Lesbian Fiction Herstory


The Woman Who Dared
To Demand a Niche in Creation

© 2005 by Lori L. Lake

Part 3 of 5

"You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad;
you’re as much a part of what people call nature as
anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet
you’ve not got your niche in creation."
~Radclyffe Hall (1883–1943),
spoken by the tutor character, Puddle, in
The Well of Loneliness (1928)


All right, all of you out in Cyberland, raise a hand if you have heard of Radclyffe Hall. Oh, lovely! That's wonderful. Now, out of curiosity, let's see a show of hands from all of you who have read a novel written by Radclyffe Hall. Come on now, don't be shy. No hands? How odd… Wait - there's someone there in the back. Well, I see I have my work cut out for me if all of you young, fresh-faced women have heard of her but haven't read her work. Let me start with some biographical facts.
The Woman Who Dared

Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall was born in 1880 to an American widow and a rich, gadabout Brit whose father, a wealthy physician, had been knighted. Marguerite lived through a miserable childhood. She hated her name, and by most accounts, she didn't care for her mother either. When she got older, she took to calling herself John, and to the end of her life, that is the name by which all friends and associates addressed her. Her readers and fans knew her as Radclyffe.


"John"
One of the most interesting things about Hall's earlier years is that at the age of 21, she inherited from her grandfather a giant estate worth the equivalent of over ten million dollars. Later she was taken under the wing of Mabel "Ladye" Veronica Batten who nurtured and supported Hall's writing efforts. And then, the most interesting thing of all occurred in 1915: at the age of 35, Hall became lovers with a woman named Una Troubridge (her second lesbian relationship). Within just a few years, Hall began dressing in what we would now call a "butch" manner. She started studying psychic and psychological phenomena. Using the theory of "congenital inverts," in which people are born deeply flawed in terms of gender personality, she developed her own idea of the masculine female "invert" as a way to understand her desire for women. And then she went on to work on the novel that would become The Well of Loneliness.


Radclyffe Hall,
whom Esther Newton called,
"The most infamous
mannish lesbian of all time."

 

It was early in the twentieth century, and there was no such thing as a Lesbian Identity. (In fact, the word "lesbian," denoting female homosexual, had only just been coined near the turn of the century.) It seems odd to realize under today's circumstances, but without books and TV and the Internet, not to mention the oral tradition and classes taught at university on the subject, any woman of Hall's time who was attracted to other women would have to consider herself a bizarre abomination at worst, an odd anomaly at best.

The last words of the novel, where Stephen is entreating God, go like this:

"Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!"

Those words, calling for fairness, understanding, and the right to exist as lesbians in a world that was seldom accepting, constituted a very brave demand.

 

The Book That Dared

It's been 125 years since Radclyffe Hall was born and over sixty years since she died. Her most famous novel, The Well of Loneliness, which she published herself, was deemed obscene by the British and not published in England until 1952, nine years after her death. But American audiences were able to get hold of copies with ease. And for decades after 1928, Americans read the novel with great interest. But in the last ten to twenty years, though the mystique about Hall has perhaps increased, knowledge and awareness about the woman and her groundbreaking work, The Well of Loneliness, have actually decreased. And this has occurred because the portrait Hall painted of The Lesbian in Society is no longer an accurate one. We are not "inverts." And we are no longer alone. For the last forty years (at least) an entire culture of women has been exploring and defining their identities as lesbians.


The Well of Loneliness
is marked with pain, anguish, loneliness, grief, suffering, and heartache. Those who had read the book in the first five decades following its publication couldn't possibly have found solace there, could they? But yes, they did. Lesbians who felt alone and filled with the same self-hatred as Stephen Gordon did could feel some measure of relief that perhaps they weren't so alone after all. Someone, somewhere - even if it was way over in jolly old England - understood what it was like to feel rejected and rejectable. The book was gradually translated, at last count into 15 languages, so women all over the Western world could potentially read this novel. That the British chancellors and magistrates and censors stopped the publication of the book in 1928 only served to further popularize it and make Radclyffe Hall a hero for generations of lesbians.


If only Radclyffe Hall could be alive today to see the changes in attitudes and the leaps of understanding that women have made in terms of creating a Lesbian Identity. No longer do women need to feel shame and worthlessness about their love for other women. The world is still not a perfect place, particularly outside the Western nations, but a community of shared consciousness has emerged in the last couple decades. Halls' protagonist Stephen says, "I am one of those whom God marked on the forehead. Like Cain, I am marked and blemished. If you come to me ... the world will abhor you, will persecute you, will call you unclean." Thank goodness this attitude is changing.


A Place in History

But is Hall a hero anymore? Is her work still laudable? Those who criticize The Well of Loneliness do so because the book's tone is gloomy and depressing, the ending is tragic and full of pain, and the main character, Stephen, is so obviously filled with self-hatred. We read a passage like the following, and with today's cultural climate (unless you are in the grips of fundamentalist Christians), it seems a little unreal:

"Love me, only love me the way I love you. Angela, for God's sake, try to love me a little don't throw me away because if you do I am utterly finished. You know how I love you, with my soul and my body; if it's wrong, grotesque, unholy, have pity. I'll be humble. Oh, my darling, I am humble now; I'm just a poor, heart-broken freak of a creature who loves you and needs you more than its life... I'm some awful mistake God's mistake I don't know if there are any more like me, I pray not for their sakes, because it's pure hell." ~The Well of Loneliness

Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall must have felt very alone - without the right or even the full understanding to validate her own butch, lesbian existence. If she hadn't been well-educated and wealthy, it's unlikely she would ever have had the opportunity to explore these issues or write about women who love women.

Hall is still read and referenced in women's studies classes and by those who study about lesbian history, but despite being given her due place in the canon, Hall's seminal work is read less and less as each year goes by, and I have to celebrate that. Heather Love puts it best in her article, "Hard Times and Heartaches: Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness":

"In The Well of Loneliness and in her letters, Hall described the pleasures and pains she experienced in claiming a deviant identity as the starting place for a movement for political and civil rights. It is no wonder that such an account should make lesbian readers uncomfortable, for it calls attention to the ambivalent legacy of our own still-marginal identity. But we should not for this reason reject, rebuke, or condescend to Hall. Rather, I would argue that we ought to lay claim to our own complex and difficult history. Despite the bitterness, we ought to swallow hard, and thank Hall for the butch, the tears, and the despair of it all."


Portrait of the Author
as a Young Woman

It's a humbling and amazing experience to read The Well of Loneliness, then follow that with pulp novels of the 40s and 50s, the nascent novels of the 60s, and the subsequent books that reflect the advances made culturally and socially by and for lesbians. Radclyffe Hall demanded a niche in creation, and women who came after her worked to envision what it should look like. Lesbians in Western society are coming into our own, and our writing resonates with belief in our self-worth. For that, I am truly grateful.

We've certainly come a long way, baby!

REFERENCE RESOURCES

If you would like to read more about Radclyffe Hall, her place in history, and her novels and poetry, here are some excellent books:

Sally Cline, "Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John"
Diana Souhami, "The Trials of Radclyffe Hall"
Claudia Stillman Franks,"Beyond the Well of Loneliness: The Fiction of Radclyffe Hall"
Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall, ed. with an introduction by Joanne Glasgow

Other biographical information and analysis of Radclyffe's Hall's work can be found here at Today in Literature.


A Poetry Excerpt

A gondola, the still lagoon;
A summer's night, an August moon,
The splash of oars, a distant song,
A little sigh, and - was it wrong?
A kiss, both passionate and long.

"On the Lagoon," Radclyffe Hall, 1906

Radclyffe Hall's Poetry

Twixt Earth and Stars, 1906
Poems of the Past & Present, 1910
Songs of Three Counties, and Other Poems, 1913
The Forgotten Island, 1915
Rhymes and Rhythms, Milan, 1948

Radclyffe Hall's Novels
The Forge, 1924
The Unlit Lamp, 1924
A Saturday Life
, 1925
Adam's Breed, 1926
The Well of Loneliness, 1928
The Master of the House, 1932
Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself, 1934
The Sixth Beatitude, 1936


A great many women can feel and behave like men. Very few of them can behave like gentlemen."
~Radclyffe Hall
(1880-1943)

Until next time!
Lori

This page last updated on October 21, 2016

Go to other parts of the Lesbian Herstory Series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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