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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was considered a groundbreaking book in gay and lesbian literature for its sensitive treatment of lesbians and female masculinity. It was published in 1928, and it sparked a storm of criticism and engendered ambivalent feelings about gender identity. Hall tells the story of Stephen, a lesbian woman in the 1920s, who struggles to understand her feelings at a time when lesbian feelings were shunned by the public and rarely discussed, even in private. Hall wrote the novel with the intention of sparking a discussion about what she believed to be a misunderstood group of people—one that was misunderstood largely because they were never discussed.

As Stephen goes through life, she feels more comfortable in male roles than she does in female roles, but because she is expected to live life as a woman, she feels like she can never live a fulfilling life as either a man or a woman. Stephen sinks into a well of loneliness both because she fails to be understood by others and because she fails to understand herself. Her father understood her, but after he died, she was shunned by her mother and by society. She experiences happiness with a few women in her life, but her feelings of confusion and self-doubt lead her to sabotage the relationships.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

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 of Stephen’s passionate letters. Angela’s attempt to end the relationship with Stephen results in her husband’s exposing Stephen to her mother. Lady Anna condemns her daughter, banishing her from Morton, the family estate.

Stephen and Puddle move to London, where Stephen becomes a successful novelist. At the urging of a homosexual acquaintance, Jonathan Brockett, they move to Paris, where Stephen has her first glimpse of lesbian culture. With the outbreak of World War I, Stephen becomes an ambulance driver, receiving both a medal and a scar of honor and becoming acquainted with Mary Llewellyn. Although the relationship proceeds rather slowly, Mary’s love for Stephen overcomes Stephen’s reservations, and they finally set up housekeeping back in Paris.

Yet their relationship is not an easy one. Stephen is forbidden to bring Mary to Morton. The only acquaintances they make in respectable society cancel invitations and refuse to associate with them. Stephen is busy with her writing, and Mary has little to do. With no place else to turn, they venture into the lesbian subculture, finding friends among “their own kind.” Yet many of the women they meet lead tragic lives, drowning in alcohol, poverty, and self-loathing.

At this point, Martin Hallam reappears. Although his friendship with Mary begins innocently enough, providing a welcome reentry to mainstream society, he falls in love with her. He and Stephen begin a battle of the heart and will. Mary clings to Stephen devotedly, although she does have feelings for Martin. Determined to save Mary from the pain and isolation of lesbian life, Stephen feigns an affair with another woman, deliberately pushing Mary into Martin’s waiting arms.


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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

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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 that Stephen has become a famous author, her demanding writing schedule has left Mary feeling neglected (in reality, Radclyffe Hall did not become famous until she was in her forties). Through Valerie Seymour, a wealthy American writer engaged in multiple lesbian affairs, Stephen and Mary are introduced to Paris’s homosexual society. In due course, they visit the seamy Parisian lesbian bars populated by unhappy misfits leading tortured lives—women drowning in alcohol, poverty, and self-loathing. Stephen contributes their lack of self-respect to social disapproval. In fact, it is to make this point forcefully that Hall omits mentioning the lively salons and cafés, equally familiar to her, where lesbians were less mortified and apologetic.

Paris is also the place where the youthful Canadian Martin Hallam, who, through neighbors in England, has met Stephen Gordon and innocently proposed marriage, now resurfaces. At that time, Stephen herself had not yet understood the underlying reason for her rejection of Martin, with whom she had shared a love of nature.

Martin Hallam now becomes romantically involved with Mary Llewellyn. Stephen decides to sacrifice herself for Mary’s happiness after a bitter contest with Martin and after Stephen’s deeply religious experience in a Montmartre church, in which she identifies with the crucified Christ (Hall was a voluntary convert to Catholicism). Thus, feigning an affair with Valerie Seymour, Stephen drives Mary into Hallam’s arms and a conventional heterosexual future on his farm in British Columbia. This is the last of her renunciations, which had started with her giving up Morton Hall, her cherished family home.

35, rue Jacob

35, rue Jacob. Paris apartment in which Stephen sets up a household with Mary, and they vow to weather the world’s harsh judgment of their same-sex “marriage.”


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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 and literature, a number of which discuss Radclyffe Hall and her work. A selective bibliography lists numerous fiction, nonfiction, and critical works by and about lesbians.

McPike, Loralee. “A Geography of Radclyffe Hall’s Lesbian Country.” Historical Reflections/ Reflexions Historiques 20, no. 2 (1994): 217-242. Argues that lesbianism is only one focus of the novel. The novel also concerns the human condition.

Newton, Esther. “The ‘Mythic Mannish Lesbian’: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman.” Signs 9 (1984): 557-575. Argues that Stephen Gordon’s masculinity was intended to offer an alternative to contemporary ideas of the new woman.

O’Rourke, Rebecca. Reflecting on “The Well of Loneliness.” London: Routledge, 1989. A critical examination of The Well of Loneliness with a selected bibliography of books and articles by and about Radclyffe Hall. Especially interesting is the author’s discussion of the reactions of lesbian and heterosexual readers of the book.

Ruehl, Sonja. “Inverts and Experts: Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Identity.” In Feminism, Culture and Politics, edited by Rosalind Brunt and Caroline Rowan. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1982. Discusses the influence of sexology of Hall’s times on her attempt to define the lesbian.

Troubridge, Una Vincenzo, Lady. The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall. London: Hammond & Hammond, 1961. A biography of Hall by her longtime companion.


Critical Essays