Let’s begin with a passage from our topic today:
She broke off abruptly, and they stared at each other.
‘Do you know what you’re saying?’ Angela whispered.
And Stephen answered: ‘I know that I love you, and that nothing else matters in the world.’
Then, perhaps because of that glamorous evening, with its spirit of queer, unearthly adventure, with its urge to strange, unendurable sweetness, Angela moved a step nearer to Stephen, then another, until their hands were touching. And all that she was, and all that she had been and would be again, perhaps even tomorrow, was fused at that moment into one mighty impulse, one imperative need, and that need was Stephen. Stephen’s need was now hers, by sheer force of its blind and uncomprehending will to appeasement.
Then Stephen took Angela into her arms, and she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover. 
Today we are covering possibly the most well known Lesbian novel of all time, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. This episode was previously scheduled to drop during Lesbian Visibility week which runs the 20th-26th of April. Ending with the original Lesbian Day of Visibility on April 26th. Which, coincidentally is when Evan married his favorite Lesbian, Samantha Taylor. So though we’re a little late, today we are spreading awareness and visibility of lesbians all around the world. And there is no better way to do so than to use the first, modern, instrument used to bring widespread visibility to Lesbians.
Radclyffe Hall’s infamous novel has been steeped in controversy and criticism since it’s first publication 92 years ago. The story is based on a masculine or butch lesbian named Stephen. Who is born into immense wealth and privilege, yet feels like a constant outsider to the world around her. Stephen comes of age grappling with the parts of her that are different. But is encouraged by her father to embrace her boyish side. She takes up riding, fencing, and lifting weights; much to the dismay of her mother and her neighbors. In addition, she rejects the feminine attire of the day instead preferring a man’s shirt and tie paired with a short straight skirt. Which was the preferred style of many lesbians during the mid-1900s, and often used as a code to signify their sexual leanings.
Along the way, Stephen also develops crushes on different women and falls deeply in love with a few. Including an older, married woman who later outs Stephen to save her own self. Later, Stephen moves to Paris where she becomes a celebrated author and settles down with a beautiful young girl named Mary. They are happy for many years and build a family with their little dog, David. Even forming a troop of other queer friends who become their chosen family. But tragedy strikes and leaves poor Stephen alone at the end, begging God for the right to exist. The final lines end as such:
‘God,’ she gasped, we believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’ 
The book was a loose metaphor for Hall’s own life. As she too was an open butch lesbian who went by the preferred name of John in private settings. The hope was to bring awareness to the ‘inverts’ of the world. This was an old term that implied that a person attracted to the same sex did so because they were actually the opposite sex. Or perhaps, they embodied both sexes. The theory of sexual inversion was first developed by notorious sexologist Havelock Ellis and further expanded up by Richard von Kraft-Ebbing and Karl Heinrich Ulrich. The latter often explaining that male inversion was “a woman’s soul confined within a man’s body”. In fact, Ellis and Ebbing are repeatedly referred to in The Well of Loneliness as Hall relied heavily on their work for her own understanding of her identity.
Havelock Ellis even wrote this commentary at the beginning of The Well.
I HAVE read The Well of Loneliness with great interest because – apart from its fine qualities as a novel by a writer of accomplished art – it possesses a notable psychological and sociological significance. So far as I know, it is the first English novel which presents, in a completely faithful and uncompromising form, one particular aspect of sexual life as it exists among us today. The relation of certain people – who, while different from their fellow human beings, are sometimes of the highest character and the finest aptitudes – to the often hostile society in which they move, presents difficult and still unsolved problems. The poignant situations which thus arise are here set forth so vividly, and yet with such complete absence of offense, that we must place Radclyffe Hall’s book on a high level of distinction.
Despite being backed by one of the most prominent sexologists of the day, The Well of Loneliness sparked international outrage. This had been expected by both Radclyffe Hall and her publisher Jonathan Cape. She wrote to Cape, “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”. Adding, “[I am] taking a great personal and cultural risk.“ But even though he was aware of what could happen, Cape took the leap of faith. Just 33 years before, Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexuality – Hall had been 15 years old at the time. And the young publisher was sure the book stood in defiance of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Still, together the brave duo brought The Well of Loneliness to the world.
Within 30 days of its publication, open calls for censorship began to rise from critics. In mid-August, the Sunday Express printed a scathing article by editor James Douglas who proclaimed “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial [sic] of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas even went so far to contact Conservative Home Secretary, Sir William Joyson-Hicks, and drew a public rebuke of the novel from the government official. In addition, the editor published pictures of Hall in her scandalous masculine attire and cropped the picture of her skirt so that many assumed she was wearing pants! Though it was no longer illegal for a woman to wear pants in public, and even though World War I had brought a short wave of popularity to the trend, it was still considered distasteful for a woman to prefer pants over dresses and skirts.
However, Cape was familiar with controversy around his publications. He was also the publisher for Ulysses author James Joyce and future Bond creator Ian Fleming. Both men had controversy surrounding their work and Flemings’ early novel, State of Excitement, had been banned pre-release in Kuwait for its criticism of the Kuwaiti government. Thus stopping full out production altogether and making the legacy of the forbidden book more prominent than the actual work itself. Which is often the case with respect to banned literature.
Even if a book has no literary merits, the very fact that it is forbidden makes people want that work. In episodes 16 and 17 when we covered the Marquis de Sade’s writings. Many of which were often more a juvenile’s wet night terror than an actual work of literate excellency. Still, the fact that the books were so heavily restricted, censored and publicly denounced made the public desperate for copies. And when a book is truly brilliant and also strictly forbidden, as in the case of writings like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, that work takes on an almost supernatural potency. Which is exactly what happened to The Well of Loneliness. Many argue that had Douglas left the novel alone it would have obtained moderate success. But instead, the Sunday Express editor made the book notorious by pushing Radclyffe Hall and Jonathan Cape to trial for obscenity.
By November of 1928, just 2 months after The Well’s publication, Hall and Cape found themselves in serious hot water. The publisher had halted the production of the book in England due to the harsh backlash. But attempted to circumvent the system by moving publication to France. However, he was thwarted after a few weeks when British customs brought charges against Cape and claimed the book “tended to corrupt those whose minds were ‘open to immoral influence”. As a response, the young publisher reached out to 160 potential witnesses to help defend against censorship. Among them were T.S. Elliot, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and many other prominent names of the day.
However, more than 100 declined the plea for help. Much to the irritation of their queer counterparts and fellows such as Virginia Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West. Woolf wrote about their cowardly excuses to her nephew:
Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons as you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins. 
In truth, Woolf found The Well of Loneliness very “middlebrow”. An insult she perpetuated which mocked any piece of art or literature that was popular simply because the masses had decided it should be. A middlebrow is an individual who bases their choices on how it makes them look and not on what they truly find beautiful or valuable.
Even though she was not a fan of The Well, Woolf still saw the importance of fighting censorship and she understood the impact a popular lesbian romance could have on society. Actually, Woolf had her own work at stake. The same month Jonathan Cape was arrested for defying the Obscene Publications Act, Woolf had self published her infamous gender defying story, Orlando. Which has rivaled The Well for nearly a century in a battle for the most influential LGBTQ+ novel of modern times.
Scientists, publishers, and authors all convened at the courthouse on November 9, 1928. A total of 57 witnesses had answered Cape’s call for support and 40 showed up to speak at the trial. A week later on November 16th, Chief Magistrate Sir Chartres Biron ruled that The Well of Loneliness was indeed obscene and violated British laws. He mocked the idea that The Well did not defend inverts and was offended by Hall’s claim that those who opposed homosexuality were prejudiced. Biron stated in his ruling:
…the book is presented as a tragedy … [that] people who indulge in these vices are not tolerated by decent people; they are not received in society and they are ostracized. There is not a single word from beginning to end of this book which suggests that anyone with these tendencies is in the least blameworthy … all characters in this book who indulge in these vices are presented to us as attractive people and put forward for our admiration; and those who object to these vices are sneered at in the book as prejudiced, foolish, and cruel! 
The blow was deep not only for Hall but for many writers across England and the world. Woolf paired with E.M. Forster to publish a rebuke of the ruling in the The Nation and Anthenaeum:
Novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention [lesbianism]… Although forbidden as a main theme, may it be alluded to, or ascribed to subsidiary characters? … Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo. A novelist may not wish to treat any of the subjects mentioned above but the sense that they are prohibited or prohibitable, that there is a taboo-list, will work on him and will make him alert and cautious instead of surrendering himself to his creative impulses. And he will tend to cling to subjects that are officially acceptable, such as murder and adultery, and to shun anything original lest it lead him into forbidden areas.
Across the sea in America plans for publication of The Well ground to a halt. Alfred Knopf was afraid the book would immediately be banned and come at a cost loss for him. So instead a small start-up company – later known as notorious Viking Press – run by Pascal Covici and Donald Friede bought the rights to The Well for $10,000 (over $130,000 by today’s standards). They were promptly arrested and sued, but the printing plates were secretly moved around the country and the book continued to be printed. The book sold for $5 with the average price for a novel $2 at the time. And even with the risks and increase in price more than 100,000 copies were sold in the U.S. that year.
The Well of Loneliness would continue to sell 100,00 copies in American every year for the next 40 years, despite its controversies. Friede and Viking Press had been cleared of their charges during the U.S. trial, but the book was still considered taboo. In Europe, publications in France and several other countries made their way to the U.K. Making the book incredibly popular even though it still could not be published in its country of origin. What is most interesting is that similar books about lesbian romances such as Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzies Extrodinary Women, and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel were not banned. Even though they were printed the same year as Hall’s novel and also centered around same sex romance. It is no doubt that Radclyffe’s persona and outward defiance of gender norms played heavily into the publicity campaign waged against The Well.
For her part, Radclyffe Hall went on to become a literary icon and a lesbian hero. She and her life long partner Una Troubridge settled down in London. In 1934, ‘John’ (Radclyffe) also fell in love with a Russian immigrant Evguenia Souline. While Una was hurt by the relationship, she tolerated it for Hall. The three women would live together for the next 9 years until Radclyffe’s death in 1943 when she died of colon cancer. She left all of her belongings to Una with a stipulation that an allowance should be given to Evguenia.
The book itself continues to be a giant in literature. It is steeped in controversy just as it always has been. Though today it is for different reasons. At the time of it’s release, there were already grumblings in the queer community about the self hatred directed at protagonist Stephen. Even then it seemed that there was no need for Hall to be so tragic. While pleading for acceptance and visibility she repeatedly maligns Stephen as “repulsive” a “monster” who’s “ugly” and “disfigured”. The self-inflicted tragedy at the end was also unnecessary and implies that queer people should sacrifice their happiness and well being for tolerance in society.
The embrace of the theory of inversion in The Well has contributed to much criticism by the LGBTQ+ community today. Due to the fact the theory repeatedly conflates gender with sexual orientation. Though this seems a bit unfair as that was the science known at the time. Most sexologists that studied ‘inverts’ also advocated for ending the criminalization of homosexuality and encouraged acceptance by soceity. It was because of scientists and doctors such as Ellis, Ebbing, and Ulrich that we were able to break through centuries of silence and ignorance.
There’s also the arguments that The Well erases bisexuals. Bi erasure was a large problem during this time period – and continues to be a problem today. However, especially in the early years of sex and gender research, there was almost no belief that a person could be attacted to more than one gender. While it is important to address the bi-erasure in The Well, it is more indicative of the time period and teachings around gender and orientation than of the biases of the author herself.
However, there is legitimate complaints to be made around Hall’s disdain of femme lesbians. Stephen’s love interest Mary, is treated as a child throughout the book despite the fact that she’s only 10 years younger than Stephen. The two begin their relationship when Mary is in her mid 20’s and Stephen in her 30’s and while there is something to be said for a maturity difference, the way Stephen handles Mary is uncomfortable at times. Feminists and lesbians have pointed to long standing prejudices that treat femme lesbians as “not real” or “just going through a phase”. Stephen’s character seems to adapt this thinking and it appears Hall did the same in her relationship with Una and Evguenia.
The Well of Loneliness is certainly not perfect and one will always wonder how popular it truly would have been had it not been so heavily censored and banned for so many years. But regardless of its shortcomings, we cannot discount the impact Hall’s writing has had on our society and the visibility it has brought to lesbians everywhere. Your recommended resource is of course The Well of Loneliness. And because copyright laws have run out on the 92 year old novel, we have been able to include a link for you to read the book for free online. Just go to yourqueerstory.com and click The Well of Loneliness at the bottom of our page and it will link you to the ebook. We also suggest the biographies The Trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami or Radclyffe Hall; A Woman Called John by Sally Cline.
- The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
- PBS – https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/stories/articles/2019/4/1/radclyffe-hall-well-of-loneliness-legacy
- Sexual Inversion- https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sexual-inversion
- Wiki (WoL) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Well_of_Loneliness
- Wiki (Hall) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radclyffe_Hall
- Brain Picking – https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/09/well-of-loneliness-trial-of-radclyffe-hall-virginia-woolf/
- Fleming – https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/ian-flemings-banned-book-and-the-unexpected-gravity-of-james-bond