The Well Of Loneliness (VMC) (Virago Modern Classics) Paperback – 3 July 2008
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What Brokeback mountain failed miserably in doing, Ratcliffe did with ease. This isn't some kinky, soft core porn, fantasy, lesbian sex thriller. It isn't a sob story about rights denied gays either.
It's just the tragic story of someone who is, but her state of being, by no fault or choice of her own, disallows her from the honor given to even the most degenerate people of society.
It's just her story-- without bias, without the evil conspiracy of the "homosexual agenda", without hope of guilting the readers into self loathing, or repentance of unfair treatment to diverse populations-- it just is.
I wish my mum could/would read this book. not that she is like the extreme mother in this book- just because it would be a way for her to see aspects of my heart that she would never be able to imagine a way to understand otherwise.
I thought it might be rather heavy but it’s actually very easy to read, with some beautiful descriptions of her country home and the surrounding countryside. From the beginning, you can really feel Stephen’s frustration at feeling that she is different and doesn’t quite belong, but not really understanding how or why. As an adult, she struggles to reconcile society’s attitude that she is as ‘invert’ or unnatural, with her own beliefs and desires. Even though in many ways times have changed, it’s still a struggle that many LGBT people will be able to relate to today. Stephen shows signs of depression from a young age and many LGBT people struggle with mental health conditions today.
As the novel goes on, Stephen endures several personal tragedies, from relationship breakdown to the death of loved ones, and becomes increasingly isolated from society. Stephen’s feelings of loneliness, grief, heartbreak and desolation are universal and relatable no matter how you identify or what time period you live in. But throughout this, there are moments of hope and wonder. The section on ambulance driving during the war was short, but very interesting. I was longing for Stephen to find happiness, in whatever form that might take.
I’ve read criticisms of the novel along the lines that it isn’t that progressive as it refers to gay people as ‘inverts’ and portrays Stephen as full of shame and guilt. But this reflects the fact that it was both written and set in less tolerant times, when society still viewed homosexuality as something to be ashamed of. No wonder that Stephen – and possibly the author herself – had internalised some of that. The novel also seems to imply at the beginning that her parents’ desire for a male child, hence giving her a male name, caused Stephen’s confusion about her gender, although later on it portrays gender and sexuality as innate. So I wasn’t quite sure where the author falls on the nature vs. nurture debate.
I liked the way that, towards the end, it gives an insight into the lives of other ‘inverts’ who are not so privileged as Stephen. While money can’t buy happiness, Stephen’s wealth did allow her to live an independent life and not have to marry, which might not be the case for a woman from a poorer background. Barbara and Jamie provide a stark contract to Stephen and Mary; a similar love story, but in very different circumstances, and with a different ending. The book becomes more political towards the end: a call to arms for ‘inverts’ to seek justice and their rightful place in society, but always with Stephen’s story at its heart. I didn’t like the ending to Stephen’s story, it felt unfinished and a bit pointless, but I suppose it was in keeping with the themes of loneliness and desolation at the heart of the novel. I expected the novel to end with Stephen returning to Morton after her mother’s death, with or without Mary, and once again finding contentment there. I would have preferred that ending.
The book is a bit overlong and could have been condensed, I think. But I still enjoyed it, as I enjoy all tales of non-conforming and eccentric women. It was moving and absorbing, and can be read both as a historical novel and as a timeless quest for acceptance and belonging.
Some of the feelings that are captured in this book are so poignant and accurate, they really spoke to me. Great lesbian fiction from nearly a century ago.
For anyone studying identity this is a wonderful portrayal of both the slow and painful birth of self-awareness, and the sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful responses of those closest to us as they struggle to deal with their own feelings about it.
Stream of consciousness, not my favourite style so this book was never going to wow me, however, have a go at reading it yourself. Sad ending. Relevant today for anyone who feels like an outsider.
Top international reviews
the loneliness of being gay, particularly at the time this book was written.
Imagine growing up with people judging you and condemning you because you are some not-quite-definably
kind of different? This difference is nothing you did; it isn't the result of any decision or choice
you made; it is simply the way you are. People talk about you in whispers as you pass; they snicker.
Often, they quite obviously reject you and condemn you because they are like the majority whereas you
The story does a very good job of making you feel the ostracizing by society just because you are not
like others. This ostracizing begins long before sexuality comes into play. And, by the way, there is
no sex in this book other than kissing. And yet the book was condemned as obscene simply because the
kissing was between two women.
Stephan, the protagonist, likes to ride horses and finds riding side-saddle dumb. She takes up fencing
and lifting weights because she enjoys the physicality. She feels foolish wearing dresses. Are any of
those things truly outrageous and deserving of condemnation? She makes a wonderful friend with a young man
who she feels close to because he treats her exactly the same as he would a man. That she recoils in horror
when the young man declares his love for her was not her decision; it was simply her reaction. When she
forms a relationship with another woman with kissing involved and eventually declares her love for the woman
only to have the woman recoil makes her feel just how alone and different she is. Stephan thinks she must
be the only person to be this way. She is unaware that others exist. She experiences multiple snubs and
rejections because of how she is.
Stephan makes an important and, I think, irrefutable point somewhere in the book:
"We exist. Like everyone else, We were made by nature. Therefore we are natural."
I think this book should be read by heterosexuals. I am not so foolish as to think that the scales would
fall from the eyes of those blinded by prejudice. But, I would hope that many people would find the mile
walked in another's shoes to be a reminder to be kinder and much more tolerant of others. It needn't be
limited to those in sexual minorities but also racial, religious, nationalities or any other kinds of
From a purely literary point of view, I also found the writing to be interesting. Occasionally, I would
have to reread a sentence to understand it but then I found that I enjoyed the non-standard (perhaps only
by modern standards?) phrasing to be interesting.
Overall, I found this to be one of the best books I've read in quite a while.
Hall would spend a page or two, describing something that could easily be summed up in a couple of sentences. Normally I would hate that, but with Hall it worked. Her words painted pictures, setting moods as well as scenes. Really bringing the feel of the characters to life. I just kept thinking, so this is what those other authors were trying to do.
Hall's quick change in perspective, could get confusing, at times. One minute you're in one character thoughts, the next you're in another's. At a few spots, we got treated to a dog's point of view, on the events, of the story.
The end was a bit to hard to take, but I wasn't expecting a story book ending, given the time period it was written.
All in all, I enjoyed the book, and got a sense of accomplishment, when I finished it.
The author does express hope that this natural human ability to love will be allowed in the future. Does love need to be allowed?
This was not a page turning read for me; however, I did find myself reflecting on our cultural tolerances on the groups cast aside due to beliefs, race, sex, nationality, education etc...
It is sad that today this book finds a very strong thread of relevant issues.
The protagonist is a wealthy British aristocrat — a butch woman who is attracted to other women from a very young age. (To me she might now more likely to 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.
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.
The "Well of Loneliness" gives an account of how hard it was to live in a society where lesbians were scarcely allowed to live. Perhaps the question is how one defines love itself. Is love between two women so terrible that they were/are forced to live a life of constant lies and evasions? If it is offensive to God can't we just live out our short lives and allow God to do the judging? I doubt very much that God needs our help. Do we have the right to judge such a personal issue? Think deeply about these questions as you read this provocative book.