Marguerite Radclyffe Hall was born in Bournemouth, Dorset (then in Hampshire) in 1880, to a wealthy philandering father and quarrelsome mother. Lonely while growing up (her parents separated when she was a baby and she was virtually ignored by her mother and stepfather), she was educated at King's College London, and then in Germany.
Hall was a lesbian, and described herself as a "congenital invert", a term taken from the writings of Havelock Ellis and other turn of the century sexologists. Having reached adulthood without a vocation, she spent much of her twenties pursuing women she eventually lost to marriage.
In 1907 at the Homburg spa in Germany, Hall met Mabel Batten, a well-known amateur singer of lieder. Batten (nicknamed "Ladye") was 51 to Hall's 27, and was married with an adult daughter and grandchildren. They fell in love, and after Batten's husband died they set up residence together. Batten gave Hall the nickname John, which she used the rest of her life.
In 1915 Hall fell in love with Mabel Batten's cousin, Una Troubridge (1887-1963), a sculptor who was the wife of an admiral and the mother of a young daughter. Mabel Batten died the following year, and in 1917 Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge began living together. The relationship would last until Hall's death. In 1934 Hall fell in love with Russian émigré Evguenia Souline and embarked upon a long-term affair with her, which Troubridge painfully tolerated. Hall became involved in affairs with other women throughout the years, possibly including blues singer Ethel Waters.
Hall lived in London and, during the 1930s, in the tiny town of Rye, East Sussex with Troubridge. She died at age 63 of colon cancer, and is interred at Highgate Cemetery, London, UK. The vault containing her remains is in the "Circle of Lebanon", half way round from the Egyptian Avenue entrance.
In 1930 Radclyffe Hall received the Gold Medal of the Eichelbergher Humane Award. She was a member of the PEN club, the Council of the Society of Psychical Research and a fellow of the Zoological Society.
Hall's first novel was The Unlit Lamp, the story of Joan Ogden, a young girl who dreams of setting up a flat in London with her friend Elizabeth and studying to become a doctor, but feels trapped by her manipulative mother's emotional dependence on her. Its length and grimness made it a difficult book to sell, so she deliberately chose a lighter theme for her next novel, a social comedy entitled The Forge. While she had used her full name for her early poetry collections, she shortened it to M. Radclyffe Hall for The Forge. The book was a modest success, making the bestseller list of John O'London's Weekly. The Unlit Lamp, which followed it into print, was the first of her books to give the author's name simply as Radclyffe Hall.
There followed another comic novel, A Saturday Life (1925), and then Adam's Breed (1926), a novel about an Italian headwaiter who, becoming disgusted with his job and even with food itself, gives away his belongings and lives as a hermit in the forest. The book's mystical themes have been compared to Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. It sold very well, was critically acclaimed, and won both the Prix Femina and the James Tait Black Prize, a feat previously achieved only by E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.
The Well of Loneliness
- For more details on this topic, see The Well of Loneliness.
Hall is best known for The Well of Loneliness, the only one of her eight novels to have overt lesbian themes. Published in 1928, The Well of Loneliness deals with the life of Stephen Gordon, a masculine lesbian who, like Hall herself, identifies as an invert. Although Gordon's attitude toward her own sexuality is anguished, the novel presents lesbianism as natural and makes a plea for greater tolerance.
Although The Well of Loneliness is not sexually explicit, it was nevertheless the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK, which resulted in all copies of the novel being ordered destroyed. The United States allowed its publication only after a long court battle. It is currently published in the UK by Virago, and by Anchor Press in the United States.
Radclyffe Hall was listed at number sixteen in the top 500 lesbian and gay heroes in The Pink Paper, September 26, 1997 edition, issue 500. The Well of Loneliness was number seven on a list of the top 100 lesbian and gay novels compiled by The Publishing Triangle in 1999.
An anonymous verse lampoon entitled The Sink of Solitude appeared during the controversy over The Well. Although its primary targets were James Douglas, who had called for The Well's suppression, and the Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks, who had started legal proceedings, it also mocked Hall and her book. One of the illustrations, which depicted Hall nailed to a cross, so horrified her that she could barely speak of it for years afterward. Her guilt at being depicted in a drawing that she saw as blasphemous led to her choice of a religious subject for her next novel, The Master of the House.
At Hall's insistence, The Master of the House was published with no cover blurb, which may have misled some purchasers into thinking it was another novel about inversion. Advance sales were strong, and the book made #1 on the Observer's bestseller list, but it received poor reviews in several key periodicals, and sales soon dropped off. In the United States reviewers treated the book more kindly, but shortly after the book's publication, all copies were seized—not by the police, but by creditors. Hall's American publisher had gone bankrupt. Houghton Mifflin took over the rights, but by the time the book could be republished, its sales momentum was lost.
The Girls of Radclyffe Hall
The British composer and bon-vivant Gerald Berners, also the 14th Lord Berners, wrote a roman à clef The Girls of Radclyffe Hall, in which he depicts himself and his circle of friends, including Cecil Beaton and Oliver Messel, as lesbian schoolgirls at a school named Radclyffe Hall. The indiscretions made in this novel (which was published and distributed privately) created an uproar among Berners' intimates and acquaintances, making the whole affair highly discussed in the 1930s. The novel subsequently disappeared from circulation, making it an extremely rare book among collectors of gay literature. Rumour has it that Beaton bought all the already scarce copies of the book and destroyed them.
- The Forge (1924)
- The Unlit Lamp (1924)
- A Saturday Life (1925)
- Adam's Breed (1926)
- The Well of Loneliness (1928)
- The Master of the House (1932)
- Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934)
- The Sixth Beatitude (William Heineman Ltd, London, 1936)
- The Forgotten Island (London : Chapman & Hall,1915)
- Dedicated to Sir Arthur Sullivan (England : s.n., 1894)
- A Sheaf Of Verses : Poems (London : J. And E. Bumpus, 1908)
- Twixt Earth And Stars (London : John And Edward Bumpus Ltd., 1906)
- Poems Of The Past & Present (London : Chapman And Hall, 1910)
- Songs Of Three Counties And Other Poems (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd. 1913)
- Rhymes and Rhythms (Milan, 1948)
- Baker, M. (1985). Our Three Selves. The Life of Radclyffe Hall (New York: William Morrow)
- Cline, Sally. (1999) Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John (Overlook Press)
- Souhami, Diana (1998). The Trials of Radclyffe Hall (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
- Troubridge, Una (1961): The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall (London: Hammond)
- Cline, 58-67.
- Hall's letters to Souline were published in Glasgow, Joanne (ed.) (1997). Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-3125-2.
- Tina Gianoulis, "Ethel Waters", GLBTQ: An encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, transgender and queer culture.
- Biographical note in the Virago Press edition of The Well of Loneliness.
- Baker, 152-156.
- Baker, 164.
- Baker, 168.
- Baker, 183-186.
- Baker, 196-197.
- The Publishing Triangle's list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels
- Baker, 257; Cline, 280.
- Baker, 275-276.
- Baker, 279-280.
- Guardian story: Lesbian novel was 'danger to nation'
- Radclyffe Hall The Knitting Circle: Literature
- Hall, Radclyffe From the Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Culture
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