OCTOBER 7: Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943)

Radclyffe Hall, the English author
of the legendary lesbian novel The Well
of Loneliness
, passed away on this day in 1943. One of the first of its
kind, The Well of Loneliness changed
literary history and catapulted the name Radclyffe Hall into lesbian foremother
status.

Radclyffe Hall’s butch presentation was captured in this iconic photograph taken in 1926 (x). 

Marguerite Radclyffe Hall was born
on August 12, 1880 at her family home of “Sunny Lawn” in Bournemouth, Hampshire. Her father, Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall, was a wealthy man
and a notorious womanizer, causing her mother to divorce him in 1883. Her eventual
stepfather was the famous music professor Albert Visetti. Despite her abundance
of parental figures, Radclyffe’s childhood was one spent in neglect; after her parent’s divorce, she rarely saw her father and her stepfather Albert repeatedly made
sexual advances towards her, beginning at a young age and sparking jealousy in her own mother. In her teen years, she began to call herself a “congenital invert,” the early sexologist
Havelock Ellis’s term for gay men and lesbians. 

‘A Book That Must Be Suppressed’. The Sunday Express editorial on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, 1928 © The National Archives, DPP 1/88 (x).

At the age of 21, Radclyffe moved
in with a 51-year-old singer named Mabel Veronica Batten, who was
her very first partner. Radclyffe’s inheritance from her grandfather kept the
two of them afloat until Mabel’s death in 1916 and then Radclyffe was left on
her own once again. It was Mabel who gave the butch Radclyffe the nickname of
“John,” which she preferred to be called by her friends for the rest of her
life. Not long after, she began a relationship with the famous sculptor Una
Elena Troubridge
, who would become her life partner. The money from her inheritance allowed Radclyffe to live a
comfortable life, but she decided to take up writing in 1923. Her first two
novels, The Forge and The Unlit Lamp were both published a
year later in 1924. The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 and is her
only novel that deals directly with lesbian identity; the novel deals specifically with the
life of a butch lesbian character named Stephanie Gordon who, like
Radclyffe, calls herself an “invert.” The novel was subject to a scandalous
obscenity trial in the U.K. that eventually declared all copies be destroyed, but it won out in the American courts and so The Well of Loneliness was able to be
sold in the States.

Radclyffe and her partner Una Elena Troubridge photographed in 1927 (x). 

After 1928, she would go on to
write and publish eight novels in total. Radclyffe lived with her partner Una
until her death and even welcomed a third woman, a young Russian nurse named Eugenie
Souline, into their relationship in 1934. Despite being gender nonconforming and a
lesbian, Radclyffe held harsh conservative views all her life and made fascist and anti-Semitic claims throughout the 1930s. After fleeing to Italy at the
outbreak of World War II, Radclyffe developed cancer and passed away on October
7, 1943. In her will, all finances and copyrights to her work were left to Una
Troubridge.

-LC

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