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Hall, Radclyffe (1880-1943)  
page: 1  2  3  

The Well of Loneliness

After the success of The Unlit Lamp, which won the Prix Femina, and Adam's Breed, which won the James Tait Black prize for the best literary novel of 1926, Hall felt confident enough to enlist Troubridge's support for a novel about inversion. Her stated purpose was to present a sympathetic portrait of the "congenital invert," one that would show the full humanity and suffering of women like herself.

The protagonist, Stephen Gordon, is not a veiled self-portrait, but rather a fictionalized version of Havelock Ellis's description of the true or born invert, pushed almost to the extreme. Stephen's childhood and adolescence are marked by difference, both in her "boyish" pursuits and in her attraction to women and aversion to romantic and sexual intimacy with men.

Loathed by her mother, understood but unprotected by her father, Stephen is ultimately exiled from her beloved country estate and flees to Paris and the relative acceptance of the lesbian circles there (modeled after Natalie Barney and her salon).

Like Miss Ogilvy, Stephen is temporarily fulfilled by the demands of World War I and her role as ambulance driver and by her love for another driver, Mary Llewellyn. This love sustains Stephen and Mary for several years but founders on Mary's attraction to Martin Hallam. Stephen orchestrates her own martyrdom to free Mary for a union with Martin.

The Obscenity Trial

The public outcry came swiftly. Hall's effectiveness in engaging the reader's sympathy and understanding alarmed the conservative moralists who succeeded in bringing the publisher before the Home Office in a highly publicized obscenity trial.

Hall's own defense of the book's morality cited Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, another noted sexologist, claiming that inverts are a part of Nature, made that way by God, and then punished by a cruel and uncomprehending world. Their suffering cries out for redress and an end to persecution.

She claimed also that The Well upholds conventional heterosexual morality. Only true inverts should live as Stephen cannot help living. No matter how much Mary Llewellyn may have loved Stephen, she is not a true invert and must therefore follow her own true (heterosexual) nature. This was a bold and powerful message in the literary world of the 1920s.

Nevertheless, the book was banned, though printed in France and thus widely available. The attempt to ban it in the United States having failed, American readers were able to purchase it freely. From these sources alone, The Well sold over 10,000 copies in its first year.

Over the years, Hall claimed to have received more than 10,000 letters about the novel, many from grateful lesbians, but also many from nonlesbian supporters. By 1943, at Hall's death, the book had been translated into fourteen languages and was selling at over 100,000 copies year after year. It has never gone out of print.

Despite the shifting critical reactions over three-quarters of a century, and despite Hall's "essentialist" turn-of-the-twentieth-century views on sexology, The Well of Loneliness remains the one book most likely to have been read by lesbians and by those interested in a portrayal of lesbianism. Indeed it is one of the books most widely identified with lesbian literature the world over.

Joanne Glasgow

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Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall. New York: Morrow, 1985.

Breen, Margaret Soenser. "Narrative Inversion: The Biblical Heritage of The Well of Loneliness and Desert of the Heart." Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture. Raymond-Jean Frontain, ed. New York: Haworth, 1997. 187-206.

Brittain, Vera. Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity? New York: Barnes, 1969.

Dickson, Lovat. Radclyffe Hall at the Well of Loneliness: A Sapphic Chronicle. London: Collins, 1975.

Madden, Ed. "The Well of Loneliness, or The Gospel According to Radclyffe Hall." Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture. Raymond-Jean Frontain, ed. New York: Haworth, 1997. 163-186.

Hall, Radclyffe. Adam's Breed. London: Cassell, 1926.

Ormrod, Richard. Una Troubridge: The Friend of Radclyffe Hall. London: Cape, 1984.

Ruehl, Sonja. "Inverts and Experts: Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Identity." Feminism, Culture, and Politics. Rosalind Brunt and Caroline Rowan, eds. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983. 15-36.

Souhami, Diana. The Trials of Radclyffe Hall. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1998.

Troubridge, Una. The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall. London: Hammond, 1961.


    Citation Information
    Author: Glasgow, Joanne  
    Entry Title: Hall, Radclyffe  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 11, 2013  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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