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Hall, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe- [pseud. Radclyffe Hall]free

(1880–1943)
  • Michael Baker

Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe- Hall (1880–1943)

by Charles Buchel, 1918

Hall, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe- [pseud. Radclyffe Hall] (1880–1943), novelist, was born on 12 August 1880 at Sunny Lawn, West Cliff, Bournemouth, the second child of Radclyffe (Rat) Radclyffe-Hall (1846–1898) and Mary Jane Sager, née Diehl (1854–1945), an American widow from Philadelphia. By her own account, Radclyffe Hall's childhood was not a happy one. Her elder sister Florence's death in infancy left her an only child and her parents divorced acrimoniously when she was three. She rarely saw her father thereafter and was unloved by her volatile mother, who remarried in 1890. Her mother's third husband was Alberto Visetti (d. 1928), a professor of singing at the Royal College of Music. Despite showing a precocious musical talent, she received scant encouragement from her stepfather (though he did, it seems, make sexual advances towards her). Her education was fitful and she remained a chronic bad speller all her life. Governesses and fashionable day schools were followed by a brief stint at King's College, London (there is no record of any degree), then a year in Dresden. At twenty-one she inherited a considerable legacy left in trust by her grandfather Charles Radclyffe-Hall (d. 1879), who had made a fortune treating tuberculosis patients in Torquay, Devon.

Without the need to earn a living, Radclyffe Hall was well into her forties before she took up writing seriously. She claimed to be a ‘congenital invert’ and is best known today for her novel The Well of Loneliness, a serious if sentimental treatment of lesbianism which was the occasion of great controversy when it was published in 1928. Home Office papers released on 27 November 1997 reveal the furore into which Whitehall was thrown over the possible general release of the novel. The work was described to Jonathan Cape by a government official as 'inherently obscene … it supports a depraved practice [and] is gravely detrimental to the public interest' (The Guardian, 28 Nov 1997, 8). Cape felt it prudent to withdraw the novel, and it was subsequently banned in England, with proofs intended for a publisher in France seized in October 1928. This led to the order of the chief magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, that all copies be destroyed, and that literary merit presented no grounds for defence. Despite protests from literary figures such as Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf, and John Buchan, Biron's judgement was upheld by a Court of Appeal.

The Well of Loneliness was, in fact, the fifth of seven novels written by Radclyffe Hall, the others being The Forge (1924), The Unlit Lamp (1924), A Saturday Life (1925), Adam's Breed (1926), The Master of the House (1932), and The Sixth Beatitude (1936). A volume of short stories, Miss Ogilvie Finds Herself, was published in 1934. All these works, traditionalist in style but exhibiting an impressive psychological grasp, reflect in varying degrees her deep sense of being a social outsider and, increasingly, demonstrate her preoccupation with a search for spiritual self-knowledge through suffering and denial. Adam's Breed, a best-seller which also won two prestigious literary prizes, the Femina Vie Heureuse and James Tait Black (only E. M. Forster's A Passage to India had previously achieved this ‘double’), marked the peak of her career. Some of her best writing has a descriptive power which owed much to her early experiments with lyric poetry. Between 1906 and 1915 five slim volumes of her poems were published, many being set to music by popular composers of the day. The best-known was 'The Blind Ploughman'.

Despite a modern resurgence of interest in Radclyffe Hall, she does not fit easily into the stereotype of the gay or feminist pioneer. A staunch Roman Catholic after her conversion in 1912, her instincts, political and temperamental, remained deeply conservative. (By the late 1930s, indeed, she was expressing protofascist and antisemitic views.) Believing herself a man trapped in a woman's body, she liked to be called John, assumed a male pseudonym (her father's name, significantly), and cultivated a strikingly masculine appearance, sporting cropped hair, monocles, bow-ties, smoking jackets, and pipes. A woman's best place, she proclaimed, was in the home.

And yet Radclyffe Hall's campaigning stand on behalf of homosexuals was undeniably courageous. Moreover, her most important relationships were with notably independent-minded women. Her first partner, Mabel Veronica Batten (c.1856–1916), a well-known lieder singer and society beauty, exercised an educating influence, introducing the future novelist to a highly sophisticated coterie of professional women (many of them lesbians), and her first real taste of artistic and intellectual life. After Mabel's death, Hall sought to contact her through a medium and became a lifelong adherent of spiritualism. Una Elena Troubridge (1887–1963), a talented sculptor and translator, and Mabel Batten's cousin, set up house with Hall in 1918, becoming at once ‘wife’, amanuensis, and soulmate. The couple stayed together for the rest of Hall's life, braving an acrimonious separation from Una's husband (who was an admiral), winning a lawsuit for slander in 1920 (Hall was called 'a grossly immoral woman'), and surviving a tortuous nine-year relationship between Hall and a Russian nurse, Eugenia Souline, in the 1930s.

In her heyday in the 1920s Hall was a conspicuous figure at writers' gatherings (she was a leading member of PEN and the Writers' Club), at theatrical first nights, and in the society of many well-known authors, actors, and artists. She moved restlessly between a succession of homes in London, Sussex, Paris, and Florence, and mixed with a diverse cosmopolitan circle which included E. F. Benson, Noël Coward, Colette, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Romaine Brooks, and Natalie Barney. The 1930s heralded a progressive decline in both her literary output and her reputation. Plans to live permanently in Italy were forestalled by the onset of another world war. Ill health dogged her last years and she died of cancer of the colon on 7 October 1943 at her London flat, 502 Hood House, Dolphin Square, Pimlico. She was buried in Highgate cemetery, Middlesex. The Well of Loneliness was finally republished without a stir in 1949. In 1974 the BBC broadcast it on the radio on Book at Bedtime.

Sources

  • M. Baker, Our three selves: a life of Radclyffe Hall (1985)
  • U. Troubridge, The life and death of Radclyffe Hall (1961)
  • C. Stillman Franks, Beyond the well of loneliness (1982)
  • S. Cline, Radclyffe Hall: a woman called John (1997)
  • L. Dickson, Radclyffe Hall at the well of loneliness: a sapphic chronicle (1975)
  • R. Ormrod, Una Troubridge: the friend of Radclyffe Hall (1984)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • LUL, letters
  • Ransom HRC
  • Richmond Local Studies Library, London, corresp.
  • Society for Psychical Research, London
  • A. M. Heath & Co., London [literary agents]
  • NA Canada, Lovat Dickson collection
  • priv. coll., Audrie Atcheson MSS
  • priv. coll., Cara Lancaster collection
  • priv. coll., Ariadne Nicolaeff MSS
  • priv. coll., Alessandro Rossi-Lemeni collection
  • Ransom HRC, Morris Ernst collection
  • U. Birm., letters to Evgeniya Soulina
  • UCL, letters to Arnold Bennett

Likenesses

  • K. Amyat, oils, 1885, priv. coll.
  • C. Buchel, oil on canvas, 1918, NPG [see illus.]
  • photographs, 1920–33, Hult. Arch.
  • photographs, 1923–33, Hult. Arch.
  • Pax, cartoon, 1927, repro. in The Popular Pictorial [British Library]
  • B. Egan, brush and ink cartoon, 1928, priv. coll.
  • H. Coster, photographs, 1930–39, NPG
  • A. Atcheson, photographs, 1934, priv. coll.
  • G. Hines, portrait, 1937, Michael Parkin Gallery, London
  • cartoon, repro. in T.P.'s Weekly (20 Feb 1926)
  • photographs, Ransom HRC

Wealth at Death

£118,015 19s. 0d.: probate, 19 Nov 1943, CGPLA Eng. & Wales