Book Review · Gender · Reading · Sexuality · Writing

Gender & Sexuality in “The Well of Loneliness”

Only in recent years has the recognition – and respect – of ‘sexual inversion’ begun to emerge; sexual inversion “was the medical term used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to explain the phenomenon of homosexuality”[1] as an innate reversal of gender traits. To elaborate, the female invert was inclined to stereotypically male behaviours and clothing and vice versa. The concept of female inversion and the associated masculine traits was extensively studied first by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who viewed homosexuality as an illness and saw inversion as degenerative. It was then considered in even vaster depth by Havelock Ellis, “who insisted on viewing ‘sexual inversion’ as ‘a congenital anomaly’ rather than as a pathology or sickness”[2].

With the publication of The Well of Loneliness in 1928, lesbian author Radclyffe Hall “called for sympathy and understanding for the third sex of inverts such as herself, trapped in the wrong body, who could not help their condition”[3] and “the topic of inversion became highly publicised”[4]. In “the first English novel to provide a literary case study of female sexual inversion”[5], Hall “represents its female protagonist, Stephen Gordon, as an invert: the figure representing a third or intermediate sex”[6], with her masculine traits and loathing of feminine attire. “Stephen cannot find personal happiness since her tragic fate is to embody and articulate the crippling burden of social exclusion and denial that lesbians must bear”[7], whilst bearing a strong similarity to one of Krafft-Ebing’s case studies. Hall establishes an image of the “true” lesbian which had a deep prescriptive impact on its lesbian readers. Many of these readers, amongst feminist critics, see Hall’s novel as an implicit condemnation of homosexuality and a confirmation of heterosexual ideology. Alternatively, many have asserted:


“that The Well of Loneliness was important not because it cemented a single model of lesbianism grounded in a medical discourse, but because it’s very depiction of such a model created the space to challenge, debate and posit alternative lesbianisms.”[8]


In other words, Hall’s novel presented the opportunity to question and theorise ideas of homosexuality which had since been victim of discrimination, perhaps as a result of a lack of understanding. The novel deals with the turmoil and anguish felt by homosexual women in the 1920s in a way that other novels of the time (such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando) skirted around or simply alluded to. Hall writes candidly about the passions and behaviours of Stephen and her friends, but is never salacious or gratuitous. Lines describing Stephen’s emotions, such as how she “longed to be William Tell, or Nelson”[9], demonstrating Hall’s contemplation of “the psychiatric tenor of the time in propagating the myth that gay women were men trapped in female bodies.” [10] Even “Stephen’s first name indicates she has a male soul trapped in a female body”[11] and “she adored her father”[12] whilst feeling “strangely shy”[13] with her mother, who is the epitome of femininity. She prefers wearing trousers to dresses and would rather learn fencing as opposed to the social etiquette most other girls learn.

Details of the story of female sexual invert Stephen Gordon, in the novel, depict same-sex desire as an inborn, God-given, and potentially righteous characteristic; despite the fact Stephen’s love with Mary Llewellyn is defaced by social seclusion and rejection, which Hall illustrates as having devastating consequences on inverts. Developing on the congenital inversion theories of the contemporary sexologists, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, Hall created an original expression of an affirmative lesbian identity and fought, sans apology, for the invert’s entitlement to love. Some have argued that it was “Richard von Krafft-Ebing, not Radclyffe Hall, [who] essentially developed the sensitive characterisations and story-line upon which the success of The Well of Loneliness so strongly depended.”[14] His insights, which were fashioned by case histories, were noticeably assumed by Hall to good advantage.

[1] Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity, (Duke University Press, 1998) p 76

[2] David Glover & Cora Caplan, Genders, (Routledge, 2009) p 117

[3] Cosslett, Alison Easton, Penny Summerfield, Women, Power and Resistance, (McGraw Hill Education, 1996) p 177

[4] Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity, (Duke University Press, 1998) p 75

[5] David Clifford, Elisabeth Wadge, Alex Warwick, Martin Willis, Repositioning Victorian Sciences: Shifting Centres in Nineteenth-century Scientific Thinking, (Anthem Press, 2006)  p 205

[6] Joseph Bristow, Sexuality, (Routledge, 2011) p 47

[7] David Glover & Cora Kaplan, Genders, (Routledge, 2009) p 139

[8] Alison Oram & Annmarie Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain From 1780-1970, (Routledge, 2013) p 183

[9] Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, (Virago Press, 1982) p 13

[10] Richard Barrios, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, (Psychology Press, 2003) p 16

[11] Joseph Bristow, Sexuality, (Routledge, 2011) p 47

[12] Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, (Virago Press, 1982) p 10

[13] Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, (Virago Press, 1982) p 7

[14] William Fitzgerald, “The Well of Loneliness”: Sources and Inspiration, (Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 1978) p 52


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