The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall

Review published on February 25, 2014. Reviewed by Sara Garland

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

This book was originally published in 1928. It was met with some vitriolic outpouring, being the first book to incorporate lesbianism. It was deemed by some as obscene because it supported unnatural practices amongst women, although was welcomed by others who up until this point had never seen anything written on the subject. For a period it was banned. But as is often the case this promoted readership rather than deter it.

Being re-published to be deliberated upon by a more diversified society, it gives you the chance to consider how this would have been received back in the 1920’s and also cogitate how tolerances have significantly changed.

It is a literary piece of writing with rather an unusual backdrop. It tells of the life of Stephen Gordon, an English woman born into a privileged English family. It covers her whole life in-depth, of which somewhat insignificant experience has relevance as the story progresses.

Essentially Stephen’s parents were so convinced that they had conceived a son, that when it transpired she was indeed a girl, her father was committed to calling her Stephen. An only child she was suitably indulged and became the apple of her father’s eye. It was clear from an early age that Stephen was indeed different. She disliked dresses, preferring trousers and insisting upon riding her horse astride, so that generally she bore resemblance to and appreciated the physicality of boy.

Her appearance raises a good few eyebrows as well as some local tongue wagging. Her father – always protective, looks to ways both to protect her and allow her to develop to have some control over her life. Her relationship with her mother is never warm or close. Stephen develops as a somewhat odd blend. She is confident about how she would like to be, confident in her physical mannish style, but almost crippled with shyness amongst people that appear to judge her, despite her intelligence and capability for interesting conversation.

Whilst her parents clearly suspect her sexuality, they never speak openly of it to her. Stephen therefore was confused by her mixed feelings and about who she was. Bereaved after the death of her father, she experiences her first inverted relationship with a neighbour, Angela Crossby. Angela has a parasitic character, she is bored and lonely. She manipulates Stephen and aside embarking upon some clunky kisses, does not seemingly to have any true feelings for her, other than to control her for her own end – although it has to be said it is a very complicated relationship.

With the risk of scandal, Stephen is essentially banished from her family home by her cold hearted mother. She moves to France, where she meets a more colourful collection of people. She experiences true love when she meets Mary Llewellyn during the war. Post war there is a change in woman’s attitudes and confidence. This also has subtle bearings for homosexuality, albeit there is a long road to travel to any level of social acceptance.

This is an intricate story of somebody strong in spirit searching for love and acceptance. It is of somebody ultimately steeped in fragility of confidence, but strong in purpose. It conveys a quagmire of troubled and buried emotions, forced hidden by society’s uniform, undiversified ways of life. There were times when parts of the story seemed a little unnecessarily elongated, which made it less engaging, but for the greater part it tells a story with real insight into a life where true happiness could never fully flourish, and where personal, emotional sacrifices may need to be made. The title Well of Loneliness captures the soul of the book most aptly.

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