Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1997

Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John, by Sally Cline

reviewed by Jean Raison

Radclyffe Hall is remembered only for one thing – the best known lesbian novel in English, The Well of Loneliness – and after half a dozen books on her it might be thought that there is nothing more to say, more than half a century after her death. But Sally Cline, with the assistance of a large number of people whom she thanks at fashionable length, has done a lot of hard work and found a lot of new material.

The outlines of the story aren’t altered. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall was born in 1880 into a dysfunctional upper middle-class family. Her father was an English wastrel and womaniser, her mother a Dutch-American bully, and their marriage was nasty, brutish and short. Her father left soon after she was born, and her mother remarried an Italian musician. Her mother was physically abused by both husbands, she was in turn physically abused by her mother and sexually abused by her step-father. She was half-educated by a succession of governesses, and saved only by her strong personality and increasingly intense relationships with other young women. There was confusion about names; she misspelt her first name and altered her surname, called herself John and was called Johnny.

When she came of age she inherited a fortune and adopted the life of an independent intellectual, reading and writing, drinking and smoking, dining and dancing, riding and hunting. She joyfully joined the international lesbian scene, and eventually became one of its best-known English representatives. She had many overlapping friendships and affairs with homosexual or bisexual women, but she also lived in succession with two married women – the much older Mabel Veronica Batten (Ladye), who died of a stroke in a quarrel about the latter, the much younger Margot Troubridge (Una). All three became spiritualists in order to communicate with Ladye, and John also tended towards anti-Semitism and became a sympathiser with the Italian Fascists. Later there was a passionate affair with a Russian émigrée, Evgenia Soulina, which damaged but didn’t destroy what both John and Una saw as their marriage.

Radclyffe Hall seems to have been a pretty unpleasant person, hardly surprising in view of her background, but she was redeemed by two things. The first was her writing. She became famous as a poet and then as a novelist, though her works are now generally unread and indeed are mostly unreadable. She became infamous as the author of The Well of Loneliness, which was banned in Britain in 1928, and she lived for another fifteen years in the shadow of her double reputation.

She is also redeemed by her total lack of guilt or shame about her sexual orientation and activity, shared with many others in her circle. One of the most attractive aspects of lesbian culture is indeed the absence of the self-hatred which used to be characteristic of male gay culture when it laboured under the monstrous martyrdoms of social persecution and legal prosecution.

The two redeeming factors came together in the publication and suppression of The Well of Loneliness, and there is a proper treatment of this horrifying but hilarious episode, which now seems to belong seven centuries rather than seven decades ago. The statement of James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express who led the campaign against the book, should be remembered as one of the key texts in the long struggle for freedom of expression on sexual matters: “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Really? Splendid chap, they said then. Poor fellow, we say now. How have the mighty fallen, and how things have changed! From the perspective of history, The Well of Loneliness did as much good for lesbian sex as Lady Chatterley’s Lover did for straight sex at the same time, or at its trial three decades later. Incidentally, it is worth noting that the book continued to be published in France until its open publication in Britain in 1949, and that the American publishers won their appeal against conviction back in 1929; as so often, other countries led the way in the battle for freedom of expression.

What has been not so much altered as amplified in this book is the details of the story. The result is exhaustively researched and exhausting to read. We are told more than we knew and indeed more than we want to know about Radclyffe Hall, and the result is at least twice as long as necessary. Sally Cline is an Anglo-American academic who has written ambitious feminist books, and there is the flavour of propaganda about this book too. Like so much writing about writers, it is badly written. Like so much academic writing, it has little connection with real life. All credit to an attempt to put together in one place as much information as possible about a writer who was once important. But all power to the most important message – what is important is not writing, but living.

The many women whom Radclyffe Hall helped to climb out of the well of loneliness should give thanks to what she did. But the hard fact is that The Well of Loneliness is a pretty awful novel, and that most of the books about her are pretty awful too. “What a life!” she rightly said as she was dying. “But I offer it to God!” she wrongly added. It should have been for woman, or humanity. Let us be glad that the fate she and so many other people like her had to suffer no longer has to be suffered. Let us be sad that such books are still written.

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