You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else.
Born Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall in 1880, Hall wrote eight novels, the most famous being 'The Well of Loneliness'. With its overtly lesbian theme, the book was published in 1928, but was deemed obscene and was withdrawn from circulation, not appearing again until 1949.
Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall was born on 12th August 1880 in Bournemouth, Hampshire to Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall and Mary Jane Diehl Sager Radclyffe-Hall. Hall’s parents separated when she was just a few weeks old. Her mother remarried in 1889 and Hall moved to Kensington with her mother and stepfather, Alberto Visetti, who taught singing at the Royal College of Music in London. Hall’s childhood and adolescence was marked by neglect and alienation from her parents and when her father died when she was eighteen, Hall had met him on only two or three occasions.
Hall’s father was a wealthy man, thanks to his own father’s success as a tuberculosis specialist and when she was twenty-one, Hall inherited the family estate. Having been educated by governesses and at day schools as a child, she then spent time travelling throughout Europe and America, later pursuing her education at King’s College London and in Dresden, Germany.
Hall purchased a house in Malvern Wells, Worcestershire in 1906 and published her first book of poetry, ‘Twixt Earth and Stars, in the same year. The poems, many based on Hall’s love of the countryside, proved popular with the reading public and twenty-one were later set to music.
In 1907 Hall met Mabel Veronica Batten, an amateur singer known as “Ladye” to her friends, at the Homburg spa in Germany. Batten, a 51 year old Grandmother, and Hall, then 27, fell in love and later set up residence together. As Hall explored her sexuality, she adopted a masculine appearance and began to use the name ‘John’, a nickname given to her by Batten.
Hall’s growing self confidence in her sexuality was apparent in her next volume of poetry, A Sheaf of Verses (1908), particularly in the poem ‘Ode to Sappho’ which in includes the phrase “Immortal Lesbian!” Further poetry collections Poems of the Past and Present (1910) and Songs of Three Counties and Other Poems (1913) followed.
During World War I, Hall became active with the Red Cross. She published The Forgotten Island, a further collection of poems, in 1915. During the time of writing The Forgotten Island, Hall acted as a carer for Batten, who was gravely ill with high blood pressure and circulatory problems. It was around this time that Hall fell in love with Batten’s cousin Una Troubridge, a sculptor. After accusing Hall of infidelity, Batten died of a stroke in 1916 and Hall and Troubridge moved in together in 1917. The relationship would last until Hall’s death, despite a long-term affair with Eugenia Souline (a Russian nurse who was brought in to care for Troubridge during an illness) which started in 1934, and affairs with other women throughout the years.
In 1924 Hall published her first novel, The Forge, and later that year followed The Unlit Lamp. It was during this time that Hall began writing under the pseudonym Radclyffe Hall. A Saturday Life (1925) and Adam’s Breed (1926) followed, but it is the 1928 novel The Well of Lonelinesswhich Radclyffe Hall is best known for.
The Well of Loneliness(to be published by Wordsworth Editions in 2014) is the only one of Hall’s novels to have overt lesbian themes. The tale follows Stephen Gordon, a masculine lesbian who identifies as an introvert. Hall used the novel to present lesbianism as natural and make a plea for greater tolerance, “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” The novel, although not sexually explicit, was extremely controversial for the time and Hall initially found it difficult to find a publisher for the book, despite her previous literary success. Jonathan Cape took a chance on the book and agreed to publish it. Less than a month after the novel was published, it was deemed “moral poison” by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, who called for it to be banned. Cape arranged for copies of the novel to be smuggled in to Leonard Hill, a London bookseller, and the two men found themselves facing charges under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. A trial deemed the book obscene and it was not published again in the UK until 1949, although copies were smuggled into the country from Paris.
The Master of the House (1932) and Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934) followed, but were not particularly well received. The Sixth Beatitude, published in 1936, was Hall’s final novel. Although the novel sold poorly and received generally negative reviews, Hall and Troubridge considered this to be Hall’s finest work.
Hall’s health declined during the early 1940s and she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Surgery on her eyes led to Hall having to give up writing and she also contracted double pneumonia and then colon cancer. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall died on 7th October 1943, aged 63, with Troubridge at her bedside. She is buried at Highgate Cemetery next to Mabel Batten.
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