the honourable person continues in the world we are in. ( )
  atreic | Apr 20, 2015 |
First published in 1928 – The Well of Loneliness was immediately banned when it appeared and was subject to a famous trial. Once thought of as the archetypal ‘lesbian novel’ it is now quite often criticised for being dated, the prose rather overwritten. Though I understand these criticisms I don’t agree with them, yes there are aspects of this novel that now seem rather dated, however it is still I think a superb novel. The prose, a little flowery perhaps is quite glorious in its way, Hall’s descriptions of the Malvern countryside particularly lovely. When Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness she was riding on a crest of a wave of success, she knew full well what publishing such a book would do to her career, but feeling it to be a story that had to be told went ahead anyway. The novel is now I believe still studied for its themes of sexuality and gender, and as such it is an interesting social document, aside from being a really excellent and still hugely readable novel.

*(I’ve tried not to put spoilers into this review – apologies if some slip in, I did want to discuss it as fully as I can)*

“The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that seeing nothing it might avoid Truth. It said to itself: ‘If seeing’s believing, then I don’t want to see — if silence is golden, it is also, in this case, very expedient.”

Stephen Gordon is born into an aristocratic Worcestershire family toward the end of the Victorian era. Her parents have been married for ten years; the longed for child is expected and assumed by both to be a boy, and Sir Philip chooses the name Stephen for his first born. When the child arrives it’s a girl, a girl baby who instantly does look a little different a “narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby”. Sir Philip decides to stick with the name Stephen anyway. As Stephen grows up, she is not quite like other little girls of the time, she doesn’t like fussy dresses, or genteel pursuits, she loves her horses, hunting and the Malvern Hills. At seven Stephen develops a debilitating crush on a housemaid and is utterly devastated when she spies her kissing a footman. During her childhood years Stephen’s relationship with her beautiful mother Anna, is a distant one, Anna is the love of Sir Philip’s life, she I suppose pretty typical of a type of Victorian upper-class woman, pretty, fragile, protected and innocent. Anna Gordon has no idea that there might be anything about her daughter that might be different, or that might cause her difficulties. Sir Philip however is very much aware; he adores his awkward daughter they have a very special bond, often riding out together with the hunt. At around the time Stephen develops her infatuation for Collins the housemaid, Sir Philip has already consulted a book by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and so starts his understanding of his daughter’s true nature, the truth of which he chooses to conceal from his wife, and also from his confused daughter, when later she asks him, whether there is something wrong with her.

As Stephen grows up she finds local society more and more difficult, aware that she is sometimes the subject of gossip and sly smiles. One of her most important and touching relationships is with her horse Rafferty (tears alert!) – Hall understands perfectly the relationship people have with the animals in their lives. Her other staunch ally and companion is her governess Puddle, who in her grey quiet way also understands Stephen, far more than Stephen realises. With the passage of time, experience, and finding a certain book in her father’s study, Steven comes to identify herself as an ‘invert’.

“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.”

In time scandal and family discord forces Stephen to leave her beloved home of Morton in Worcestershire. At twenty one she is a very wealthy young woman, and so with her faithful Puddle she sets up home in London, Rafferty stabled nearby. With an ageing Puddle running her home and looking after Stephen just as she ever did, Stephen begins to write her first novel. A novel, that when it is published is an extraordinary success. Just before the outbreak of war Stephen meets Jonathan Brockett, a fellow ‘invert’ who urges her to go to Paris for the sake of her art. When the First World War comes Stephen finds occupation with the ambulance service, eventually joining a unit on the front line. Here she meets Mary Llewellyn, with whom she sets up home in Paris after the war.

I think some of the criticism that has been levelled against this novel, is that it is particularly negative. Stephen’s life and the lives of many of the people she associates with during her time in Paris are unhappy, lost, cast out from the places and the people they loved; they exist in a shadowy world, thrown together by necessity.

“Since this is a hard and sad truth for the telling; those whom nature has sacrificed to her ends–her mysterious ends that often lie hidden–are sometimes endowed with a vast will to loving, with an endless capacity for suffering also, which must go hand in hand with their love.”

One of the most fascinating things about this novel (and I agree many of the ideas, are dated and would seem at best inaccurate to us today as well dreadfully stereotypical) is that with this novel Hall is saying that women like herself were very much born – their ‘inversion’ god given and natural. This was not an idea that would have been understood at this time, and though Hall is crying out for homosexual people to be allowed rights of existence, her portrayal of their existence is often strangely negative. Nevertheless I loved the novel, it is one that will continue to cause debate, that is one of the things I loved. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Dec 22, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Radclyffe Hallprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ellis, HavelockCommentarysecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gluckstein, HannahCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hennegan, AlisonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Im, Ok-hŭiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Journel, Vera deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lack, LéoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lami, AnnieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Martin, HugoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ōkubo, YasuoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pattynama, PamelaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Petit de Murat, UlysesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quintella, AryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Renner, LouisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schumann, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vendyš, VladimírTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Yan, YunTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zody, BepForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Not very far from Upton-on-Severn - between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills - stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramley; 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.
There is an illuminating and entertaining monograph to be written on the sub-literature which has grown up around The Well of Loneliness. (Introduction)
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Living in the baronial splendour of Morton Hall, at the foot of the Malvern Hills, Sir Philip and Lady Gordon long to complete their happiness with a son and heir. But their only child is born a girl -- and they baptise her Stephen. As she grows up -- tall, broad-shouldered, handsome -- it becomes apparent that Stephen is not like other girls. She learns to ride, fence and hunt, she wears breeches and longs to crop her hair. Instinctively the people of Great Malvern draw away from her, aware of something -- some indefinable thing -- that sets her apart. From a difficult, lonely childhood, through a tormented adolescence, Stephen Gordon reaches maturity and falls passionately in love -- with another woman.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385416091, Paperback)

First published in 1928, this timeless portrayal of lesbian love is now a classic. The thinly disguised story of Hall's own life, it was banned outright upon publication and almost ruined her literary career.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:31 -0400)

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Originally published in 1928, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness is the timeless story of a lesbian couple's struggle to be accepted by "polite" society. Shockingly candid for its time, this novel was the very first to condemn homophobic society for its unfair treatment of gays and lesbians.… (more)

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