Marguerite Radclyffe Hall jeopardized her literary career when she published The Well of Loneliness, a beautifully crafted novel, in 1928. As fearless with her pen as Amelia Earhart was with her plane, Hall endowed Loneliness’s heroine and narrator, Stephen Gordon, with two attributes Hall shared: invert and successful novelist.
Loneliness begins with an account of Stephen’s parents’ romance and early years of marital bliss. The pair settle into a life of ease at Morton, the husband’s ancestral estate in the English countryside. All that is lacking is a son. After years of praying for an heir, the next best thing, a daughter, whom they christen Stephen, arrives. It soon becomes clear that the girl who arrived in the wished-for boy’s stead wishes she were a boy, too.
Stephen’s better-educated father learns to accept this, but her unschooled mother struggles.
In Stephen’s late teens, a young Canadian, Hallam, arrives at Morton. Stephen and Hallam discover they have much in common—a love of nature, an appreciation of literature, a love of horses—and soon become inseparable. Stephen is thrilled. For the first time in her young existence she has found a young person who accepts her as she is and doesn’t view her as a freak. Stephen’s parents begin to hope. Perhaps their daughter has found a mate.
But when Hallam proposes marriage, Stephen is repelled. More importantly, her different way of being becomes clear to her: she does not and cannot feel the way her mother feels towards her father. But she could feel that way towards another woman.
Her rejected suitor sails home to Canada. Stephen’s father and champion dies. Stephen begins her first romantic affair. Her choice is unfortunate—an impetuous, opportunistic actress, now married to a wealthy, highly-covetous man. Poor Stephen falls hard. She can’t see how she is just the actress’s toy. Soon she learns that the actress is an equal-opportunity adulteress. Worse, Stephen’s new rival is the boy who tormented Stephen during her childhood. Stephen pens a passionate letter pleading with the actress to give up this additional attachment. The actress then presents Stephen’s letter to her husband. She claims Stephen is mad; the so-called love affair is completely one-sided; she never welcomed the pitiable Stephen’s advances; now the strange woman wants to blackmail her.
Stephen’s mother learns of her daughter’s actions and what love she still had for Stephen sours to revulsion. Stephen flees her beloved Morton. The people there do not welcome her kind.
Now she understands that romantic fulfillment, like that between her parents, will not be easy for her to have. She will never be able to love whom she wishes (a woman) without ridicule. Possibly she will not be able to love without danger.
She exiles herself to the anonymous big city—first to London and then to Paris—and begins to meet other “abnormals.” In Paris, she becomes a successful novelist.
World War I breaks out and Stephen returns to England and signs on with an all-women ambulance corps. Soon she is agitating for the chance to serve closer to the battlefield. This is the moment for her kind to prove their worthiness to God and England. Eventually the generals grant her wish: the corps is sent to France. There, Stephen becomes smitten with her beautiful and penniless sister corps member Mary Llewellyn. She proceeds along the road of romance cautiously, remembering how she was burned in love before, but Mary reciprocates her feelings. The two become one. Armistice Day arrives and gallant Stephen carries Mary off to her Parisian refuge.
The two set up house, but life as a lesbian couple is difficult. They are rejected by many as freaks. Strangers stare at Stephen for her mannish appearance. Many are confounded by the lovely Mary’s attraction to the lumbering woman parading as a man. Although a very generous employer, behind her back Stephen is mocked by the servants for having short hair and wearing ties. A noose is tightening around the couple. They have been sentenced to a segregated life populated almost exclusively by those like themselves—inverts and “abnormals.”
Re-enter Hallam. Threatened with blindness from a war injury, he ventured to Paris, where a celebrated eye surgeon restored his sight. Hallam and Stephen reconnect; Hallam and Mary are introduced; Hallam falls for Mary and Mary becomes infatuated with Hallam. But Mary is torn because she still loves Stephen.
Unbeknownst to Mary, her two suitors engage in a gentlemanly battle to win Mary’s affections. Stephen appears to be winning. Hallam prepares to set sail for Canada. But then remorse overcomes Stephen. The future is bleak for the woman she loves. How can she condemn Mary to the invert’s misery? She fears that eventually the “normal” majority’s scorn will crush Mary’s spirit and leave her an embittered woman. Meanwhile, Hallam offers Mary things Stephen can’t. Normalcy. Acceptability. Children.
Stephen stages an affair with a lesbian of their acquaintance. Mary, crushed by Stephen’s rejection, flees—straight into Hallam’s arms. Stephen watches out her window as the heterosex lovers disappear around the corner. Her cries for the woman she loves to return echo off the pavements.
Loneliness ends with the image of Stephen as the inverts’ messiah—nobly sacrificing all to insure happiness for the woman she loves. She is the one her people have been waiting for.