The Well of Loneliness  

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The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 lesbian novel by the English author Radclyffe Hall. It follows the life of Stephen Gordon, an Englishwoman from an upper-class family whose "sexual inversion" (that is, homosexuality) is apparent from an early age. She finds love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I, but their happiness together is marred by social isolation and rejection, which Hall depicts as having a debilitating effect on inverts. The novel portrays inversion as a natural, God-given state and makes an explicit plea: "Give us also the right to our existence". The Well became the target of a campaign by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, who wrote "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel." Although its only sexual reference consists of the words "and that night, they were not divided", a British court judged it obscene because it defended "unnatural practices between women". In the United States the book survived legal challenges in New York state and in Customs Court.

Publicity over The Well's legal battles increased the visibility of lesbians in British and American culture. For decades it was the best-known lesbian novel in English, and often the first source of information about lesbianism that young people could find. Some readers have valued it, while others have criticized it for Stephen's expressions of self-hatred and seen it as inspiring shame. Its role in promoting images of lesbians as "mannish" or cross-dressed women has also been controversial. Some critics now argue that Stephen should be seen as transsexual.

Although few critics rate The Well highly as a work of literature, its treatment of sexuality and gender continues to inspire study and debate.

The novel was subject of an obscenity trial that banned the book in the United Kingdom after its publication in 1928 until 1949, though "there are no descriptions of sex in it, no rude words, and the lesbian lovers do not live happily ever after.


Stephen begins to dress in masculine clothes made by a tailor rather than a dress-maker. At twenty-one she falls in love with Angela Crossby, the American wife of a new neighbor. Angela uses Stephen as an "anodyne against boredom", allowing her "a few rather schoolgirlish kisses". Then Stephen discovers that Angela is having an affair with a man. Fearing exposure, Angela shows a letter from Stephen to her husband, who sends a copy to Stephen's mother. Lady Anna denounces Stephen for "presum[ing] to use the word love in connection with... these unnatural cravings of your unbalanced mind and undisciplined body". Stephen replies, "As my father loved you, I loved.... It was good, good, good — I'd have laid down my life a thousand times over for Angela Crossby." After the argument, Stephen goes to her father's study and for the first time opens his locked bookcase. She finds a book by Krafft-Ebing — assumed by critics to be Psychopathia Sexualis, a text about homosexuality and paraphilias — and, reading it, learns that she is an invert.

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