Lecture notes: Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness

Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)

  • Radclyffe Hall: Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall, preferred to be called John; 1880-1943, English writer
  • Wealthy but unhappy family background
  • Educated in London (King’s College) and in Germany
  • Called herself a “congenital invert,” adopting the term by Havelock Ellis and other sexologists.
  • In 1907 she met the singer Mabel Batten, then 51 and married with kids and grandkids; moved in with her after Batten’s husband died. Nicknames: Mabel = Ladye, Hall = John.  In 1915 Hall fell in love with Una Troubridge (1887–1963), a cousin of Batten’s, also married and a mother, who was an accomplished sculptor and translator of Colette’s works from French into English.  After Batten’s death in 1916, Una and “John” started living together and stayed together until Hall’s death (despite Hall’s numerous lesbian affairs in between).
  • Hall and Troubridge were deeply religious (Roman Catholic—Hall had converted in 1912); they left their money to the church upon death.  Hall was also interested in spiritualism.
  • Before The Well of Loneliness (1928), her most famous and notorious book (see Trial section below), Hall had already written 4 major novels (two of which were bestsellers and critically acclaimed: The Forge [1924] and Adams’s Breed [1926]), and a lot of poetry and shorter pieces.

The Well of Loneliness: 
Background and Context


  • Groundbreaking in its overt, open, sympathetic treatment of “inversion” (transsexualism, female masculinity [Halberstam’s term], lesbian desire—all these terms are to some extent fluid here; we’ll discuss why). A planned project to provoke public discussion of female inversion and same-sex desire.  Hall’s career at its height in 1926; now she was emboldened to write about sexual inversion with social and political goals.  Asked her partner Una Troubridge’s permission, as the scandal would affect her as well.  Told her editor in 1928, “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world …. Nothing of the kind has ever been attempted in fiction.”  It was a courageous programmatic idea on Hall’s part; she wanted to change lesbianism’s mainstream cultural invisibility and elicit more tolerance. Hall knew that she was famous enough to be listened to.
  • Three publishers praised the novel but turned it down. Hall’s condition was that the publisher not change one word of the novel.  To one, she wrote: “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world…. So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.”  Jonathan Cape published it first in a trial run of 1,500 high-priced copies with a discreet jacket (to limit exposure).
  • The Well received mixed but respectful initial reviews and was out for three weeks before the obscenity trial in England put an end to it. Although not sexually explicit at all, because of its subject the book was on the radar of obscenity laws.  Hall lost the trial; all (UK) copies of the book were ordered destroyed.
  • Other contemporary queer writers such as E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Vita Sackville-West attended the trial to speak out against the obscenity charge, but privately did not think much of the novel’s quality of writing. (To Woolf’s relief, she did not have to testify, as her diary attests, and she did not attend Hall’s appeal trial that followed. )
  • Publisher Cape secretly leased rights to the Pegasus Press in France and an English-language publisher, who printed the book and shipped copies back to Leonard Hill, a distributor in the UK. (France, unlike England, did not really enforce laws against homosexual behavior and was generally more tolerant of it—that’s why Oscar Wilde moved to France after his release from Reading Prison in 1898, for example.)  They were soon found out, however, and the authorities seized copies and stopped imports.  In the US, the book was published but was subjected to years of legal battles (in New York State and Customs courts).
  • Influence from sexual inversion theories of Havelock Ellis, Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard Krafft-Ebing, and other sexologists (see Havelock Ellis’s endorsement in preface; Sir Philip’s reading of Ulrichs; Stephen Gordon’s finding of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in the novel, etc.). The book actually publicized these theories further.
  • The book is not an autobiography but it is of course inspired by Hall’s own experiences; Hall said that she drew on herself for the “fundamental emotions that are characteristic of the inverted.” The ambulance driving that Stephen does in World War I (as well as her fencing, aristocratic background, and cross-dressing) may have been inspired by a friend of Hall’s, Toupie Lowther.  Mary in the novel does not resemble Una Troubridge, while Angela may be a composite character inspired by several of Hall’s other lovers.  Some parts of the novel: inspiration by/allusions to Paris lesbian and gay subculture, especially Natalie Clifford Barney’s salon.
  • Today: still on many gay and lesbian “top 100 books” lists; controversy whether this book should be labeled “lesbian” or rather transgender/transsexual (Stephen as a transman; “female masculinity” [Halberstam], “mannish lesbian” [contemporary term in 1920s], etc.?).

Some interesting statements about The Well of Loneliness

1.  “It isn’t a great literary work, but it is a book of importance in the history of the unending struggle with censorship.  It was the stone that loosened the avalanche.  No one would say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin awoke the world to the horrors of slavery, but its wide circulation did much to hasten the American Civil War, and the outcome of this was to bring about the end of slavery in America.”

–Lovat Dickinson, Radclyffe Hall at the Well of Loneliness: A Sapphic Chronicle, 1975, p. 21

2.  Radclyffe Hall in a letter to her friend Newman Flower of Cassells, a publisher:

“In a word, I have written a long and very serious novel entirely upon the subject of sexual inversion.  So far as I know, nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.  Hitherto the subject has either been treated as pornography, or introduced as an episode, as in Dusty Answer, or veiled as in A Regiment of Women.  I have treated it as a fact in nature—a simple, though at present tragic, fact.  I have written the life of a woman who is a born invert, and have done so with what I believe to be sincerity and truth; and while I have refused to camouflage in any way, I think I have avoided all unnecessary coarseness.”

–Quoted in Lovat, p. 140

3.  Three weeks after the book’s publication, the editor of the Sunday Express, Hames Douglas, condemned the book and went on a public campaign against it, calling for its withdrawal:

“I am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today.  They flaunt themselves in public places with increasing effrontery and more insolently provocative bravado.  The decadent apostles of the most hideous and loathsome vices no longer conceal their degeneracy and their degradation. . . . They do not shun publicity.  On the contrary, they seek it, and they take a delight in their flamboyant notoriety.  The consequence is that this pestilence is devastating young souls.”

–Quoted in Lovat, p. 149

4.  “Oh god not again.  The Well of Fucking Loneliness.  When will the nightmare stop?  Here we are again, asleep and fitfully dreaming: it’s the final play before the buzzer at the Greatest Lesbian Writers of the World Basketball Championship. . . .  How bad, bad, bad is The Well of Loneliness?  Like many bookish lesbians I seem to have spent much of my adult life making jokes about it, as if to fend it off once and for all.  After all, it is quite possibly the worst novel ever written . . .  [she cites the opening paragraphs as one example]. And likewise: who could forget (ever) The Well’s celebrated love scenes—turgid, pimple-ridden, sumptuously ungrammatical, yet all too pat to peter out in feeble redundancies just when everything is hotting up?”

–Terry Castle, “Afterword: It was Good, Good, Good,” in Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness, eds. Laura Doan and Jay Prosser, 2001, pp. 394-95.


1 Comment

Filed under Lecture notes, Week 5: Kuzmin, Radclyffe Hall

One response to “Lecture notes: Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness

  1. Revisit Toupie Lowther and get a real look at her life.

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