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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 250

The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 book written by Radclyffe Hall about homosexuality. It was one of the first to do so forthrightly.

The novel tells the story of Stephen Gordon (so named because her parents expected a boy), who comes from a wealthy family in England and who,...

(The entire section contains 1266 words.)

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The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 book written by Radclyffe Hall about homosexuality. It was one of the first to do so forthrightly.

The novel tells the story of Stephen Gordon (so named because her parents expected a boy), who comes from a wealthy family in England and who, early on, knows she’s different. Suspected of “sexual inversion” (an old-fashioned term for homosexuality), her father nonetheless stays close with her, while her mother is always distant. As a girl, Stephen develops a crush on one of the housemaids but doesn’t know what homosexuality is or what to call it.

When she becomes a young woman, Stephen falls for her next-door neighbor, a married American woman named Angela Crossby. When that situation doesn’t work out, Stephen moves to London and becomes a novelist. Later, during World War I, Stephen takes a job as an ambulance driver and meets fellow driver Mary Llewellyn, with whom she falls deeply in love. For a while, living in Paris, the two are very happy, but eventually, Stephen worries that if Mary stays in a relationship with her she will never be accepted by society. The book ends with Stephen trying to drive Mary away and into the arms of a man in order that Mary might live an easier life.

After its publication, The Well of Loneliness was deemed obscene and ordered destroyed in the U.K. In the U.S., the book was also charged with obscenity but was eventually cleared.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1016

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 copy to Lady Anna. Shocked and disgusted, Anna confronts Stephen and refuses to share a home with her: One of them must leave. Stephen withdraws to her father’s study and there discovers a hidden shelf of books about homosexuality by a German psychiatrist, annotated in her father’s handwriting. Praying for a sign, she lets a Bible fall open; the page reads, “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain.” The choice seems clear; Puddle pledges to stand by Stephen in her exile.

Two years later, Stephen achieves overnight success with her first novel, but her second novel is a disappointment, even to its solitary and workaholic author. At a literary lunch, she renews an acquaintance with Jonathan Brockett, a gay playwright who secretly recognizes in Stephen a fellow “invert.” Eventually, Brockett persuades Stephen that she can revive her creative energy, evidently flagging in the second novel, only if she sees more of the world, starting with Paris. Stephen cuts her remaining ties with her mother and Morton and moves to Paris with Puddle. There, Brockett introduces Stephen to a circle of sexually ambiguous writers surrounding Valérie Seymour, proving that Stephen’s exile need not be utterly lonely.

World War I breaks out, and during two years with the London Ambulance Column, Stephen notices other lesbians fitting comfortably into the new roles that war opened to them. Longing to serve her country near the front lines, she joins a unit of Englishwomen in a French Ambulance Corps, who drive wounded soldiers to the field hospital. There, Stephen falls in love with Mary Llewellyn, a young and equally brave volunteer. After the armistice, Stephen, scarred (an indication of the mark of Cain) and decorated, takes Mary into her Parisian home. The young couple spends the winter in Orotava, Spain, but they become increasingly despondent and uneasy as Stephen tries to protect Mary from the consequences that Mary will suffer if she commits herself to Stephen. At a point of crisis, however, they declare a love that would withstand the world’s judgment: “and that night they were not divided.”

Now utterly in love, Stephen and Mary return to Paris and establish a household with Stephen as husband and Mary as wife. Their social isolation deepens, however, and while Stephen turns obsessively to writing, her only “weapon,” Mary grows bored and unhappy. Brockett persuades them to use Valérie Seymour’s salon to extend their circle, and they find consolation in new friends, including courageous lesbians, however tormented and damaged. Stephen and Mary’s glimpse of the seedy nightlife of Paris demoralizes them, however, and after the sudden death of their friend, Barbara, and the suicide of her lover, Mary becomes too vulnerable for Stephen to confide in with the old frankness.

When Martin Hallam, living temporarily in Paris, reappears, the three become fast friends. Stephen gradually realizes that Martin and Mary are becoming romantically attached, and at last Martin challenges Stephen to let Mary go, insisting that Mary will prove unable to survive the trials of the taboo “marriage” with Stephen. A contest for Mary’s heart ensues, although neither Martin nor Stephen reveals it to Mary, and at last Martin concedes defeat. Stephen, however, has already decided that Martin is right after all, that all her love is not enough to bring Mary true happiness. At last, Stephen’s devotion makes her lie to Mary, saying she has been unfaithful, and thus she drives Mary into Martin’s arms. Together, Mary and Martin depart; alone, Stephen prays for all sexual inverts, “Give us also the right to our existence!”

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