Special guest post from Averill’s Sex in Modern History class Honors student

Written and researched by Trey Catalano


In the late 19th century, scientists were beginning to explore a groundbreaking field of science dubbed “Sexology.” This new area of study combined psychology, biology, and other natural sciences as a way to explore human sexuality in a more concrete and discernable manner. Sexologists, or those who studied sexology, clearly understood the importance of this topic as they sought to formalize the complex workings of human thought and physiology.

But not all of sexology was so cut and dry. While the works of some sexologists truly sought to further an understanding of human sexuality, the works of sexologists were liable to disparage same-sex desiring people and other marginalized communities. Patients could be confined to asylums or misrepresented so their stories were warped beyond recognition in order to conform with scientific theories and reports. Their patients were slandered, and while some may have found solace in these writings, they still faced a society that held great disdain and bigotry towards anyone who violated important sexual norms.

In order to better understand the impact of this field, today’s podcast will discuss two of the most prominent sexologists, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. Their contributions to the field of sexology were monumental as they tackled stigma and voiced countless controversial theories that radically altered perceptions of sexuality. Their works can be better understood and represented through Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, a book that you could honestly call a lengthy dissertation on sexology. While the title (and the work as whole to be quite honest) may sound depressing, I can assure you that this story was monumental in advancing an understanding of same sex desiring individuals of the time.

I’m Trey, and I’ll be your host as we explore the world of sexology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

*Insert cool music and shovel sounds here*

Starting with the guy whose name I’m still not sure I can pronounce correctly, Richard von Krafft-Ebing was born in 1840 in Manheim, Germany. As a student of medicine who specialized in psychiatry, Krafft-Ebing produced many works, but perhaps none more recognizable than Psychopathia Sexualis. Throughout its twelve editions, this work compiles more than two hundred case studies that demonstrate Krafft-Ebing’s concern with the development of what’s known as the “sexual instinct.” According to Krafft-Ebing, one’s growth from childhood to adulthood followed a general pattern, but certain degenerations could cause development to deviate from this natural course and create what’s known as a “perversion.” This perversion could effectively take the form of any sexual drive that did not conform to exclusively procreative sex: Krafft-Ebing wrote “With opportunity for the natural satisfaction of the sexual instinct, every expression of it that does not correspond with the purpose of nature—i.e., propagation,—must be regarded as perverse.”

Naturally this meant that same sex desiring individuals were targeted by Krafft-Ebing’s theories, and he would devote a considerable amount of his study to same sex desiring individuals. While Krafft-Ebing also dissected notions of sadism, masochism, and fetishism, his work on homosexuality bears the greatest relevance to our current discussions. During his initial writings, Krafft-Ebing was quick to characterize same sex desire as the result of a “hereditary degeneracy,” but he also named masturbation, prepubescent sexuality, and/or debauchery as triggers of the condition as well. Those “afflicted by this perversion” were almost certainly cast in a very negative light: of homosexual men, he claimed, “feminine timidity, frivolity, obstinacy, and weakness of character rule among such individuals,” and of same sex desiring women, he insisted “[same sex desire] may be suspected in females wearing their hair short, or who dress in the fashion of men, or pursue the sports and pastimes of their male acquaintances.”

At the same time, Karl Heinrichs Ulrich proposed his idea of an “urning,” a term that described a soul and body with opposing gender and was derived from Plato’s Symposium. This theory is entirely at odds with Krafft-Ebing’s initial proposals, causing the two of them to butt heads. Krafft-Ebing reported in one iteration of Psychopathia Sexualis: “Ulrichs failed, however, to prove that this certainly congenital and paradoxical sexual feeling was physiological, and not pathological.” So even as Ulrich is saying “maybe I have this an alternative explanation that focuses more on innate desires,” Krafft-Ebing’s initial classifications effectively said “hey, if you’re looking at the same gender and thinking ‘dang that’s hot,’ something’s wrong with you and somewhere in your life you got mega messed up.”

Can’t say I’m a huge fan of Krafft-Ebing’s first works.

But fear not! The forces that may be decided to give him something kind of like a redemption arc.

As Krafft-Ebing published each version of Psychopathia Sexualis, he began to receive letters from those who read his work and corresponded with the sexologist. While his work was initially intended for medical and legal professionals, its titillating content inevitably drew the attention of the lay person and inspired them to share their stories with Krafft-Ebing. By writing on the subject of sexuality, Krafft-Ebing provided a space for same sex desiring individuals to not only feel represented, but also to voice their own feelings and experiences, and be met with validation instead of condemnation. One of his correspondents went so far as to write, “Reading your work has warmed my heart; after all, contempt hurts, especially when one deserves only pity instead.”

 In what now seems like common sense, Krafft-Ebing effectively reported those correspondences as they were written, employing something akin to a taxidermical approach to these new case studies. With each progressive variation, Krafft-Ebing’s understanding of homosexuality fell more into the categorization that Ulrich proposed. By his final edition, Krafft-Ebing seemed to abandon (or at least deemphasize) his pathological approach to homosexuality and championed a considerably radical view that same sex desire “may proceed with the same harmony and satisfying influence as in the normally disposed.”

Yeah that quote doesn’t really sit right with me either, but hey, he was trying to say that homosexual individuals shouldn’t be punished for their intrinsic sexual desires, and I can definitely get on board with that.

So what does Krafft-Ebing do for our insights on sexology? Well firstly, he pretty much pioneered the field. Sure there were some folks who came before him, but Krafft-Ebing was the definitive authority on this subject for years. Organized and written for scientific purposes, sexology without Krafft-Ebing is like physics without Albert Einstein (I think – still not sure how physics works to be totally honest). As mentioned before, Krafft-Ebing also provided an outlet for same sex desiring people to see and be seen, which was an impressive feat for the late nineteenth century and will become especially relevant for our discussion of The Well of Loneliness.

Of course, Krafft-Ebing is not without his faults. This early venture into the world of sexology failed to sufficiently acknowledge the intersectionality of gender, class, and race, and was clearly presented through the eyes of a bourgeois male. This was due in part to the social mores of the time, and Oosterhuis acknowledges the class disparities in his evaluation of Krafft-Ebing’s work, but it cannot separate the fact that Krafft-Ebing was writing from a position as an educated male in a time where masturbation was laid out as a punishable sin and rape was just “male aggression.” Thus, Krafft-Ebing’s work presents a dilemma as it simultaneously paved the way for future sexologists and LGBTQIA+ advocates while also providing the foundation for intolerance as he labeled sexual desires “pathological perversions.”

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you a random fun fact: there’s a movie with the same name of Krafft-Ebing’s seminal work Psychopathia Sexualis. I watched the trailer on YouTube and I gotta say it looks like one of the weirdest horror movies I’ve ever seen. Do what you will with this information.

While it pains me to move away from the guy with a super fun name to pronounce, I’m delighted to introduce Havelock Ellis, our next superstar sexologist. Ellis was a precocious youth, born in England in 1859. He was well known for reading and learning as much as he could possibly get his hands on. Ellis also traveled with his father, a ship captain, across the seas – but when a doctor determined that the climate of India would be too much for sixteen-year-old Ellis, he took up temporary residence in Australia. It was here that he resolved to study human sexuality, a determination that helped mold his intellectual curiosity and compel him to walk the path of a sexologist.

At twenty-one, Ellis enrolled in medical school, although that was far from his only involvement – after seven years, he completed his medical degree while dabbling in writing and politics. Ellis married Edith Lees, but this marriage was distinct from others of the time in the four vows the bride and groom made: firstly, that each would be economically independent; second, that there would be “complete mutual frankness” between them; third, that they would not live permanently under the same roof; and finally, that they would have no children. The reason for these peculiar vows was that Lees was a lesbian, and Ellis possibly impotent – thus, a marriage of necessity, not love, was the foundation for their relationship.

But it was also precisely this marriage that further compelled Ellis to study sexology. Driven by his lack of comprehension on the subject, Ellis began an objective and scientific study of homosexuality and sexual classification in general. Encompassing a broad swathe of topics, Studies in the Psychology of Sex was eventually a seven-volume behemoth that strove to analyze everything from modesty to sexual impulse to masturbation to menstruation – but of course, our focus lies primarily on the content related to the notion of “sexual inversion.” Mirroring Ulrich’s concept of an urning, Ellis’ work on inversion and “sexual inverts” effectively asserts that one’s sexuality was an inborn (or at least primarily inborn) reversal of their outward gender. He writes in volume two of Studies in the Psychology of Sex “Sexual inversion, therefore, remains a congenital anomaly, to be classed with other congenital abnormalities which have psychic concomitants. At the very least such congenital abnormality usually exists as a predisposition to inversion. It is probable that many persons go through the world with a congenital predisposition to inversion which always remains latent and unroused; in others the instinct is so strong that it forces its own way in spite of all obstacles; in others, again, the predisposition is weaker, and a powerful exciting cause plays the predominant part.”

Ellis also made further clarifications on this idea of a predisposition to sexual inversion: “When early masturbation is a factor in producing sexual inversion it usually operates in the manner I have indicated, the repulsion for normal coitus helping to furnish a soil on which the inverted impulse may develop unimpeded.” Ellis also writes specifically on the case of a woman’s sexual inversion, most likely motivated by his wife’s experiences, and he observes that, “In my study of inversion I have found that ignorance and the same absence of tradition are probably factors in the prevalence of homosexual tendencies among women.” So we’re still seeing some lingering notions of external influences on one’s sexuality, but Ellis is making the new assertion that there is such importance of this natural predisposition that external influences are merely relegated as “factors.” Summarizing his findings, Ellis states, “It must always be remembered that profoundly rooted organic impulses cannot be effectually combated by direct methods.”

Wow. Still not quite a modern understanding of sexuality, but definitely one that was challenging societal presumptions at the time. In fact, it challenged them so much that Ellis’ work was banned in Europe and only available to medical professionals in America. And that definitely makes sense – not only was Ellis’ work sexually charged, but he also mentioned that it was likely many people held that congenital predisposition for same sex desire, but it merely went unaroused. Authorities of the time could not have been too pleased with such an assertion.

So again, what does Ellis do for our discussions of sexology? As another pioneer of the field, Ellis took those first steps towards realizing that human sexuality was deeply impacted by genetic and biological influences. By viewing sexual activity as the healthy and natural expression of love, Ellis sought to dissipate the fear and ignorance that characterized many people’s attitudes toward human sexuality. Even with a lack of outward, positive public reception, Ellis made much needed arguments like “same sex desiring people don’t just wake up and choose their sexuality.” Much like Krafft-Ebing’s works, we can derive significant modern criticisms of the proposals and theories found in Ellis’ work, but for his time, Ellis took risks and proposed concepts that would lay the foundation for a more refined future understanding of same sex desire.

Understanding these theories in the field of sexology is imperative to a proper understanding of Radclyffe Hall’s work The Well of Loneliness. A bit of background on the author, Hall was born to a wealthy father in England in 1880. During her life, Hall began to identify as a “congenital invert,” highlighting the prevalence of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis’ work during the late nineteenth century. She would spend most of her twenties pursuing women who she would lose to marriage before falling in love with Mabel Batten. Batten introduced Hall to lesbian society and helped facilitate a number of the experiences that Hall would describe in The Well of Loneliness. After Batten’s death (she was twenty seven years older than Hall), a younger woman named Una Troubridge stole Hall’s heart, and after Troubridge separated from her husband, she moved in with Hall. The two had an… interesting relationship. Hall had an affair with a nurse, much to the dismay of Troubridge, but it was short lived – Hall passed away soon after their affair began in 1943.

Hall’s literary career was extensive, writing on the taboo subject of same sex desiring women in the early twentieth century. The Well of Loneliness is one of her most recognizable works. It follows Stephen Gordon, a woman who follows many of the trends of Hall’s life. As we’ll see, Stephen and her experiences reflect many of the theories on sexual inversion put forth by Krafft-Ebing and Ellis. Without further ado, let’s dive into the novel.

The Well of Loneliness begins before Stephen’s birth, describing the condition of Sir Phillip and Anna Gordon. Their marriage is a rather typical one of the Victorian era, with affluent Phillip owning a vast estate called “Morton.” Upon their daughter’s birth, they decide to christen the child Stephen, a name the two had already chosen when Anna became pregnant.

From a young age, it was clear that Stephen was unlike other girls. Stephen and her father would rough house, their relationship resembling that of a father and son. Anna’s relationship with Stephen was far different. Characterized by instances of gross distaste and a scorn towards Stephen for representing a “caricature of Sir Phillip,” establishing a tense relationship between the two from Stephen’s earliest days.

Stephen’s upbringing, much like herself, was far different from the upbringing of most girls of the time. As mentioned before, Stephen was exceptionally close with her father, and Sir Phillip’s method of childrearing was unlike that of many others at the time. For instance, when learning to ride horseback, Stephen refused to ride side saddle like nearly all other women would. Instead, she opted for the masculine position, despite Anna’s protest: “There had been quite a heated discussion with Anna, because Stephen had insisted on riding astride. In this she had shown herself very refractory, falling off every time she tried the side-saddle—quite obvious, of course, this falling-off process, but enough to subjugate Anna.”

What’s more, Stephen’s childhood friends further highlighted her differences. Unlike her neighbor, Violet Antrim, Stephen detested playing with dolls and attending dances, another stark contrast to the girls of her time. Instead, a great rivalry had spawned between Stephen and Roger Antrim, brother to Violet. The two were constantly trying to outdo one another, which was exemplified in their bickering during hunting trips. The fact that Stephen was invited to these hunting excursions was already a contentious subject – but her prowess and ability, which far surpassed that of Roger, illustrates Stephen’s preeminent masculinity.

After Stephen was awarded a horse brush after her first outing, a hunting trophy awarded to the person with the most impressive hunt, Roger Antrim quipped, “Well now, listen, and I’ll tell you something. You thought they admired you squatting on your pony; you thought you were being very grand, I’ll bet, with your new riding breeches and your black velvet cap; you thought they’d suppose that you looked like a boy, just because you were trying to be one. As a matter of fact, if you really want to know, they were busting their sides; why, my father said so. He was laughing all the time at your looking so funny on that rotten old pony that’s as fat as a porpoise. Why, he only gave you the brush for fun, because you were such a small kid—he said so. He said: “I gave Stephen Gordon the brush because I thought she might cry if I didn’t.”‘ Clearly this instance of Stephen’s attempt to insert herself into a traditionally masculine field was unwelcome, but it offered concrete evidence for Krafft-Ebing and Ellis’ theories on sexual inversion.

Stephen’s early career path was another bombshell for her family to grapple with. Part of her schoolwork focused on athletics, and Stephen felt a strong calling to the art of fencing. One day, she proclaimed “I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris, and I’m going to learn how to lift pianos on my stomach by expanding something—the diapan muscles—and I’m going to cut my hair off!” Without context, this could read like one of the case studies from a Sexologist’s findings.

But in addition to Stephen’s fiery personality, there was her fascination with the housemaid, Collins, that served as an early indicator of Stephen’s same sex desires. At seven years old, Stephen developed what we would now know as a crush on Collins, who was one of the maids who worked on the Morton estate. When Stephen protected Collins from the repercussions of stepping out of line, the maid thanked Stephen with a quick peck on the cheek. Stephen’s reaction is all too telling: “Stephen stood speechless from a sheer sense of joy, all her doubts swept completely away. At that moment she knew nothing but beauty and Collins, and the two were as one, and the one was Stephen—and yet not Stephen either, but something more vast, that the mind of seven years found no name for.” Given time, Stephen would find a name for this indescribable feeling.

At seventeen, a new issue entered the fray: clothing. Just as with everything else, Anna fought against Stephen’s incessant desire to embrace the world of men in an outwardly expression: “These days there was constant warfare between them [meaning Anna and Stephen] on the subject of clothes; quite a seemly warfare, for Stephen was learning to control her hot temper, and Anna was seldom anything but gentle. Nevertheless it was open warfare, the inevitable clash of two opposing natures who sought to express themselves in apparel, since clothes, after all, are a form of self-expression.” Such an instance is especially pertinent to Hall’s experience, as the increasing development of a masculine lesbian identity influenced her life. What we see here is a translation of not only sexual inversion, but of Hall’s experience and the growing style of what would now be dubbed a “butch lesbian identity.”

Even with Stephens precocious youth and her unyielding interest in traditionally masculine affairs, she could not break free of the shackles of her gender. After discussing her difficulties in making friends, Stephen laments that she much prefers the company of men – when they’re not being arrogant pricks: “Could Stephen have met men on equal terms, she would always have chosen them as her companions; she preferred them because of their blunt, open outlook, and with men she had much in common—sport for instance. But men found her too clever if she ventured to expand, and too dull if she suddenly subsided into shyness.” Stephen acutely notes that men preferred women who clung to them, comparing men to oak trees that prefer feminine ivy, neither of which were suited to Stephen the acorn.

Yet Stephen did find a male companion in Martin Hallam, a kind and sensitive man who owned several farms and orchards in what’s now known as Canada. The two hit it off at a dance, which they shared a mutual displeasure of, and before long a bond had formed between them. Whispers and murmurs arose, but those of good natured intrigue: how could Stephen possibly be interested in a man, after her masculine childhood?

The question was seemingly answered when Martin, almost out of the blue, proposed to Stephen. They had no discussion of a relationship or romance, and each time they spoke of friendship. But when Martin proposed, Stephen was shocked and repulsed – she had only wanted a friend, and had no interest in Martin as a partner. After leaving Martin, Stephen reflected on her interactions with the gentleman, but she could not figure out why she felt the way she did: “She had wanted Martin to treat her as a man, had expected it of him…The questions to which she could find no answers, would pile themselves up and up in the darkness; oppressing, stifling by sheer weight of numbers, until she would feel them getting her under; ‘I don’t know—oh, God, I don’t know!’ she would mutter, tossing as though to fling off those questions.” This failed proposal, of course, came to the dismay and confusion of Anna and many others who had hoped Stephen would marry. But if Krafft-Ebing or Ellis were in this book, they would have certainly understood that this was the effect of Stephen’s sexual inversion, pointing to her desire for friendship, not romantic love, with Martin.

Eventually, Stephen was placed under the supervision of a guardian/teacher named Puddle. Throughout the book, it’s clearly referenced that Puddle experiences at least a similar same sex desire to that of Stephen. While Stephen never falls in love with Puddle, their interactions bear a resemblance to Hall’s experiences with Batten, who served as a support for Hall’s exploration of the lesbian underground. Mirroring Batten’s concern with Hall, Puddle became increasingly concerned with Stephen as she struggled to realize and accept her identity: “None knew better the terrible nerves of the invert, nerves that are always lying in wait. Super-nerves, whose response is only equalled by the strain that calls that response into being. Puddle was well acquainted with these things—that was why she was deeply concerned about Stephen.” While Puddle certainly had the opportunity to talk to Stephen, she felt it was Sir Phillip’s job to speak with his daughter. Unfortunately, Sir Phillip died in a hunting accident, and was unable to speak to Stephen before his untimely demise, yet Puddle refuses to take Sir Phillip’s place and conceals her understanding of sexual inversion from Stephen.

Things only get worse after Sir Phillip’s death. Despite Puddle’s disapproval, Stephen falls for Angela Crossby, a new American neighbor who enraptures Stephen during their first meeting. Despite Angela’s marriage to her husband, she begins a kind of casual fling with Stephen as an “anodyne against boredom.” Despite Stephen’s loyalty and generous gifts, Angela is unable to commit to Stephen or separate from her husband, a fact that drives a wedge between their relationship. As the two argue, Stephen finds her emotions running wild: “And now the terrible nerves of the invert, those nerves that are always lying in wait, gripped Stephen. They ran like live wires through her body, causing a constant and ruthless torment, so that the sudden closing of a door or the barking of [a dog] would fall like a blow on her shrinking flesh.” Returning to Krafft-Ebing’s earlier works in particular, this reaction makes sense; same sex desiring individuals were prone to fits of emotional instability, and given who she’s arguing with, Krafft-Ebing’s theories are fully applicable.

Stephen’s physical build also supported theories of sexual inversion, which asserted that the body of a same sex desiring individual would take shape of the inverted gender. After her fight with Angela, “[Stephen] stared at herself in the glass; and even as she did so she hated her body with its muscular shoulders, its small compact breasts, and its slender flanks of an athlete. All her life she must drag this body of hers like a monstrous fetter imposed on her spirit. This strangely ardent yet sterile body that must worship yet never be worshipped in return by the creature of its adoration. She longed to maim it, for it made her feel cruel; it was so white, so strong and so self-sufficient; yet withal so poor and unhappy a thing that her eyes filled with tears and her hate turned to pity. She began to grieve over it, touching her breasts with pitiful fingers, stroking her shoulders, letting her hands slip along her straight thighs—Oh, poor and most desolate body!”

Angela begins to have an affair with none other than Roger Atrim (the annoying kid from Stephen’s childhood). When Stephen walks in to Angela’s home and finds the two in an embrace, she cannot control her emotions and storms out. Fearing the repercussions of her actions, Angela acts in self-preservation: she informs her husband that while it may appear that she’s been cheating on him, it was merely an attempt to show Stephen that Angela was “not a pervert; that I’m not that sort of degenerate creature.’” Furious, Angela’s husband steals the letters Stephen sent his wife, and sends them to Anna Gordon. Anna confronts Stephen with reproach, saying, “All your life I’ve felt very strangely towards you… I’ve felt a kind of physical repulsion, a desire not to touch or to be touched by you—a terrible thing for a mother to feel—it has often made me deeply unhappy. I’ve often felt that I was being unjust, unnatural—but now I know that my instinct was right; it is you who are unnatural, not I… And you have presumed to use the word love in connection with this—with these lusts of your body; these unnatural cravings of your unbalanced mind and undisciplined body—you have used that word. I have loved—do you heart I have loved your father, and your father loved me. That was love.”

In an effort to save face, Anna orders Stephen to leave the Morton estate under the guise of pursuing an education and becoming a writer.

Before Stephen left, she visited her father’s study and inspected the bookcases: “Then she noticed that on a shelf near the bottom was a row of books standing behind the others; the next moment she had one of these in her hand, and was looking at the name of the author: Krafft Ebing—she had never heard of that author before. All the same she opened the battered old book, then she looked more closely, for there on its margins were notes in her father’s small, scholarly hand and she saw that her own name appeared in those notes.” Stephen then cried, “Oh, Father—and there are so many of us—thousands of miserable, unwanted people, who have no right to love, no right to compassion because they’re maimed, hideously maimed and ugly—God’s cruel; He let us get flawed in the making.’” I don’t think I need to go too in to detail here, but clearly Stephen’s reaction to Krafft-Ebing’s work provides an illustration of how some same sex desiring individuals reacted to this material (but keep in mind her socioeconomic status – a wealthy white woman).

At this point, Puddle offers sage council to the dispirited and heartbroken Stephen: “Why, just because you are what you are, you may actually find that you’ve got an advantage. You may write with a curious double insight—write both men and women from a personal knowledge. Nothing’s completely misplaced or wasted, I’m sure of that—and we’re all part of nature. Some day the world will recognize this, but meanwhile there’s plenty of work that’s waiting. For the sake of all the others who are like you, but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good, and I’m here to help you to do it, Stephen.’” With that, the two embark on their journey abroad.

Stephen and Puddle travel to Paris, and their experiences closely mirror those of Hall’s. Much like the author, Stephen begins to more fully explore herself and the budding culture of sexual inverts. But her journey of self reflection is interrupted by a little thing known as World War One. With this large scale conflict bringing about social upheaval, Stephen and other women were determined to aid their countries as ambulance drivers and healthcare workers. Of her service, Stephen claimed “she was strong and efficient, she could fill a man’s place, she could organize too, given scope for her talent. England had said: ‘Thank you very much. You’re just what we happen to want…at the moment.’” That last part, of course, bears an important message. The Great War necessitated many people to take up positions for the betterment of their country, but it doesn’t take a historian to tell you that equal rights for women, let alone lesbian women, would not be secured for decades after this conflict.

During her service, Stephen meets Mary, a young ambulance driver, and after enduring the hardships of war together, they agreed to live together. The thing is, the two had a bit of an uneasy relationship. Stephen struggled to let Mary love her, a byproduct of her own difficult relationship with her same sex desire and her fears of essentially corrupting Mary. As Stephen grappled with their relationship, she frustratingly wondered, “Men—they were selfish, arrogant, possessive. What could they do for Mary Llewellyn? What could a man give that she could not? A child? But she would give Mary such a love as would be complete in itself without children.” In the end, the two got together, and things started off well.

But with a title like The Well of Loneliness, we couldn’t possibly have a happily ever after ending. Stephen returns to her writing, and Mary, now heavily involved in Parisian nightlife, becomes a source of great anxiety for Stephen. She wonders if she made the right choice, embittered and entangled in “a sick misery at her own powerlessness to provide a more normal and complete existence” for Mary. Then, in a cruel, Shakespearian twist of fate, Martin Hallam reinserts himself into Stephen’s life. At first, they amicably reunite, but before long, Mary and Martin begin to fall for one another. Realizing that she has deprived her beloved of a happier life, Stephen decides to concoct a narrative that she is having an affair. Grief stricken and frustrated, the novel ends with Mary running to Martin, as Stephen is left crying out “’God,’ she gasped, we believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!’”

I can’t do this novel justice in the allotted time, but it really tugs at the heart strings if you’re a sucker for stories like these. Regardless of its emotional appeal, The Well of Loneliness obviously incorporates not just the theories from the field of sexology, but its scientists as well. Stephen’s reaction to finding a book by Krafft-Ebing, which was almost certainly Psycopathia Sexualis, offers insights on the reactions that some same sex desiring individuals may have had at the time. And Hall made no shortage of references to the theory of inverted sexuality; everything from Stephen’s personality to her appearance to using the word itself points to The Well’s poignant discussion on and presentation of this concept. The benefits and detriments of sexologists such as Krafft-Ebing and Ellis are laid bare in The Well, and this work serves as a visible representation of the effects that sexology had on same sex desiring individuals.


Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Watford: The Univ. Press, 1900.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness, 1928. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0609021h.html.

Kennedy, Hubert. “Research and Commentaries on Richard Von Krafft-Ebing Nand Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.” Journal of Homosexuality 42, no. 1 (2002): 165–78. https://doi.org/10.1300/j082v42n01_09.

“Psychopathia Sexualis : Richard Von Krafft-Ebing : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, January 1, 1894. https://archive.org/details/PsychopathiaSexualis1000006945/page/n205/mode/2up?q=.

S., H. “Book Review:Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Vol. I., Sexual Inversion. Havelock Ellis; An Unknown People. Edward Carpenter.” Ethics 9, no. 2 (1899): 261. https://doi.org/10.1086/205690.


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