Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Well of Loneliness examines the lonely life of Stephen Gordon. The only child of English country gentry, she is reared as the son her parents never had. Boyish and awkward, Stephen is close to her father, sharing his interests in riding, hunting, and learning. Yet her mother never finds a way to love this odd and ungraceful child. Stephen’s isolation is rather acute: She is educated at home by governesses.

In one of her first attempts at finding love, the young Stephen forms an intense crush on a family maid, becoming enraged upon discovering the woman embracing the footman. After he learns of his daughter’s heartache, Sir Philip involves himself even more in Stephen’s upbringing, although he never tells Stephen or his wife of his suspicions. Neither does the schoolmistress, Puddle, although the author heavily implies that this woman’s own oddness gives her special insight into her young charge.

Once Martin Hallam enters the picture, it appears that Stephen may not be as strange or different as her father has suspected. Yet, after Stephen is insulted and enraged by Martin’s proposal, it is clear that she will never marry. Soon after, Stephen’s father dies, and Stephen turns to Angela Crossby for emotional consolation. Angela uses Stephen, however, returning the girl’s love with betrayal: Although she had spent much time in Stephen’s arms, talking of love and accepting expensive gifts, Angela shows her husband one...

(The entire section is 519 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The significance of The Well of Loneliness cannot be overestimated. It was banned in England shortly after its publication as obscene, and the publicity surrounding its trial helped to establish the book as an heroic defense of homosexuality. Additionally, as the press at the time and many critics since have noted, Radclyffe Hall’s own public life as a lesbian added to the book’s success, although the book is not autobiographical. Since 1928, The Well of Loneliness has been translated and reissued numerous times and remains the best-known lesbian novel.

For many women, this novel proved to them that they were neither alone nor unnatural in their love for other women. Heterosexual readers, moreover, often responded to its dignified account of lesbianism. To be sure, because it is one of the few lesbian novels, the impact of the book has been mixed. Its stereotypic equation of lesbianism with masculinity, with the concomitant disavowal of femininity, seemed to confirm restrictive prejudices regarding lesbian identity. This led some women into “butch” styles that were foreign to their own identities and desires. Additionally, its strict adherence to early theories of the “cause” and “symptoms” of lesbianism adds to the view of lesbianism as pathology: Few lesbians want to be men, and fewer still can be said to have “become” lesbians because their fathers wanted sons. Despite these drawbacks, however, The Well of Loneliness and the courage of Radclyffe Hall helped to increase the visibility of lesbians and pave the way for further writers.

The Well of Loneliness is Hall’s only novel to take up specifically lesbian themes. Her other writings include a collection of poetry, A Sheaf of Verses (1908); The Unlit Lamp (1924); Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934); and The Sixth Beatitude (1936).

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Morton Hall

Morton Hall. Located between Upton-on-Severn and the Malvern Hills in the British Midlands, Morton Hall is Stephen Gordon’s home until her early twenties. This is where she has her first crush on a housemaid, Collins, at the age of seven, and where she falls in love at twenty-one with Angela Crossby, the duplicitous American wife of an English businessman. Both of these loves go unrequited.

Morton Hall also has symbolic significance for Stephen—the very feel of the soil, the old Georgian, redbrick house with circular windows, the stables and especially the horses, the schoolroom where she receives private tutoring in preparation for Oxford University, the two large lakes on the grounds, and the flora and fauna on the estate and around it. Even the love between her parents adds up to a definition of home for Stephen.


Battlefield. French battlefield on which Stephen ferries wounded French soldiers to the hospital as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War I, She thus proves that “sexual inverts” also can lead useful lives and contribute to society. This is the setting in which Stephen meets Mary Llewellyn, an innocent Welsh orphan and another volunteer, with whom Stephen is to have a long affair.


*Paris. Capital of France, where Stephen tries to jump-start her and Mary’s social life to relieve Mary’s boredom and loneliness. Now...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall. New York: William Morrow, 1985. A comprehensive biography of Radclyffe Hall which examines the publication and reception of The Well of Loneliness. Several chapters deal with the trial and publicity surrounding the banning of the book in England. Includes photographs of Radclyffe Hall, her family, and lovers. The discussion connecting The Well of Loneliness to Hall’s other novels is also helpful.

Brittain, Vera. Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity? London: A. S. Barnes, 1969. A detailed account of the obscenity trial. Conveys valuable information regarding attitudes toward lesbianism in England in the 1920’s.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. This history of lesbianism in twentieth century America provides a historical framework for understanding the experiences of women who love women and includes a discussion of the role of The Well of Loneliness in providing women with knowledge of lesbianism.

Franks, Claudia Stillman. Beyond “The Well of Loneliness.” Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Avebury, 1984. One of the most thorough critical treatments of the novel.

Jay, Karla, and Joanne Glasgow, eds. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York: New York University Press, 1990. A collection of critical essays on lesbian fiction...

(The entire section is 409 words.)