(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The lesbian protagonist of this novel, Stephen Gordon, fails to find love and understanding. After a series of rejections, her “inversion” is revealed to her mother, who orders her to leave her home. While serving in an all-woman ambulance corps during World War I, Stephen falls in love with Mary Llewellyn. Mary, however, later marries a man who had been Stephen’s childhood friend.

Radclyffe “John” Hall considered herself an active or “congenital invert.” Believing in sexologist Havelock Ellis’ theories that “inverts” were biologically determined, Hall used scientific and medical concepts of inversion in literary discourse to discuss homosexuality outside the realm of morality.

In 1928 British home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks ordered the book banned in Britain. Representing the defense, John Holroyd-Reece of Pegasus Press and Harold Rubinstein invoked the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which allowed books classified as “obscene” to be reconsidered in light of their “public good.” Sir Charteres Biron presided over the trial and refused to allow testimony on the book’s literary or scientific merit. Invoking a narrow definition of obscenity, Biron concluded that a book containing no indecent language might still be considered obscene for its theme or intent. Biron then ordered The Well of Loneliness “burnt as an obscene libel which tended to corrupt those into whose hands it fell.” An appeal of this decision failed.

Meanwhile, in the United States the book was prosecuted under a federal law and acquitted in 1929. Although the book was banned in Great Britain, Pegasus continued to print it in France. In 1949, The Well of Loneliness was rereleased in England by Falcon Press.

The Well of Loneliness Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon assume that their firstborn will be a boy, so when Anna gives birth to a girl, they name her Stephen. Schooled happily at Morton, the family’s country estate, daughter Stephen endears herself to her father with her boyish demeanor, which troubles her mother and confuses the children of the local gentry. The first sign of her sexuality emerges at the age of seven, when she becomes infatuated with a housemaid named Collins; Stephen is enraged one day to find a footman kissing Collins in a garden shed. Given a new pony, which swiftly replaces the housemaid in her affections, Stephen names it Collins. Riding with her father and hunting with the gentry becomes Stephen’s great passion; her skill wins respect despite her unladylike manners, and soon her father presents her with a fine hunting horse, Raftery.

A tall, athletic teenager, Stephen learns to ride, fence, and speak fluent French, but her father wants to enlarge her learning and so hires Miss Puddleton, or Puddle, to be her governess. Under Puddle’s exacting tutelage, Stephen resolves to become a writer. At a Christmas party, she at last finds a companion, Martin Hallam, her equal in imagination and love for nature, and he soon becomes her first close friend. On the eve of his return to Canada, he proposes marriage, and Stephen flees from him in horror. Only Sir Philip—and perhaps Puddle—recognizes Stephen’s true nature, but he proves unable to speak of it, even when, in confusion, Stephen seeks his aid. With mother, father, and daughter each concealing a private torment, the sudden death of Sir Philip brings what little remains of Morton’s former joy to an abrupt end. A final deathbed struggle to explain Stephen’s nature to his wife and daughter comes too late.

In town one day in her twenty-first year, Stephen encounters Angela, the discontented American wife of a humorless businessman. Friendship soon ripens into a passionate affair, although it is displayed with strictly “schoolgirl kisses.” Stephen’s conscience regarding Angela’s happiness forces her to urge Angela to leave her husband and follow Stephen to Paris. Angela immediately refuses, demanding, “Could you marry me, Stephen?” Month after month, the affair limps on, until one night Stephen spies Angela and Ralph in their garden tenderly embracing. Mortified, Stephen pours her soul into a long, explicit letter, but Angela, affronted by this indiscretion, shows it to Ralph, who in turn sends a...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)