The Well of Loneliness - A Book Review

We have all heard about and likely read The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, and other classics in the Western canon. While these books are clearly admirable works of art, have you noticed that our canon only includes heteronormative books?

We need more books that represent a wide variety of experiences, rather than just white cis straight experiences. I’m not arguing that the “classics” should get dumped in lieu of other books, no way! These beautiful reads are classics for a reason.

I’m suggesting that we add books to the traditional “classic” canon that represent more than just the hegemonic groups in society. 

Some people are fearful of mixing the canon with “identity politics”, but the classics have always been centered around white identity politics, it is just invisible since it is considered the norm. 

There are so many wonderful books in this world that go beyond our typical expectations of literature and they should be shared! Lesser known books don’t diminish anything, instead they enhance our understanding of the world! 

One book I would suggest is The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. It’s a 1920’s classic of Lesbian fiction. First, it is important to acknowledge that this book does lack racial diversity, which is disappointing. 

Rather, Hall decides to write about issues related to her own life, tackling the multiplicative elements of lesbian existence, an identity that rarely gets a voice. 

It is definitely a dense read with a lot of purple prose, but in my opinion it is so worth it! The plot and content is vastly different from other books I’ve read from this time period. 

The story follows Stephen Gordan, an English Woman, and her life from childhood to adulthood as she tries to find love and accept herself. 

It begins almost like a fairytale with glorifying depictions of nature, the romance thriving between her parents, and the idealization of their quaint cottage, Morton, in the countryside. 

However, their daughter, Stephen, quickly ruins the perfect image her parents had set up, as she resists conforming to femininity. 

It becomes clear that Stephen does not fit into the constructed gender binary. She wants to engage in masculine activities and desires romantic intimacy with other women. 

Stephen’s crisis of identity is debated upon by academics, many arguing that if she had access to the terms we do today, she may have embraced “She, They” or “They, Them” pronouns. 

There is drama, scandal, and scenes filled to the brim with grief. I may have cried once or twice...this book is not for the faint of heart! 

The end of the book had me ranting to my roommate for over half an hour. It wrecked me. 

It was published in 1928, yet the experiences represented throughout Stephen’s life parallel the modern struggle today as we fight for an inclusive society regarding gender and sexuality. 

I was fascinated by the eloquent language and complex depictions of Stephen’s selfhood. I highly recommend you check it out! 

I will leave you with a quote from the book, 

“For the spirit of Morton would be part of her then, and would always remain somewhere deep down within her, aloof and untouched by the years that must follow, by the stress and the ugliness of life...Then that part of Stephen that she still shared with Morton would know what it was to feel terribly lonely, like a soul that wakes up to find itself wandering, unwanted, between the spheres” (35).

If you would like to learn more about expanding the traditional western canon, I recommend taking ENG 3334: U.S. Multi-Ethnic Literature. I took this class with Dr, Ji-Young Um and learned a lot as a white woman. 

If you would like to read The Well of Loneliness and other similar books through a classroom setting, I would take ENG 3004: Literature, Gender, and Sexuality with Dr. Jennifer McFarlane Harris. This is where I was introduced to this book and its deep implications.