Marguerite Radclyffe Hall’s literary career can be easily divided into two distinct periods. During its first decade, she wrote nothing but the lyrical poetry that several prominent composers set to music. When she turned to fiction, she soon became a prizewinning novelist and then one of the first proponents of “sexual inversion,” as she termed her own lesbianism and that of her characters.
The early life of Radclyffe Hall paralleled that of Stephen Gordon, the protagonist of her novel The Well of Loneliness. The daughter of Radclyffe and Mary Jane Radclyffe-Hall, Hall spent her childhood on her father’s country estate. Her father’s death left her a large inheritance on her seventeenth birthday. She remained, however, under the guardianship of her unstable mother and Italian stepfather, both of whom apparently abused her physically and emotionally. Educated at King’s College, London, and in Germany, Hall turned naturally to writing as a career (she wrote her first poem when she was three). In spite of her “sexual inversion,” her later personal life was happy. She and Lady Una Troubridge, who called her “John,” lived together for thirty years until Hall’s death from cancer in 1943.
Hall first turned to fiction, at the suggestion of her publisher, with an innocuous social comedy, The Forge. Her second novel, The Unlit Lamp, details the triangular relationship of mother, daughter, and governess, hinting at unconscious incestuous feelings on the part of the mother and at an unconsummated lesbian relationship between the daughter and governess. This novel was followed by the bleak but prizewinning Adam’s Breed, the story of a sensitive headwaiter, which established Hall’s reputation.
The Well of Loneliness is the story of Stephen Gordon, a “sexual invert” who was named for the son for whom her parents had hoped and reared as a tomboy by a doting father. Stephen possesses a masculine appearance (wide shoulders and narrow hips) that she accentuates by wearing tailored trouser suits. Rejected by her mother after a disastrous first love affair, Stephen becomes a widely admired novelist as well as a war hero; serving in an ambulance corps in World War I, she receives a wound which leaves a scar on one cheek, a figurative “mark of Cain” which sets her apart from “normal” society. She falls in love with naïve Mary Llewellyn, takes her on an extended “honeymoon,” establishes their household, and then surrenders her to a man whose heterosexuality promises a more normal existence than Stephen’s lesbianism can give her.
The Well of Loneliness quickly became a cause célèbre. All copies of the first British printing were ordered destroyed because of the work’s portrayal of “unnatural and depraved” relationships and its insistence that lesbianism was not the fault of the person who suffered from it. The American Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to have the book censored in the United States as well, but a United States court ruled that the fictional treatment of homosexuality per se was not necessarily indecent and the book was therefore not pornographic. Following this ruling, a second edition of the novel appeared. Literary figures took sides in the dispute. In negating any potential happiness for Stephen Gordon, Hall in effect surrenders to the prevailing homophobia of her era. Critics agree that despite its obvious flaws The Well of Loneliness, as an early lesbian novel, is important for students of literature.
With the exception of Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself, Hall’s later works avoided controversial themes. Hall’s devout Christianity became apparent in her last two books, The Master of the House, which Hall regarded as her best novel, and The Sixth Beatitude. In its portrayal of the family of Christophe Benedit, The Master of the House called into question for many critics the propriety of treating the Holy Family in a literary work. The Sixth Beatitude depicts an unmarried woman with two...
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