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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

The Well of Loneliness (original 1928; edition 1990)

by Radclyffe Hall, Havelock Ellis (Commentary)

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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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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)


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English (26)  French (2)  Finnish (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (31)
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
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. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Dec 22, 2014 |
In short, Judy the Obscure - that is to say, Radclyffe Hall eloquently excruciatingly explicates the sorrows of Stephen Gordon, a gender dysphoric Edwardian woman, with an ultimate spin as inevitable and crushing a downer as what Thomas Hardy did for his sad and unlucky in love stone mason. ( )
1 vote Ganeshaka | Nov 18, 2013 |
I read this and Rubyfruit Jungle the same weekend. I was 14 and I'd bought them sleathily from the "feminist" bookstore on Chapel Street in New Haven. (I wish I could remember the name of that bookstore. The Golden Something.) And Rubyfruit Jungle seemed like the world that was possible but The Well of Loneliness was a world I could only dream about. I guess I'm due to re-read it. I re-read it as an undergraduate and thought clever queer-studies thoughts about it, but I've forgotten all that now and I just remember being a teenager dreaming about changing my name to Stephen and being British. ( )
  anderlawlor | Apr 9, 2013 |
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. ( )
1 vote shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
i wanted to like this book more than i did. but i also wanted the main character to be stronger than she was, and have a better understanding of women and homosexuality. (while attracted to women she followed the times and relegated them to weak and meaningless roles, didn't believe in their power as beings.) probably too much to ask for her time period and class. an interesting read that i liked on the surface but liked less and less the more i thought/talked about it. ( )
  elisa.saphier | Apr 2, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Radclyffe Hallprimary authorall 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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:52 -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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