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 illegitimate children as one of the “pure of heart.” Neither of these later works created the same critical or moral furor as her earlier poetry and prose, and Hall died before she could finish a last novel. This final work was destroyed in manuscript by Lady Troubridge following directions in Hall’s will. After making her literary statement about society’s rejection of those it deems abnormal, Hall retreated into the contented private life of a country gentlewoman, spending her days riding, breeding dogs, collecting antiques, and pursuing psychical research.
Marguerite Radclyffe Hall was born on August 12, 1880, to Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall and Mary Jane Diehl Sager Radclyffe-Hall, an American expatriate from Philadelphia. Hall’s father had inherited a sizable legacy from his own father, a savvy businessman who turned his tuberculosis sanitarium into a highly profitable enterprise.
Hall’s father, not needing to work, left Mary Jane shortly after his daughter’s birth. Mary Jane divorced him and, in 1889, married Alberto Visetti, a voice instructor at the Royal College of Music in London. Mary Jane, hoping that her first child would be a boy, raised her daughter as a boy, often dressing her in male attire and referring to her as John, a name that Hall later adopted. As her writing progressed, Hall dropped her given name and published as Radclyffe Hall.
In her teenage years, Hall inherited a substantial fortune. She entered King’s College in London but left after two terms and spent the next year in Dresden, Germany. Returning to England in 1906, she bought a house in Malvern Wells, Worcestershire. In that year she published her first book of verse and met the socially prominent Mabel Veronica Batten, known as Ladye, a woman a generation older than Hall. Batten became her mentor and, in 1908, her lover.
Batten remained a major factor in Hall’s life until her death from a stroke in 1916. Hall had became infatuated with Batten’s niece, Una Vincenzo Troubridge, and began a sexual relationship with her, causing Batten considerable grief. Her death left Hall and Troubridge feeling terrible guilt, which haunted them until they died.
Hall died in 1943 and was buried beside Batten in Highgate Cemetery. Hall’s tombstone bears the following words from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850): “And if God Choose I Shall But Love Thee Better After Death,” a testimony to the guilt that Hall suffered because of the pain she caused Batten.
Hall’s reputation as a poet and novelist increased in the two decades between the publication of her first verse collection and the publication of Adam’s Breed in 1926. She had verged on revealing her sexuality in much of her earlier writing. In 1927, however, she wrote The Well of Loneliness, a lesbian-themed novel in which she argued for the right of people to be different and to marry those they love, even if the “objects” of their love are of the same gender.
Although The Well of Loneliness is not prurient, its morality was questioned, and it soon became the subject of much controversy. On August 19, 1927, less than one month after its publication, James Douglas, editor of the London Sunday Express, raised questions about the book’s morality and insisted that the British home secretary ban it. Hall’s publisher, Cape, withdrew the novel but arranged for its re-publication in Paris.
Charges brought under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 were lodged against the publisher and a bookseller, Leonard Hill, who had sold copies of the novel smuggled from France. Despite court testimony from numerous literary luminaries, the book was banned in England, not to be published there for twenty-two years. A lawsuit to ban the book in the United States found in Hall’s favor.
In 1934, Hall became infatuated with a Russian nurse named Evguenia Souline, who was hired to care for the ailing Troubridge. Although Hall entered into an affair with Souline that lasted until shortly before Hall’s death, Troubridge, much pained by the relationship, remained loyal to Hall and was at her bedside when Hall succumbed to colon cancer in 1943. In her instructions for distributing her estate, Hall trusted Troubridge to treat Souline equitably.