History: Published in 1928, he novel 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.
In 1926, Radclyffe Hall was at the height of her career. Her novel Adam's Breed, about the spiritual awakening of an Italian headwaiter, had become a bestseller; it would soon win the Prix Femina and theJames Tait Black Prize. She had long thought of writing a novel about sexual inversion; now, she believed, her literary reputation would allow such a work to be given a hearing. Since she knew she was risking scandal and "the shipwreck of her whole career", she sought and received the blessing of her partner, Una Troubridge, before she began work. Her goals were social and political; she wanted to end public silence about homosexuality and bring about "a more tolerant understanding" – as well as to "spur all classes of inverts to make good through hard work ... and sober and useful living".
In April 1928 she told her editor that her new book would require complete commitment from its publisher and that she would not allow even one word to be altered. "I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world .... So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.
Plot: The book's protagonist, Stephen Gordon, is born in the late Victorian era to upper-class parents in Worcestershire who are expecting a boy and who christen her with the boy's name they had already chosen. Even at birth she is physically unusual, a "narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby". As a girl she hates dresses, wants to cut her hair short, and longs to be a boy. At seven, she develops a crush on a housemaid named Collins, and is devastated when she sees Collins kissing a footman.
Stephen's father, Sir Phillip, dotes on her; he seeks to understand her through the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first modern writer to propose a theory of homosexuality, but does not share his findings with Stephen. Her mother, Lady Anna, is distant, seeing Stephen as a "blemished, unworthy, maimed reproduction" of Sir Phillip. At eighteen, Stephen forms a close friendship with a Canadian man, Martin Hallam, but is horrified when he declares his love for her. The following winter, Sir Phillip is crushed by a falling tree; at the last moment he tries to explain to Lady Anna that Stephen is an invert, but dies without managing to do so.
Stephen begins to dress in masculine clothes made by a tailor rather than a dressmaker. 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.
Stephen moves to London and writes a well-received first novel. Her second novel is less successful, and her friend the playwright Jonathan Brockett, himself an invert, urges her to travel to Paris to improve her writing through a fuller experience of life. There she makes her first, brief contact with urban invert culture, meeting the lesbian salon hostess Valérie Seymour. During World War I she joins an ambulance unit, eventually serving at the front and earning the Croix de Guerre. She falls in love with a younger fellow driver, Mary Llewellyn, who comes to live with her after the war ends. They are happy at first, but Mary becomes lonely when Stephen returns to writing. Rejected by polite society, Mary throws herself into Parisian gay nightlife. Stephen believes Mary is becoming hardened and embittered and feels powerless to provide her with "a more complete and normal existence".
Martin Hallam, now living in Paris, rekindles his old friendship with Stephen. In time, he falls in love with Mary. Persuaded that she cannot give Mary happiness, Stephen pretends to have an affair with Valérie Seymour to drive her into Martin's arms. The novel ends with Stephen's plea to God: "Give us also the right to our existence!"
Review: A lesbian novel was banned after official medical advice that it would encourage female homosexuality and lead to 'a social and national disaster'.
In 1928 Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, which got no more racy than 'she kissed her full on the lips like a lover', led to an obscenity trial which considered the implications of the national shortage of men and 'two women in bed making beasts of themselves'.
Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, his Chancellor, Winston Churchill, and Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks went to great lengths to suppress the book.
Hall, a flamboyant lesbian, wrote The Well of Loneliness to 'put my pen at the service of some of the most misunderstood people in the world'. She attended the trial in November 1928 dressed in a leather driving coat and Spanish riding hat. Sir Chartres Biron, the chief magistrate at Bow Street, ruled that the novel was an 'obscene libel' and all copies should be destroyed. Its publisher, Jonathan Cape, launched an appeal which proved abortive.
Documents show how Sir Archibald Bodkin, Director of Public Prosecutions, feared that the publisher would mobilise eminent writers to defend the book. He wrote to several doctors asking for a clinical analysis of what he called 'homo-sexualists'. In a letter to one of them, Sir Farquhar Buzzard, he explained: 'I want to be able to call some gentleman of undoubted knowledge, experience and position who could inform the court of the results to those unfortunate women (as I deem them) who have proclivities towards lesbianism, or those wicked women (as I deem them) who voluntarily indulge in these practices - results destructive morally, physically and even perhaps mentally.'
To Dr J.A. Hadfield of Harley Street, he wrote that a large amount of curiosity had been excited among women, 'and I am afraid in many cases curiosity may lead to imitation and indulgence in practices which are believed to be somewhat extensive having regard to the very large excess in numbers of women over men.'
Bodkin got the testimony he wanted from Sir William Henry Willcox, consulting medical adviser to the Home Office and physician at St Mary's Hospital in London. '[Lesbianism] is well known to have a debasing effect on those practising it, which is mental, moral and physical in character,' he said. 'It leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and in some cases to suicide in addicts to this vice. It is a vice which, if widespread, becomes a danger to the well-being of a nation ...'
Publication of the book, he said, would risk its being read 'by a large number of innocent persons, who might out of pure curiosity be led to discuss openly and possibly practise the form of vice described'. The book was finally released in Britain in 1949, after Hall's death.
Opening Line: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn - between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills- stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramley, well timbered, well cottaged well fenced and well watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in the exactly the right position to feed two large lakes on the grounds.”
Closing Line: “ God give us also the right to our existance.”
Quotes: “The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that by seeing nothing it might avoid Truth. ”
Rating: Very Good