Radclyffe Hall (Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall, 12 August 1880 – 7 October 1943) was an English writer.
After her parents’ divorce, in 1883, when she was three, Radclyffe rarely saw her father. Her mother remarried in 1890, to a man Radclyffe instantly disliked. Her biographer, Michael Baker, claims that her mother’s third husband, the singing teacher Alberto Visetti, seems to have made sexual advances towards Radclyffe when she was a child.
Neglected by her mentally unstable mother, Radclyffe was tutored at home by a series of governesses, and developed a strong interest in horses and motor cars. Later, she briefly attended King’s College, London, and spent a year in Dresden. At twenty-one, she inherited a large sum of money from her paternal grandfather and was finally able to leave their mother’s house.
Radclyffe believed to be a man trapped in a woman’s body and, borrowing the terminology adopted by the early 20th-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, described herself as a ‘congenital invert’: a type of inborn gender reversal where women could be born with a masculine soul and vice versa. In her twenties, she started to cultivate a masculine appearance, close-cropped hair, tailored jackets, monocles, and bow-ties.
Radclyffe wrote poetry from an early age, and published her first volume of poems, ‘Twixt Earth and Stars, in 1906. One year later, on August 22nd, 1907, while staying in a spa town in Germany, she met the amateur singer Mabel Veronica Batten, a married woman twenty-five years her senior. The two fell in love and started an affair.
Batten encouraged Hall to write and publish, and introduced her to lesbian society. In 1908, Hall published her second poetry collection, A Sheaf of Verses, which included an “Ode to Sapho”.
After Batten’s husband died, in 1910, the two started to live together. Besides being instrumental to Hall’s development as a writer, Batten introduced her to Catholicism, a religion Radclyffe would embrace for the rest of her life. Batten also nicknamed her as ‘John’, a name Radclyffe then adopted socially.
While living together, Hall met Batten’s cousin, the sculptor Una Vicenzo (Lady Troubridge), also a married woman at the time. The two became lovers in 1915. Batten died a year later, in 1916, and Radclyffe had her corpse embalmed with a silver crucifix blessed by the pope. They also began attending seances with a medium, seeking to contact Batten’s spirit, and became a lifelong adherent of spiritualism (combined with Catholicism).
In 1918, Radclyffe and Una began living together, and a year later, in 1919, Una and her husband agreed to a legal separation. Una’s husband described Radclyffe as a “grossly immoral woman”, and Radclyffe then sued him for libel, which she won in 1920. She and Una stayed together as a couple until Hall’s death, and their relationship survived Hall’s numerous love affairs, including a nine-year relationship with a Russian nurse, Evguenia Souline, in the 1930s.
In 1924, Radclyffe published The Forge, a fictionalized portrait of the American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, and The Unlit Lamp, a novel centred on a girl who dreams of going to college and setting up a ‘Boston marriage’ with her tutor Elizabeth. A Saturday Life (1925), her third book, follows a girl who starts to feel a desire for an older spinster. The short story “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” written in 1926 but only published in 1934, also centres on woman who has no interest in a conventional marriage.
Hall’s fourth novel, Adam’s Breed (1926), centred on a disillusioned misfit member of the Lost Generation, won the 1926 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. The Master of the House (1932), and The Sixth Beatitude (1936) would also explore outcasts and misfits and their search for spiritual transcendence.
Radclyffe and Una moved between a succession of homes in London, Sussex, Paris, and Florence, and mixed with a cosmopolitan circle which included E. F. Benson, Colette, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Romaine Brooks, and Natalie Barney.
In 1928, Hall published her most famous novel, The Well of Loneliness, which, according to her, summed up all she had to say about inversion. A month after its publication, James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, started a campaign to get the book banned, and the Home Office pressed the publisher, Jonathan Cape, to withdraw the novel. As a result of the publicity, the book sold rapidly, and several writers protested against its banning: Arnold Bennett, Vera Brittain, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, among others.
On a letter from August 30th 1928 to Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf wrote:
“For many days I have been so dejected by society that writing has only been a dream—something another woman did once. What has caused this irruption I scarcely know—largely your friend Radclyffe Hall (she is now docked of her Miss owing to her proclivities). They banned her book; and so Leonard and Morgan Forster began to get up a protest, and soon we were telephoning and interviewing and collecting signatures—not yours for your proclivities are too well known. In the midst of this, Morgan goes to see Radclyffe in her tower in Kensington, with her Love [Lady Troubridge]: and Radclyffe scolds him like a fishwife, and says that she won’t have any letter written about her book unless it mentions the fact that it is a work of artistic merit—even genius. And no one has read her book; or can read it: and now we have to explain this to all the great signed names—Arnold Bennett and so on. So our ardour in the cause of freedom of speech gradually cools, and instead of offering to reprint the masterpiece, we are already beginning to wish it unwritten.”
To which Vita Sackville-West replied the following day:
“I feel very violently about The Well of Loneliness. Not on account of what you call my proclivities; not because I think it is a good book; but really on principle… Because, you see, even if the W. of L. had been a good book, – even if it had been a great book, a real masterpiece, – the result would have been the same. And that is intolerable. I really have no words to say how indignant I am. Is Leonard really going to get up a protest? or is it all fizzling out?”
When the trial took place, on November 16th 1928, the chief magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ordered that all copies should be destroyed, and argued that the literary merit of the book was irrelevant to the judgement on its obscenity.
The American verdict was overturned on appeal, but the book remained unpublished in the United Kingdom until 1949. Radclyffe published two more novels after the banning of The Well of Loneliness. The Master of the House (1932) follows a protagonist who dies by crucifixion (and, while writing it, Hall claimed to have developed stigmata in her hands). The Sixth Beatitude (1936) centres on a group of poor people living on a village. In 1934, Hall also published her short-story collection Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself.
In the 1930’s, Radclyffe held increasingly fascist and antisemitic views. Una, Radclyffe, and Evguenia Souline (Radclyffe’s Russian lover) were living together in Florence, and were forced by the outbreak of WWII to leave Italy.
Soon after they settled in Devon, Radclyffe developed colon cancer. She died in 1943, at age sixty-three.
- 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)
- The Sixth Beatitude (1936)
- Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934)
- ‘The World’ and Other Unpublished Works by Radclyffe Hall, edited by Jana Funke (2016)
- Twixt Earth and Stars (1906)
- A Sheaf of Verses: Poems (1908)
- Poems of the Past & Present (1910)
- Songs of Three Counties and Other Poems (1913)
- The Forgotten Island (1915)
- Rhymes and Rhythms (posthumous, 1948)
- Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall, edited by Joanne Glasgow (1997)
- The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall, by Una Troubridge (1961)
- Radclyffe Hall: a case of obscenity?, by Vera Brittain (1968)
- Radclyffe Hall at the Well of Loneliness: A Sapphic Chronicle, by Lovat Dickson (1975)
- Our Three Selves. The Life of Radclyffe Hall, by Michael Baker (1985)
- Una Troubridge: The Friend of Radclyffe Hall, by Richard Ormrod (1985)
- Noël Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits, by Terry Castle (1996)
- The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, by Diana Souhami (1998)
- Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John, by Sally Cline (1999)
- Radclyffe Hall: A Life in the Writing, by Richard Dellamora (2011)