Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall

Poet and author
1928
Publishes ‘The Well of Loneliness’

‘You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else’ Radclyffe Hall

Marguerite Radclyffe Hall was an English poet and novelist, and is one of the most famous figures in lesbian culture. She was proud of her sexuality and did not hide it. This was a rare situation in the early twentieth century. However, she was extremely conservative on many issues, including her Roman Catholic religion. She was a rich woman. She started writing seriously in her forties. She published her novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’ when she was 47 years old.

A photograph of Radclyffe Hall and her partner Una Troubridge. They are at a French bulldog show in London in 1928
Photo: PA/Topham Picturepoint

In 1928, she was a successful novelist. She wanted to end public silence about homosexuality. She wanted to help people to understand and accept it. She knew there would be scandal and her career could be affected. The ‘Well of Loneliness’ was the only one of her eight books that was about lesbianism. The book promoted the ideas of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis. Sexologists studied human sexuality. Some used the term ‘sexual inversion’ to refer to homosexuality. Havelock Ellis believed we are all born with our sexuality and it cannot be changed. He wrote the foreword to the book.

The book traces the development of a lesbian woman, Stephen Gordon. She grows from a confused child into an independent woman in a lesbian relationship. Stephen dresses in fine clothes. Her wealth and class means she does not have to worry about what people think about her. The novel is full of the ideas that led to a modern lesbian public culture.

The cover of the first edition of the book in 1928

Three weeks after publication of the book, a Sunday Express headline was ‘A Book That Must Be Suppressed’. Other newspapers and writers were supportive. The National Union of Railwaymen and the South Wales Miners’ Federation also supported the book.

The book is not sexually explicit. This did not stop the Home Office prosecuting under the Obscene Publications Act of 1861. Hall did not attend court. The magistrate said the book asked ‘decent people’ to recognise lesbianism and that there was no fault in such a person. He said the quality of the writing was not a defence. He ruled it was an ‘obscene libel’ and ordered all copies to be destroyed. Thousands of people wrote to Hall to support her.

The British ban was overturned after Hall’s death. It was selling more than 100,000 copies a year in fourteen languages. It has been in print ever since.

Despite the British ban it helped to make lesbians visible in British literature and culture. People still discuss the book. It has produced powerful emotional responses, both positive and negative. The novel’s subjects of sexuality and gender continue to inspire study and debate about masculinity, bisexuality and transgender.

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