The Well of Loneliness – by Radclyffe Hall – book review

First published in Britain in 1928 and then banned for decades – THE WELL OF LONELINESS is now considered one of the most important early LGBTQ works because it was one of the first books to present lesbians in a sympathetic light. Sunday Express Editor James Douglas, who led the campaign to ban the book, famously wrote, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Don’t, however, expect the book to be pornographic in any way. There are NO detailed sex scenes — merely a few references to kissing like lovers. Clearly, it was the controversial subject matter that got it banned. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.

The protagonist is a British aristocrat — a butch woman who is attracted to other women from a very young age. (To me she might now more likely be considered transgender, but likely that was simply not an option in 1928).

Initially, I thought the book beautifully written – with language that evokes its time period. And it does an impressive job of exploring the deep inner thoughts of someone who does not conform to the gender norms of her society. I felt I truly got to understand the full range of emotions, including what it’s like to be ostracized, shunned, and isolated, even by loved ones — for no other reason than because of whom one chooses to love. The joy and fulfillment that can come from love are also there.

However, as the book progressed, I came to its flaws. It is the story of Stephen Gordon (yes, she is given a typically male name) and her life in Britain early in the 20th century. Different sections of the book focus on different periods of her life — her childhood, her adolescence, her service during World War I, her professional success as a writer, and eventually, her life in Paris. She is the one you come to care about and know well.

Unfortunately, as Stephen begins to meet others like herself, the author winds up going into extraordinary detail about the back stories of some of these people, which, to me, distracted from Stephen’s much more important and emotional story. Some of these “other” stories did allow Hall to present some less fortunate outcomes. And, having read a bit about the author’s life, I suspect many of these characters are based on people Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) actually knew. (The book appears to be loosely based on at least some of her own experiences.) So, perhaps Hall felt it was important to present all these characters with rich and full lives to make them more fully sympathetic. I, however, wound up skimming some of these parts — because they simply went on way too long for my taste.

Radclyffe Hall (circa 1930) From Wikipedia

I certainly understand why this book is considered so groundbreaking to the LGBTQ community. And I see its value in showcasing the humanity of ALL who do not conform to social norms. So despite the literary problems I’ve mentioned and a tendency to get a bit heavy-handed and maudlin, it’s a worthwhile book for understanding the hardships of finding love in a judgmental and critical world. 

More about the author.