The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 lesbian novel by the British 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 anambulance 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 stateand 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.