Reflecting on The Well of Loneliness

‘Noble, accomplished, wealthy, self-sacrificing, and honourable, Stephen Gordon is the perfect hero,’ says Rebecca O’Rourke. But Stephen is a woman, and a lesbian. Here is an indication of the tantalizing complexity of The Well of Loneliness. Banned for obscenity when first published in 1928, The Well is now a bestseller, translated into numerous languages, but it must rank as one of the best known and least understood novels of the twentieth century. It combines the life and times of Stephen Gordon, the novel’s female protagonist, with a plea, directed to God and society, for tolerance towards homosexuality. Stephen Gordon has embodied what it means to be a lesbian for generations of women readers. But, as the perfect hero, she makes for an awkward heroine. Originally published in 1989, herself a novelist, critic, and lesbian, Rebecca O’Rourke examines what makes the figure of Stephen Gordon both infuriating and inspiring to lesbian and non-lesbian readers alike. She details the novel’s fascinating publishing history through an analysis of the motives and preoccupations of previous critics and biographers, many of whom mistakenly saw in The Well of Loneliness a fictional account of Radclyffe Hall’s own life. The novel’s status as the ‘bible of lesbianism’ has been a mixed blessing, often confirming the worst stereotypes of lesbianism, while at the same time ensuring its visibility. Rebecca O’Rourke includes a fascinating survey of reader’s reactions to the book which was still, at the time, so many years after its first publication, the first ‘lesbian’ novel many women picked up.