August 12, 1880– Radclyffe Hall:
“For the sake of all the others who are like you, but less strong and less gifted perhaps, many of them, it’s up to you to have the courage to make good.”
Outside of Rita Mae Brown and Fannie Flagg, I am not really all that keen on Lesbian Literature, although I kissed a girl and I liked it. But as a chronicler of the lives of famous LGBTQ people, I need to note that today is the birthday of Radclyffe Hall, who wore her lesbianism openly and proudly, and because she is the writer of what is probably the most important lesbian novel ever written.
At 21 years old, after a desperately unhappy upbringing, Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe-Hall inherited a large sum of money that was left in trust for her by her grandfather. Once she had her fortune, she moved in with singer Mabel Veronica Batten, who was 25 years older, and they were a couple until Batten’s death in 1916. You know how lesbians are; Hall soon picked up the pieces and started a new relationship with Una Elena Troubridge, a talented sculptor. She was married to Admiral Ernest Troubridge and Hall sued him for libel after he described her as “a grossly immoral woman”.
Hall liked to be called “John” and she cultivated a strikingly masculine appearance, with cropped hair, monocles, bowties, smoking jackets, and smoking pipes and cigars.
Although she had enough money to live the life of leisure, Hall decided to be a writer. She published several novels, including The Forge (1924), a blithe comedy of social manners; The Unlit Lamp (1924), about a young woman’s thwarted wish to become a physician and set up house with another single woman; A Saturday Life (1925), a celebration of weekends; along with several volumes of poetry. Her fourth novel, Adam’s Breed (1926) concerns an Italian restaurateur in London who embraces spirituality, renounces the world, and lives like a hermit in the woods. It was a big bestseller.
In 1928, Hall published the explicitly lesbian novel The Well Of Loneliness. The publisher’s blurb on the book jacket read:
“In England hitherto the subject has not been treated frankly outside the regions of scientific text-books, but that its social consequences qualify a broader and more general treatment is likely to be the opinion of thoughtful and cultured people.”
There was a campaign to ban the book by the decent people and the press. The London Sunday Express urged:
“In order to prevent the contamination and corruption of English fiction it is the duty of the critic to make it impossible for any other novelist to repeat this outrage. I say deliberately that this novel is not fit to be sold by any bookseller or to be borrowed from any library.”
The British Government put pressure on the publisher to withdraw the book. One governement official described the book as:
“Inherently obscene… it supports a depraved practice and is gravely detrimental to the public interest.”
The nervous publisher sent a copy to the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, known as “Jix” to his friends, offering to suppress it if he was unhappy with it. Despite his rather hip nickname, along with his kept promise to give women the right to vote, Hicks was 63 years old and deeply conservative. He had once strenuously objected in Parliament to planned revisions to The Book Of Common Prayer. Of course, he hated The Well Of Loneliness and threatened to sue the publisher. He did, but the rights had already been sold to an English publisher in France. When the book was imported, Hicks ordered it seized, over the objections of the Chairman of the Customs Board who admired the novel. It became a matter for the London Police, and the subsequent trial for obscenity depended solely on the judge’s opinion without any expert testimony.
It was ordered that all copies be destroyed, and that literary merit presented no grounds for defense. The publisher withdrew the novel and the proofs were seized by officials.
Many writers, including E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Virginia Woolf, signed a letter of protest about the banning of the book. In the USA, the book faced obscenity trials, but garnered letters of support from Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others. The book triumphed at trial. I mean, who doesn’t dig a little girl-on-girl action on occasion? Its first year, the book sold more than 100,000 copies. It was finally published in the UK in 1949.
Although she continued to shack-up with Troubridge, Hall fell in love with a Russian nurse, Eugenie Souline, in 1934. Despite the initial protests of Troubridge, the trio of women lived together as a trio in Florence. At the outbreak of the WW II, the three women left Italy and settled in England. Hall was diagnosed with that damn cancer and she kicked the bucket in October 1943.
Just before her passing, Hall changed her will, leaving everything to Troubridge, including the copyrights to her works. In the will she asked Troubridge to “make such provision for our friend Eugenie as in her absolute discretion she may consider right”. But, Troubridge only provided Souline with a small allowance to pay for therapy and the fees for her softball league.
The Well Of Loneliness has never gone out of print. For those of you who haven’t read a dirty 500 page lesbian-themed novel lately, here is a taste (brace yourself):
“She kissed her full on the lips, and that night they were not divided.”