Back in the Day: Emerging from “The Well of Loneliness”

 
 

Hall herself lived openly as a lesbian, dressing in men’s clothing and sporting a short haircut. Born as Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe-Hall in 1880 to an American mother, Marie Diehl, and an English father who left before she was born, Hall preferred to be called John.

At 21, Hall inherited her paternal grandfather’s fortune and began a lifetime of traveling to the European continent.

Author Radclyffe Hall

At 28, she met Mabel Veronica Batten, known as “Ladye,” who encouraged her to publish her writing and converted her to Catholicism. She and Ladye lived together until Ladye died until 1915.

Shortly before that, Ladye introduced Hall to her cousin, Una, Lady Troubridge, who was at the time the young wife of the elderly Admiral Ernest Troubridge. Hall and Una soon became lovers and stayed together until Hall died of stomach cancer in 1943 in London. Afterward, Una became the chief steward of Hall’s papers and even wrote a biography about her (The Life of Radclyffe Hall).

But despite being part of Paris’s lesbian society and having a substantial financial cushion in the form of her inheritance, Hall’s life with Una was not without its troubles. In 1934 she met Evguenia Souline, a 30-year-old Russian émigré, who became her lover.

She, Una, and Evguenia maintained a difficult triangular relationship until Hall’s death.

At the time of the publication of The Well of Loneliness, which Hall intended to be a portrait of an invert, she had already written several well-received novels. Many critics argue that Hall’s 1924 novel The Unlit Lamp, which contains a more muted lesbian storyline, is her best work; her 1926 novel Adam’s Breed was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina Vie Heureuse.

But Hall will always be known for writing The Well of Loneliness, in part because of the sensationalistic nature of the obscenity trial that followed.

Forced to sell her London home to pay for the trial, Hall stood by her work, and several notable writers were prepared to testify in her defense, including E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Vita Sackville-West. But the book was banned in Britain and was not reprinted there until the 1960s.

Nonetheless, the novel remained available in France, and an attempt to ban it in the United States failed. Within the first year of its American publication it had sold 10,000 copies.

Critics have questioned whether the novel underlines heterosexual norms or undermines them: does Hall merely accept Havelock Ellis’s biological determinism model of homosexuality, which also pathologizes it? Or does Hall’s allegiance with the character of the mannish lesbian allow her to claim a female sexual identity separate from the romantic (but non-sexual) friendships between women in 19th century literature?

Esther Newton, in her classic essay “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian,” argues the latter, and Sonja Ruehl contends that in fact Hall’s acceptance of the congenital inversion theory was a way to reclaim the identity as gays and lesbians have reclaimed originally pejorative words like “queer,” “dyke,” and “fag.”

Even though the character of Stephen Gordon does not have a happy life or experience a happy ending, her very existence has clearly been a touchstone for countless lesbians over the course of the twentieth century who clung to any affirmation that people like them existed.

Early on in the novel Hall writes of young Stephen, “How she hated soft dresses and sashes, and ribbons, and small coral beads, and openwork stockings! Her legs felt so free and comfortable in breeches; she adored pockets too, and these were forbidden—at least really adequate pockets.”

Stephen’s love of pockets, and numerous other little details like this, must have seemed like a revelation to lesbian readers.

It is arguable that The Well opened up a demand for literature about lesbians that continues to this day. Lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s continued to tell dramatic, depressing stories about lesbians who were ostracized by heterosexual society, by and large accurately reflecting the times in which they were published.

These books, like The Well of Loneliness, enabled lesbian readers to recognize themselves, to know that they weren’t alone in the world, even though the world might not accept them.

It wasn’t until Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle was published in 1973 that a truly happy lesbian love story was told.

Radclyffe Hall and her character Stephen Gordon have both become lesbian icons of a bygone era: masculine women of the romantic 1920s, moneyed elites who moved in literary society despite, or because of, their sexuality.

Indeed, Radclyffe Hall has been romanticized by numerous biographers, beginning with her lover Lady Troubridge. Since her death at least seven biographies of Hall have been published, as well as one volume of her love letters and one biography of Una Troubridge.

One look at the photos of Hall in her youth make it clear why she is such a fascinating subject: posting with her cigarette, looking straight out at the camera, dressed unapologetically like a fashionable gentleman, it seems clear that Hall lived a life of passion as well as pathos. She—and Stephen Gordon—are the perfect tragic heroes of lesbianism.

Thankfully, their existence helped pave the way for lesbian heroes who were able, at last, to experience joy.

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