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The Well of Loneliness (1928)

by Radclyffe Hall

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,683495,327 (3.45)2 / 253
Stephen Gordon 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. A classic that was banned in 1928 in one of the country' s most famous obscenity trials, but went on to become an international bestseller.… (more)
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» See also 253 mentions

English (42)  Italian (2)  Finnish (2)  French (2)  Hungarian (1)  All languages (49)
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
A landmark work this may be, literary fiction it is not. This was an absolute grind to read. I agree with Jeanette Winterson on this one: it reads like a misery memoir. I got through it, but only just . . . ( )
  fountainoverflows | Feb 13, 2024 |
*4.5? 4.8?*

Do the best you can, no man can do more — but never stop fighting. For us there is no sin so great as despair, and perhaps no virtue so vital as courage.

Um. Wow.

I came across this book in my many forays of pre-Stonewall queer history when I was writing a novelization of queer 1920s New York. Lucky for my research, my main characters were male, but I still came across the few and far between primary source fictions of queer women and bookmarked them. I received this book as a gift this Christmas, and seeing a lull in school work, dedicated myself to the 166k word, 400-page clunker. (After reading War and Peace, it was a reassuring number, believe me.)

And man am I glad I read it.

A word of caution: If you don't like old-style prose, you probably won't like it. If you don't like a lot of detail that comes inherent to that style, you probably won't like it. And if you can't appreciate Christianity/Religiosity for a queer person and the many sufferings of it, you probably won't like it.

As I began reading, the idea that Stephen is a transgender man, instead of a "butch" lesbian, seemed to take over me. The linguistic and psychological concepts to differentiate same-sex attraction and gender identity were not known at the time, and it made Stephen's character at times both frustration and immensely fascinating. Coming into the book I was expecting a lesbian narrative, and the more I heard Stephen's feeling of being a boy, the more I grew convinced they were probably transgender, and thus a key part of understanding would be lost to me. As the book progressed, however, my theory seemed to waver, and I'm still not sure how Stephen would identify in the modern world. To me I realized, it didn't necessarily matter to my understanding of the novel's themes of a world not accepting something natural. No matter how Stephen would align themselves, the sentiments still stand: All queer people deserve to be treated equally.

From one character to the next we see how unjust the life is for an "invert". From Angela's twisted sense of selfishness to save her own unhappy honor, to Anna's disgusting denunciation of her child, to Puddle's true inclination never uttered to Stephen, to Martin's awkward growth of love and embarrassed leaving, to the deeply tragic story of Jamie and Barbara, and especially down to Stephen's last sacrifice—not only is the message abundantly clear but seems to also strengthen the connection Stephen had with her father, Sir Phillip.

Sir Phillip is the original God in this story, the Father who understands and accepts his child—but is too afraid to tell her or others for fear of hurting them. This then is the God the Father Stephen prays to at the end, the Father who loves and understands her, but for one reason or another is silent. Stephen finds his scrawled book of Psychopathia Sexualis like the commandments, and through it learns her Father accepts her. He just didn't tell her explicitly. The story is ultimately one of Stephen returning to her Father; enjoying his unabashed love as a child before being banished from her Eden of Morton, she must seek to find peace in her silent, God the Father once more.

And so I found attention to religion beautiful. Being religiously-inclined and grappling with my faith as I try to return to my own halcyon days of God (as Hall themselves would so eloquently put it), the struggle of religion was poignant to me. Stephen's life is underlined by a feeling of God: at times she believes in none of it, at others she seems to understand the power that He really is there—the symbolism of Stephen as Jesus comes to mind, sacrificing herself for her love so she may have a better life. If Hall could be a devout Catholic in the face of her sexuality, her trials—and hell—even WWI, then anyone could. I've been praying for my own spirituality recently, trying to understand my encounters with spirits against a world that tells me I must be insane, the outmoded creation stories, and twisted single-mindedness of the Christian we've all come to revile. It seems like a blessing then that I read this book at the time that I did, and I hope one day I'm at peace with my encounters with the unexplained and otherworldly, and the universality of a God for all people on earth no matter what creed. For now, I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the book, something I'll hold on to for life:

Then an unexpected, and to her very moving thing happened; his eyes filled with pitiful tears: ‘Lord,’ he muttered, ‘why need this have come upon you — this incomprehensible dispensation? It’s enough to make one deny God’s existence!’

She felt a great need to reassure him. At that moment he seemed so much younger than she was as he stood there with his eyes full of pitiful tears, doubting God, because of his human compassion: ‘There are still the trees. Don’t forget the trees, Martin — because of them you used to believe.’

‘Have you come to believe in a God then?’ he muttered.

‘Yes,’ she told him, ‘it’s strange, but I know now I must — lots of us feel that way in the end. I’m not really religious like some of the others, but I’ve got to acknowledge God’s existence, though at times I still think: “Can He really exist?” One can’t help it, when one’s seen what I have here in Paris. But unless there’s a God, where do some of us find even the little courage we possess?’


(For anyone more interested in Hall's relationship with her spirituality, I recommend this article written by a queer Christian site
The book is not 5 stars only because of the length. Sometimes I felt myself slogging through (sometimes being the keyword), though I genuinely liked the writing style in all its stately obsequiousness to detail I know many do not appreciate. Sometimes the attention to detail, especially of natural elements, went on for paragraphs and I wanted to bang my head against something to wake it up. I felt at times the themes were not completely cohesive either, as the details seemed to muddy the message Hall was going for.

I could write 3 papers on this book and the literary merit it still holds—why it is not in schools hounds me. I feel the value of the book escapes the masses, not by any deficiency of themselves but rather of the time and the subject manner. We have equal protection under the law now and classical religion is dwindling. The pertinent issues were already niche 90 years ago, I understand the canon's ignorance of it, though it makes my heart ache. If only Hall could see the happy, queer marriages able to take place in churches now—though a part of me knows she sees it all already.

***
‘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!’
( )
  Eavans | Feb 17, 2023 |
I read this book for a graduate reading list that I put together on lesbian novels. It was a fascinating read, historically, but on an emotional level it s devastating. I've often thought about re-reading it, but need to wait for a few sunny days on the beach when I'm in a splendid mood. ( )
  Chris.Wolak | Oct 13, 2022 |
Ha csak a formát nézzük, meg merem kockáztatni, ez a regény elavult. Nem a XXI. század kontextusában, hanem megjelenési dátumához, 1928-hoz viszonyítva – hisz ekkorra már túl vagyunk Conradon, Joyce-on (de említhetnénk akár Galsworthy-t is), akikhez képest Hall mintha visszahátrálna két évtizedet a szorosan vett viktoriánus prózába. A magány kútja elemeiben szükségtelenül szószátyár és érzelmeskedő szöveg, ami távol tartja magát mindenféle izgalmas prózai kísérletezéstől, ráadásul helyenként árad belőle az „igazság sulykolásának” kényszere. (Nyilván szándékosan: programadó mű kíván lenni. Nem indokolatlanul, persze.) Hall kasztszerű szemlélete meg egyszerűen irritáló – az hogy az íreknek mindig „kelta lelke” van, ami végtelenül vagány dolog, bármit jelentsen is, még hagyján. De nekem a fülem kihámlott attól, hogy a szerző számára a cselédek, kertészek és inasok csak valamiféle köztes lényként léteznek, valahol a növények és bútorok fölött, de az emberek alatt – és tegyük még hozzá, a lovak és kutyák alatt is, legalábbis erre utal, hogy Hall lényegesen bensőségesebben taglalja ezen lelkes állatok érzelmi hullámzásait, mint mondjuk akármelyik konyhalányét vagy komornyikét*.

Ugyanakkor ez a könyv tételesen és dokumentáltan az első egyértelmű irodalmi leírása a leszbikus szerelemnek**. (Így most eszembe is jutott: lehet, hogy az a baj, hogy túl egyértelmű a leírás?) Pontosan ábrázolja a számkivetettség érzését, hogy milyen a nők idegenkedésével és undorával, valamint a férfiak idegenkedésével, undorával és frusztrációjával*** szembesülni, tehát összességében: a társadalmi zárványt, amibe az ember belekerül. És izgalmasan jeleníti meg a zavarba ejtő kettősséget is, hogy valaki a bűntudattól űzve legszívesebben a katolicizmus kebelébe bújna – de a katolicizmus momentán egy laza csuklómozdulattal a Gyehenna tüzére kívánja őt vetni. Persze Hall megközelítése így mai szemmel több ponton hibádzik – mintha maga sem tudná eldönteni, hogy a homoszexualitás a nevelés következménye, vagy vele született tulajdonság (mindenesetre az előbbire utalgat többet), és hát gyakran volt az a benyomásom, hogy a főhős nem egyszerűen leszbikus, hanem konkrétan férfi akar lenni, ami azért nem ugyanaz****. (Megjegyz.: Hall maga sem használja a „leszbikus” kifejezést, hanem „inverznek” nevezi Stephent. Aki amúgy a főhősnő. Hülye angol névadási szokások.) Szóval jelentős könyv ez, olyan köntösben, ami azért lehetne sokkal jelentősebb is… Érdekes. Ritkán érzem ilyen egyértelműen, hogy egy mű becsét az határozza meg, hogy valamit először csinál.

* Amúgy ez az arisztokratikus hozzáállás nem újdonság, már Wilde esetében is meglepett, hogy a társadalomból való kitaszítottság mennyire nem jár együtt a más kitaszítottak iránti együttérzéssel, vagy akár csak azzal, hogy egyáltalán észrevegyük őket.
** Csak nehogy félreértsük egymást: a szerelemnek, nem a szexualitásnak. Szexuális téren e könyv nagyjából éppolyan prűd, mint Dickens.
*** Frusztráció, igen. Mert itt egy nő, aki a mi nőinkre pályázik. Mi több: a siker reményével! Konkurencia!
**** Amiről megint eszembe jutott Wilde, aki számos esetben konkrétan megvetéssel beszélt a nőkről. Hall esetében is tetten érhető ez a tendencia – a nők egyenjogúsításának kérdése például legfeljebb ha érintőlegesen foglalkoztatja, mint olyan esemény, ami mellesleg az ő kínjain is enyhítene. ( )
  Kuszma | Jul 2, 2022 |
If I could, I'd rate it 2.5

I agree with people's reviews, it seemed like a woe is me type book with a lot of self hate mixed in (probably due to the thought of the time regarding homosexuality and sin). Her writing is similar to Dickens for me -- very long, very wordy and very dated. ( )
  BookLeafs | May 26, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hall, Radclyffeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ellis, HavelockCommentarysecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fage, CeciliaNarratorsecondary 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
Saxey, EstherIntroductionsecondary 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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Stephen Gordon 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. A classic that was banned in 1928 in one of the country' s most famous obscenity trials, but went on to become an international bestseller.

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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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