Today in Literary History – August 12, 1880 – Radclyffe Hall, author of the banned lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness” is born

Radclyffe Hall, the author of the first lesbian-themed mainstream novel in England, was born in Bournemouth on August 12, 1880.

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The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, was Hall’s sixth novel and the first to be overtly about a lesbian love affair, although her first novel did hint at a same sex romance.

Her 1926 novel, Adam’s Breed, was a bestseller which won both the Prix Femina and the James Tait Black Prize. That success emboldened Hall to write the story of a mannish cross-dressing woman known as Stephen Gordon and her amorous adventures.

Her publisher Jonathan Cape took a risk publishing the book, even though it is mild by today’s standards, with only a kiss between two woman and a suggestion of a night spent together.

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On its publication James Douglas, the conservative editor of the Daily Express newspaper, began an all-out campaign against The Well of Loneliness, declaring “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.”

The book became the subject of an obscenity trial which it lost. It was then banned and all copies ordered to be seized and destroyed.

Seventy writers and academics signed a letter of protest, Arnold Bennett, John Buchan, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, among them.

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After the trial Cape arranged for the book to be published in France, but those copies too were periodically seized at ports of entry. The Well of Loneliness wasn’t legally published in Britain until 1949, six years after Hall’s death.

In the U.S. the book had an easier run, even after the publisher Alfred Knopf, who owned the American rights, was scared off by the British obscenity trial and declined to publish it.

A newly founded press with an interest in defying censorship published it instead. It was brought to trial as pornography, but unlike in Britain, the book was found not to be obscene.

Again, a group of writers including Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, H.L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, and John Dos Passos lobbied on behalf of The Well of Loneliness. The book sold 100,000 copies in its first year.

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One of Hall’s biographers, Michael Baker, describes her this way. “Believing herself a man trapped in a woman’s body, she liked to be called John… and cultivated a strikingly masculine appearance, sporting cropped hair, monocles, bow-ties, smoking jackets, and pipes.”

Hall was estranged from her family, but came into a large inheritance when she turned 21. When she was 27 she fell in love with Mabel Batten, a well-known singer, who was then 51.

They lived together until Batten’s death in 1916. By then, Hall was also in love with Batten’s cousin Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge, a sculptor, who became her partner until Hall’s death from cancer in 1943.

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Hall with Lady Troubridge. A portrait of Mabel Batten by John Singer Sargent is behind them.

The couple lived for a time in Italy, where Hall, a fervent Catholic, often praised Mussolini and Hitler and made many anti-Semitic statements. She also carried on many affairs and did not always treat Troubridge well.

The Well of Loneliness became an important book for young lesbian readers for decades. It fell slightly out of fashion in the 1970s due to changing times and some of its out-dated stereotypes. But it is still regarded as one of the founding texts in modern gay literature.

In 1999 The Publishing Triangle, an association of LGBTQ people who work in publishing, brought out a list of the 100 best gay and lesbian novels of all time. The Well of Loneliness was placed at number 7, just after Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

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