Radclyffe Hall Essay - Critical Essays


Lesbian sexuality and gender expression were the dominant factors in Radclyffe Hall’s life, and the topics pervaded most of her writing directly or indirectly. Hall firmly believed in freedom of choice in human relationships and was ahead of her time in being an advocate for such controversial issues as same-gender marriage.

Society’s disdain for homosexuality dominated Hall’s thinking, and her opinions about this disdain appear in her long fiction as well as in her early poetry. She was familiar with the studies of sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, who argued that homosexuality is congenital—or genetic—rather than a matter of choice. She felt duty-bound to promote this view in her writing.

Although The Well of Loneliness contains Hall’s most forthright sentiments regarding female homosexuality, the theme is present in a more subdued form in her first work of long fiction, The Unlit Lamp, in which a close relationship, covertly homosexual, exists between Joan Ogden and her governess, Elizabeth Rodney. In Victorian England, the setting of this novel, such relationships were common, but their sexual nature was overlooked in a society that shied away from acknowledging sex, especially between women.

In her next novel, The Forge, Hall uses the device of writing about a heterosexual couple in coded language that reveals, to those familiar with that language, that Hilary and Susan Brent are, in actuality, lesbians. The author offers veiled hints throughout the novel of a relationship other than heterosexual.

Hall’s finest work of long fiction, as many critics agree, is Adam’s Breed, in which a fully realized protagonist, Gian-Luca, is Hall’s best-realized character. Although this novel does not have the homosexual overtones of much of Hall’s work, it explores other important themes, those she addresses in much of her writing: isolation, alienation from family, cruelty to animals, the effects of a troubled childhood upon one’s later development, and social persecution.

The Unlit Lamp

The Unlit Lamp is Hall’s first novel, although it was published after The Forge. Hall got the idea to write The Unlit Lamp after observing a spinster caring for her demanding mother at a seaside resort. Hall was appalled by how women, especially single women, are drawn into acting gratis as servants to demanding relatives.

As The Unlit Lamp begins, the adolescent Joan Ogden wants to become a physician. Her governess, Elizabeth Rodney, plans to help her achieve that end by moving to London with her so that Joan can pursue medical studies. Joan has been trapped in the small town to which her mother retreated following the deaths of Joan’s overbearing...

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