Thursday, 26 January 2017

Marguerite Radclyffe Hall - The Well of Loneliness

I am one of those whom God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you ~ Radclyffe Hall.  

Margaret Radclyffe Hall (1883-1943) was born in the South East England coastal resort of Bournemouth in Hampshire and travelled widely throughout her life. Educated at King's College London and in Germany, she began her writing career by publishing poetry, eventually collected into five volumes. People sang the poems at concerts and even in drawing rooms during the First World War. Radclyffe Hall lived in Rye in Sussex from 1930-39 from where she travelled frequently to Italy and France to be with another lover, Evguenia Souline.
In 1907, Radclyffe Hall met a society hostess called Mrs. Mabel Batten, with whom she lived until Lady Batten died in 1916. Through Lady Batten, Radclyffe Hall also met Una Troubridge, who became her lifelong companion.
Marguerite Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness
In adult life, Marguerite Radclyffe Hall became "John" and in her her lesbian novel, the father of the central protagonist desires a son, so names his daughter "Stephen." Stephen loves men's pastimes, riding and hunting and fencing. She dresses as a man and has her hair cut short.
Her father is fully aware of his daughter's sexual orientation, but she is bewildered. She knows she is different but does not understand why. Neither does her mother, Ann, but the husband does not enlighten his wife about the sexuality of their daughter, and in this respect, he commits a crime against them both. He and Ann, quarrel fiercely about her inability to care for Stephen and her boyish ways. Ann feels isolated, convinced that her husband and daughter are allied against her.
"Tomorrow," thinks the unhappy father. "Tomorrow - tomorrow I'll tell her - I can't bear to make her more unhappy today."
A Butch/Femme Relationship
At the beginning of the novel Stephen falls in love with a young woman, but she is cruelly betrayed by her. Later, while driving ambulances in the First World War, she meets Mary, who becomes the love of her life. But there are terrible consequences due to Stephen's fear of rejection.
Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn conduct a relationship of the "butch/femme" type. Stephen assumes the assertive, traditionally masculine role. Mary, on the other hand, is feminine and submissive. Soon Stephen suspects Mary is not a real, sexual invert, and this promotes more confusion. Stephen thinks she is holding Mary back, and that Mary would prefer a heterosexual male and her uncertainty leads to the tramatic resolution of the novel. The butch/femme type of relationship was the main model in early lesbian history although in the 1960/70 some lesbians began to oppose it for being oppressive.
The Well of Loneliness - A Cry for Lesbian Identity
This novel caused a public outcry and was prosecuted in 1928 under the Obscene Publications Act. Radclyffe Hall had simply wanted to write an accurate description of "inversion" that would appeal to people's understanding and acceptance. Radclyffe Hall believed that lesbianism was congenital, which contradicted the view of many suffragettes who claimed a woman could "choose to love" another woman as a defiant stand against a patriarchal society. But the majority at that time viewed homosexuality as corruption.
James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express wrote about the novel: "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel... I am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today... The consequence is that this pestilence is devastating young souls."
Yet, the book's only specific sex scene consists of the words: "and that night they were not divided."
Marguerite Radclyffe Hall's Novel Goes on Trial
A British court judged the novel obscene because it defended unnatural practices between women. E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and many other writers of note offered to testify for Radclyffe Hall but the Judge refused. The trial took place on 16 November 1928.
It was proposed that all copies of The Well of Loneliness were to be destroyed. Jonathan Cape Ltd. of Bedford Square, the book's publishers, and Mr. Leopold B. Hill of Great Russell Street, representative of the Pegasus Press, Paris, also appeared at Bow Street in support of the novel. Counsel read extracts from the book and asked the court to agree that it was obscene. Mr. Melville, KC for the appellants disagreed and stated that the book was a novel, a true work of literature and not a pornographic production. But Sir Robert Wallace said the book was: "...a disgusting book, an obscene book, a dangerous and corrupting book."
It was decided, against Marguerite Radclyffe Hall's wishes, that no further appeal was possible. This honest and sensitive novelwas forfeited and was not to appear again on the bookshelves for twenty-one years, six years after the author's death in London in 1943 of cancer.
Background notes:
A detail from Gluck's painting "Medallion" apears on the front cover of the Virago version of The Well of Loneliness.
The name Radclyffe Hall was hyphenated when Marguerite was born, but she later decided to drop the hyphen.
  • Adapted from: Cameron, Janet, LGBT Brighton and Hove, Amberley Publishing, 2010.
  • Radclyffe Hall, Marguerite, The Well of Loneliness, Virago Modern Classics, 1982. First published: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1928.
  • Hastie, Nicky, "The Muted Lesbian Voice: Coming out of Camouflage," 1989.
  • Staff Reporter, The Argus, 15 December, 1928.

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