Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) is best known as the author of the controversial lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness. Court cases led to the book being banned in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The American verdict was overturned on appeal, but the book remained unpublished in the United Kingdom until 1949.
Radclyffe Hall was born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall on August 12, 1880, at Christchurch, Bournemouth, England. In later life she was called John by her friends and M. Radclyffe Hall or simply Radclyffe Hall in her books. Her mother, Marie, was American and her father, Radclyffe Radclyffe Hall—or Rat-was British. Her parents divorced in 1882 and Marie remarried a musician, Albert Visetti, whom Radclyffe Hall did not like.
Hall's first romantic attachment was to a singer called Agnes Nicholls, who boarded with her mother. After she came of age and inherited her grandfather's considerable fortune, Hall visited her American family and developed close friendships with her cousins Jane Randolph and Dorothy Diehl. Hall claimed that she was never in the slightest attracted to men.
Hall wrote poetry from an early age. Her first volume of poems, 'Twixt Earth and Stars, was published in 1906. However, at that time, her main interests were hunting and travel. On August 22, 1907, at the German spa of Homburg, Hall met Mabel Batten, a 50-year-old married woman with a grown daughter. Mabel, or Ladye as her friends called her, had been a renowned beauty and was a keen amateur singer. They became lovers and Batten influenced Hall greatly, encouraging her to pursue her poetry writing. The year 1908 saw the publication of Hall's second book, which included "Ode to Sapho." Her third volume came out a year later. When Batten's husband died in 1910, the two women made a home together. Hall's fourth poetry anthology was dedicated to Batten. More volumes of poetry followed.
Batten introduced Hall to lesbian society and to Catholicism. Hall began to develop a masculine image, wearing tailored jackets and stiff collars. They both remained in England during World War I (1914-18) due to Batten's ill health. Hall began to try writing fiction.
In 1915, Hall met Una Troubridge and the two women began a relationship that was to last the rest of her life. Troubridge was a professional artist with a young daughter named Andrea and was married to a naval captain, Ernest Troubridge. This affair caused an uneasy situation between Batten, Troubridge, and Hall, until Batten died in 1916.
After Batten's death, Hall and Troubridge developed an interest in spiritualism and began attending seances with a medium, Mrs. Osborne Leonard. They believed that Batten's spirit gave them advice. Sir Oliver Lodge a member of the Royal Society and former president of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), encouraged the two women to write a research paper about their seances. However, Batten's daughter complained to the SPR that the women's relationship affected their research methods.
In 1919, Troubridge and her husband agreed to a legal separation, allowing her and Hall to organize more settled domestic arrangements. Hall returned to novel writing, starting the book that would be published as The Unlit Lamp. However, Hall's problems were not over. In 1920, George Lane Fox Pitt, a member of the SPR, accused Hall and Troubridge of writing an "immoral" paper after talking with Troubridge's husband. Hall and Troubridge sued for slander and won a close victory.
In 1923, Hall acquired a literary agent, Audrey Heath. She began work on The Forge, which was published by Arrowsmith in 1924. This sold well and Cassell agreed to publish The Unlit Lamp. A Saturday Life, her third novel, was released on April 1, 1925, with a jacket designed by Troubridge. Hall started to write Adam's Breed, which was published by Russell Doubleday in the U.S.
Adam's Breed was released on March 4, 1926 and received favorable reviews. In early July, Hall completed the short story "Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself," which dealt with homosexuality. Twelve days later she began writing Stephen, the novel that became The Well of Loneliness.
The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness, a tragic novel about the life of a lesbian, conveys the message that lesbians cannot help being what they are and are unfairly persecuted by society. Hall researched scientific theories about homosexuality, especially those of Havelock Ellis, an English psychologist who believed that homosexuality was "congenital." She had trouble finding a publisher, eventually persuading Jonathan Cape to release it in the United Kingdom and Alfred Knopf in the United States.
The Well of Loneliness appeared in 1928. Initial sales and reviews were good. Then on Sunday, August 19, the Sunday Express printed a damning article labeling it immoral; "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul." The book became headline news and sales rocketed. On Wednesday, August 22, the Home Secretary instructed Cape to stop the book or face legal proceedings for obscenity. U.K. publication stopped, but Cape began printing it in Paris. Nevertheless, uneasy American publishers halted the scheduled U.S. October release.
On October 4, Dover customs officers seized a shipment of the novel bound for London. They released the books on the 18th, but only so that the Metropolitan Police could use Lord Campbell's Obscene Publications Act of 1857 to confiscate and destroy copies in shops and at Cape's Bedford Square office.
The courts were packed for the trial. Hall was not asked to stand in the witness box and the presiding magistrate disallowed all but the first expert witness for the defense on the grounds that opinions were not evidence. He decided for the prosecution, saying that the book's subject matter was obscene. A December appeal failed to overturn the verdict.
However, the book continued to sell well in France. In America, the Covici Friede imprint was similarly seized by New York Police and charges brought. The verdict of the first trial was that the book was obscene, but an appeal reversed the verdict.
Despite her disappointment, Hall started work on a new novel, published in 1932 as The Master of the House. Hall's writing was heavily influenced by Catholicism; in this novel the hero dies by crucifixion. Oddly, while writing it, Hall claimed to have developed stigmata in her hands. The book sold well initially, but reviews were disappointing. In 1934, a collection of short stories called Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself was released but, reviews were slightly disappointing.
At this time Hall met Evgenia Souline, a Russian nurse hired when Troubridge contracted enteritis while on holiday. Hall and Souline embarked on an affair that lasted until shortly before Hall's death. This relationship caused unhappiness for Troubridge, who remained with her nonetheless. Hall's health deteriorated in 1943 and an examination revealed that she had cancerof the rectum. Operations were unsuccessful and she died in London on October 6, after several painful months. She was watched over by Troubridge, her faithful companion until the end.
Further Reading on Radclyffe Hall
Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: A Life of Radclyffe Hall. Hamish Hamilton Ltd., 1985.
Troubridge, Una. The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall. Hammond and Hammond 1961.