The Well Of Loneliness Summary

Radclyffe Hall

The Well Of Loneliness

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The Well Of Loneliness Summary

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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was controversial at its time of publication (1928) as it centers on a young Englishwoman named Stephen Gordon who is a lesbian. In the 1920s, it was not socially acceptable to be a lesbian. Because no one discussed what it feels like or what it means to be a lesbian, Stephen grows up without understanding how she feels. Her father understands but cannot explain to either her or her mother, leaving her confused and lonely after his death. Her first romantic relationship leads to distance between her and her mother that doesn’t heal. Stephen ultimately finds happiness in meeting a lover and friends who understand and accept her feelings, but that happiness ebbs away in the face of societal judgment, casting her into “a well of loneliness.”

Seven-year-old Stephen has her first crush. She doesn’t realize that having a crush on a woman is perceived as unusual until she sees the woman kiss a man. She looks to Sir Philip, her father, to help her understand. He researches the latest psychological writings to try to discover what Stephen can expect from life but keeps his findings to himself. He doesn’t shy away from Stephen; teaching her everything he would teach a son—hunting and caring for their property—to prepare her for a lifetime of loneliness. He believes that Lady Anna, his wife and Stephen’s mother, won’t understand Stephen’s feelings. He keeps his silence despite the growing tension in their marriage.

At seventeen, Stephen is prepared to attend Oxford. Lady Anna insists that she take on the social duties that are at the time expected of young women in her social station. Stephen complies even though she hates dressing up, going to parties, and engaging in small talk. She would rather emulate her father’s style of dress. She feels lost when talking to people, for the discussions ladies have don’t interest her, and she hasn’t the place to insert herself into conversations with men. She meets a young man, Martin Hallam, who is interested in her thoughts and opinions, and Lady Anna hopes their closeness will lead to marriage. Stephen is her only child and she wants her to have a “normal” life. When Martin tells Stephen he loves her, she puts distance between them. Sir Philip plans to see Stephen off to Oxford, but he is crushed by a tree limb. He tries to tell Lady Anna what he has learned about Stephen’s feelings while on his deathbed, but he doesn’t have the chance. Lady Anna becomes a recluse, and Stephen gives up Oxford to run their home and property.

When she meets Angela Crossby, a New York actress, Stephen falls in love. Angela requites her love, but Stephen realizes that she cannot provide the security and respectable lifestyle that Angela wants. Despite this, she stays with her until she learns that Angela is also seeing Roger Antrim, Stephen’s enemy. Angela is also married, so when Stephen writes a letter expressing her feelings for Angela, Angela gives the letter to her husband with the excuse that she had tried—and failed—to reform Stephen. Angela’s husband then passes the letter on to Lady Anna and an irreparable rift forms between Lady Anna and Stephen.

Stephen leaves her home and moves to London with her former governess, Puddles. She starts to write novels and is at first quite successful. Her friend tells her she has to experience more of life though, if she wants to improve her writing, so Stephen moves to Paris. There, she reconnects with a former teacher and begins work on her third novel. World War I starts, interrupting her work. Stephen goes back to London to help in the war effort. To that end, she joining the French Army Ambulance Corp. She forms a close bond with one of her fellow drivers, Mary Llewelyn, a young Welch girl. After the war ends, Stephen brings Mary on vacation and the two begin a romantic relationship. For a few months, Stephen feels unparalleled happiness.

Stephen returns to her writing, and Mary becomes unhappy without as much attention from Stephen. To make up for this, Stephen starts taking Mary to parties hosted by Valerie Seymour in Paris. Valerie is also a lesbian, and through her, Stephen and Mary expand their social circle. They befriend a couple that ultimately dies—Barbara due to sickness, and Jamie at her own hand due to grief. Their deaths are difficult on Mary, as is being socially ostracized. Mary develops an extreme prejudice against lesbians, even though she is one. Meanwhile, Martin returns to Stephen’s life, but this time he falls for Mary. Martin tries to steal Mary away at Stephen’s request, but Mary chooses Stephen. Thinking this is the wrong choice for her, Stephen lies to Mary and says their affair is over. Mary ends up with Martin.