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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 12 April 2005
I love this book, it was given to me by my cousin, and I have to be honest, was not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of reading it to begin with, but as soon as I got into it, I couldn't put it down.
However, I do not agree with the claim on the front of the cover describing it as "The Bible of Lesbianism" because in all honesty it is not. Radclyffe Hall may have herself been a lesbian, but in some ways this novel skirts over the issue and almost gives the impression that homosexuality is a negative thing. Obviously at the time that the novel is set in, she has to conform to certain social regulations, but referring to lesbians as "inverts" is not a particularly positive description in my eyes. Also trying to disguise the gender of the protagonist to a certain degree by calling her "Stephen" seems to also be an attempt to distract the reader from the issue of homosexuality that is clearly being conveyed.
However, this is beautifully written, it is a haunting piece of literature, that once read will never be forgotten. Hall may have been ahead of her time when the novel was first released, but she is now remembered as a classic and wonderful novelist whose words echo deeply within the heart of her readers.
This will reduce you to tears, I have never been so emotionally drained after finishing a book, but I truthfully believe that regardless of your view on sexuality, this is a love story, showing that love will force you to do anything to protect the one you truely care about and adore.
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This book was groundbreaking in it's day and still shocking to read in that it aches with a sense of isolation and discomfort at not fitting in. I thought that the area of the novel that dealt with young Stephen and her awakening desires and confusion was particularly heart rending, yet never does it give in it sentimentality or mawkishness. It is a strong, self-assured novel. The real tragedy is the elusive sense of happiness that haunts the pages, yet always seems to slip by.
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on 3 January 2014
It is many years since I first read The Well of Loneliness, so I was delighted to find this edition for the Kindle. It's quite a miserable story, but ever so beautifully written. And I find reading Radclyffe Hall again now to be quite wonderful, as it shows us how far society has advanced in terms of tolerance and understanding. This book is both a great novel and an important historical document. Strongly recommended!
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on 3 June 2002
If you're studying lesbian literature, obscenity trials or queer history in general, this book has unfortunately become foundation stuff and might be worth trawling through. If you're a young dyke just starting to read queer writing, it'll just make you feel hopeless and there are far better writers around. Radclyffe Hall may have been a pioneer and a martyr, and she does at least get marks for courage considering the atmosphere of the time, but as a writer she was mediocre (and apparently as a person she was a nasty piece of work).
Admittedly, the book is very much a product of its time. Sexual orientation was little understood, gender dysphoria even less so, and Hall appears to have got muddled up between the two. There is a mild stab at scientific explanation (Stephen's parents long for a boy, give her a boy's name, treat her as a boy to a certain extent - and surprise surprise, she grows up to like girls and dress as a man), and a very clear line drawn between "inverts" and "normals" that will make anyone grit their teeth long before they come to the depressing way in which Stephen "heroically" solves her final dilemma. The depiction of the relatively "normal" women Stephen loves as properly girly creatures, who are swayed by the perils of Sapphic passion but are still Real Women underneath, contains some pretty unpleasant stereotypes about bisexuals and "femme" women, and the characterisation throughout neither arouses sympathy in the reader nor particularly convinces.
Despite the obscenity trial, there is nothing scandalous in this book beyond the idea that a woman could love women: the dirtiest it gets is the all-concealing line, "...And that night they were not divided." (Sorry if that's a spoiler, but as a friend of mine said, "You mean I've read hundreds of pages about her miserable childhood for *that*?")
If you want lesbian sex, there are plenty of writers offering that sort of thing these days, and some of them even write about it well (Emma Donoghue, for instance, who is, incidentally, a vivid, moving and very funny writer). If you're after lesbian literature of that period, go to Virginia Woolf and co. (there are also some excellent anthologies, such as the "Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories" and "Chloe Plus Olivia", that take a literary-historical perspective). If you simply want a well-written book about love between women, again there is far better on offer: the previous two writers and also the likes of Jane Rule and Alice Walker. And if you're interested in transsexuality and the boundaries between genders (not to mention the people who fall in the middle), I can recommend Anna Livia's "Bruised Fruit" and Rose Tremain's "Sacred Country". Spare yourself this.
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on 11 May 2016
Why has it taken me so long to get around to reading this? It is excellently written and keeps the reader clinging on by the fingernails until WELL INTO the book before there's any relief! Highly recommended.
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on 12 February 2012
I would have given this book two stars for readability, but I really felt it deserved three due to the fact that not only was she brave to write it but it was legendary for it's day and I do also feel it's an important novel simply for historical interest purposes.

I ploughed through it a few years ago, in my late teens, and when I say ploughed I do mean it. I love reading, but it was hard going. I do like books of this era, but as other reviewers have said there is a lot of long-winded prose in it which I often skipped. I enjoyed reading about the social stuff like her travels and servant problems as a single landowning woman, and it was a brilliant insight into a 'butch' of that era, (which she clearly was) and the problems they had then with girls running back to their husbands which seems to echo today's problems, so that made me smile.

In summary I don't regret reading it, but once was probably enough.
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on 8 December 2008
This is one of the most gripping books I have read in a long time. I could not put it down! It is an intense, yet wonderful book of a lesbian trying to find her place and love in the world. She battles against her own mother even to find a piece of happiness. Well worth a read for real romantics and anyone who knows what it is like to be in love.
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on 18 September 2010
Described as the archetypal lesbian novel and banned on publication, this book is disappointing not only in its completely dowdy depiction of a lesbian relationship, but also in its utter failure to create a believeable or indeed interesting relationship between its main characters. Radclyffe is an extremely old-fashioned writer in her use of prose: 'betoken' is a popular word, and her sentence structure is peculiar at best. It is hard to get past the over-blown descriptions of nature or discussions of the poetics of horses, and when you do it's hard to know whether it was really worth the effort.

The book begins before the conception of its main character, Stephen Gordon, and goes on to describe her childhood and her life into her late thirties. Stephen is a reasonably interesting character as a child: she is interested in fencing and horse-riding and in making her muscles as finally tuned as possible. I felt a cetain amount of sympathy for her as the book makes it obvious that she is different from those around and she cannot fit in to society. Her estrangement from her peers well evoked and Hall creates a sense of the loneliness of the only child and the loneliness of being different from this around you. Stephen's relationship with her father, Philip, is a very sympathetic one, and probably the best realised of the book. Philip realises that there is something different about Stephen before she does, and does not know what to do about it.

The story, such as it is, does not really get started until Philip's death, however. There plot and the point of the book hinges on Stephen's realisation of her own lesbianism, and on her two romantic relationships, each doomed in their own way. Throughout the book Hall seems intent on both prooving that Stephen, as a lesbian, or 'invert' as she calls it, is natural, and should be respected by society in her own right as an intelligent and noble person, but at the same time, through the damaging effect the lesbian relationships appear to have, not only on Stephen, but on those she loves, appears to be showing us that lesbianism is both unhealthy and damages those around it. These cross-purposes make the book's message clunky and difficult to follow, and this is only underlined by Hall's leaden prose.

The other major problem is the book is that it fails to get accross any sense of why Stephen loves the two women she comes to love, or why she is intent on pursuing the relationships. The two character she falls for, first Angela and then Mary, are not at all fleshed out, and come accross as vapid and empty. Angela is a downright unpleasant character, and it is never really explained why Stephen comes to love her at all or recognise anything in her. Very little is said about Mary, and she is simply uninteresting. As well as that, very little tenderness is created between Stephen and either of the women, and its hard to get a sense of what their romantic relationship is really like. Stephen tells them she loves them a lot, but it's very hard to see where her passion comes from or what she finds appealling about these women, or, indeed, why they are attracted to her. I could have forgiven this book a lot if it created an honest and interesting relationship between two women, but it simply does not. I didn't expect anything particularly erotic to occur in a book published in 1928, but a romantic relationship that was interesting and emotionally believable should have been possible.

This book is interesting as an early depiction of lesbianism, and because Hall was brave enough to say 'she kissed her full on the lips'. It contains descriptions of the Parisian lesbian bar life which are mildly interesting, and Hall's ideas about Stephen's nature, though peculiar, are interesting to read. This book does not really strike any kind of chord with the modern lesbian, but it is an interesting part of lesbian history. It is also a damning portrait of the society which cannot accept Stephen for what she is, and, rather comfortingly shows us that, while gay and lesbian rights may still have a way to go, they've really come a long way.

I can't say this book in an enjoyable read, because its characters are paper thin and it is fleshed out by many more paragraphs about God and God's will than is really necessary. The prose is clunky, and the fact that Stephen is depicted as a writer is a bit embarrassing, but the ideas and the picture of society which it presents are interesting enough to at least make it readable.
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on 2 December 2015
The worst lesbian love story I have ever read. This book single handily kept me in the closet for over twenty years. I read it as a 20 year old in the early 70's. I had to make a special request for it from my library because you couldn't buy it in a bookshop. When I went to the library to collect it the female librarian gave me a withering look and went to a locked cupboard to get the book.

I was hoping this novel would be life affirming and help me come to terms with all the feelings I had locked inside me. It didn't. I simply could not identify with 'Stephen' the main character who aped the behaviour, mannerisms and looks of a man. With her love of cigars and men's clubs, her man's haircut and the wearing of men's clothes. She was nothing like me. I think today she would be considered to have body dysmorphia and that Radclyffe Hall herself would have gone through gender reassignment.

I can't remember the name of the female lover in the book and I couldn't identify with her either as she didn't appear to love Stephen and besides she returns to her husband leaving Stephen in abject misery.

It was awful to read. I felt devastated afterwards. It was the only book I knew about that dealt with lesbianism in a world where there was nothing, and I do mean nothing available about being gay. I finished it, braved the stares of the library staff and returned the book. Never to read it again.

I was 42 before I gathered up enough courage to come out as gay and I place a large part of that delay on this awful book.
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on 12 December 2001
'The Well of Lonliness' is an absolutely sensational book. The way in which Hall explores the feelings and emotions of Stephen are stunningly effective. I couldn't put this book down and the empathy which she makes you feel with the characters is incredible. This is the first book which reduced me to tears- I defy anyone not to be moved by it. I advise anyone and everyone to read this book as it truely is a fantastic piece of literature.
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