by Kitty Wenham

Forgotten Women is an exclusive series for Aurelia that aims to shine a light on the women who have been consigned to the margins of literary history.

In honour of Banned Books Week, this week’s spotlight is on Radclyffe Hall, 1880-1943. 

In November 1928, Bow Street was ablaze. Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, had been published in July and was now on trial under the Obscene Publications Act. Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, who preferred to be known as John, attended the court dressed in a leather driving coat and Spanish riding hat. The Well of Loneliness was Hall’s semi-autobiographical novel, following an upper-class English woman named Stephen navigating life, love, and heartbreak as a confused child, troubled adolescent and later independent woman as she struggles with her strong feelings towards other women, and eventually falls in, and out, of love. 

Just a month after its publication, the editor of the Sunday Express began a heavy campaign against Hall’s novel. The newspaper took out posters and billboards denouncing the book and distributed their own editorial. The editor described the book as a “moral danger…designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflated on these outcasts” and called for the greater society to “cleanse itself from the leprosy of these lepers”, declaring that he 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.” 
            He continued; "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… This pestilence is devastating the younger generation. It is wrecking young lives. It is defiling young souls.”

The editorial ended with a call for all publication of the book to be ceased, and for the Home Secretary to intervene if Hall did not comply. The government threatened legal proceedings, and Hall’s publisher publicly caved. However, behind the scenes, he secretly leased the rights of The Well of Loneliness to a French English-language publisher, who distributed the book back to London where it continued to be sold. A warrant for any shipment of the books was issued by the Home Secretary himself, and when the next consignment arrived in London, the Metropolitan Police were already waiting for them. A court date was set.

Source:  The Radclyffe Hall Literary File at the Harry Ransom Center. Undated.

Hall’s publisher appealed to 160 different witnesses to support their case. Only 57 attended. Amongst Hall’s defenders were some of the country’s most prolific authors, not limited to; Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, Vita Sackville-West, and T.S. Eliot. Appalled that a book could be censored before even reaching the end of its trial, they lent their signatures to a letter of protest against the book’s suppression. However, it would never be published. Incensed by the wording of the letter, Hall refused to endorse it, and the whole thing was lost to history. 

In a letter to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf explained what had happened; "For many days I have been so disjected [sic] by society that writing has only been a dream—something another woman did once. What has caused this irruption I scarcely know—largely your friend Radclyffe Hall (she is now docked of her Miss owing to her proclivities) they banned her book; and so Leonard and Morgan Forster began to get up a protest, and soon we were telephoning and interviewing and collecting signatures—not yours for your proclivities are too well known. In the midst of this, Morgan goes to see Radclyffe in her tower in Kensington, with her Love [Lady Troubridge]: and Radclyffe scolds him like a fishwife, and says that she wont [sic] have any letter written about her book unless it mentions the fact that it is a work of artistic merit—even genius. And no one has read her book; or can read it: and now we have to explain this to all the great signed names—Arnold Bennett and so on. So our ardour in the cause of freedom of speech gradually cools, and instead of offering to reprint the masterpiece, we are already beginning to wish it unwritten."

Hall was openly lesbian, dressing in what were considered men’s clothes and refusing the title of ‘Miss’ at a time when homosexuality was a punishable offence. Throughout her young life, she endured endless heartbreak as she lost many lovers to marriage. Her life was rich, and Hall was consistently bold, and controversial; she was an early supporter of the Suffrage movement and wished to fight on the front lines during the First World War. 

Eventually, she fell in love with an amateur singer, Mabel Batten, who was 24 years her senior, and would later set up residence with her. After Batten’s death, Hall had her corpse embalmed, and spent the rest of her life in a turbulent relationship with Batten’s cousin, Una Troubridge; a sculptor and one of the first people to translate the works of Colette into the English language. Hall would later become so troubled by her relationship with Una that they once reached out to a Medium to beg for Batten’s forgiveness. 

By 1929, Hall was no stranger to the court. Her life-long partner, Una, was already married to an Admiral, Ernest Troubridge, who called Hall a “grossly immoral woman”. Hall sued him for libel. 
Hall’s biographer claimed that Hall believed herself to be “a man trapped in a woman's body, she liked to be called John, assumed a male pseudonym (her father's name, significantly), and cultivated a strikingly masculine appearance, sporting cropped hair, monocles, bow-ties, smoking jackets, and pipes”. She came to view being a lesbian, or, as she preferred to refer to herself, an ‘invert’, as a ‘third sex’ with a male mind, and emotions, inside a female body.

Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall. Source: The Harry Ransom Centre

Despite coming into a significant inheritance at a young age, Hall was determined to make a living as a writer. She published four novels in just three years, and several collections of poetry. Her writing was often commercially successful and won multiple prestigious literary awards. 
Two years later, Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness. She wrote to one friend, Maude Royden, explaining her motivation behind it. She said; "I wrote the book in order to help a very much misunderstood and therefore unfortunate section of society, and to feel that a leader of thought like yourself had extended to me your understanding was, and still is, a source of strength and encouragement."

In preparation for the trial, the Director of Public Prosecutions wrote to several doctors asking for a clinical analysis of homosexuality. One doctor replied, writing that he was afraid that the book would lead to an exploration of curiosity, and that “in many cases curiosity may lead to imitation and indulgence in practices which are believed to be somewhat extensive having regard to the very large excess in numbers of women over men.”. Another doctor, who was also the consulting medical adviser to the Home Office wrote that “[Lesbianism] is well known to have a debasing effect on those practising it, which is mental, moral and physical in character”. 
He continued; “It leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and in some cases to suicide in addicts to this vice. It is a vice which, if widespread, becomes a danger to the well-being of a nation”. 

Hall’s defendants employed their own medical experts to take the stand. One doctor explained that homosexuality was not a choice, declaring that “a person could no more become it by reading books than if he could become syphilitic by reading about syphilis”. Another tried to claim that the relationships depicted in the book were not lesbian at all, but merely platonic.  Hall, unable to take the stand for herself, was incensed that her publisher was, in her view, selling out the lesbian community in order to defend the book, and told her witnesses that if they did not retract their statements she would stand up in court and tell the magistrate the truth before anyone could stop her. 
After a week on trial, the court issued its final judgement. The book was declared obscene, intended to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds were open to such immoral influences”, and was ordered to be destroyed.

Source: The Telegraph

The publisher launched an appeal, but the Director of Public Prosecutions refused to release copies of the book for the panel of magistrates to read, and thus the initial decision was upheld with just five minutes of deliberation. 

Due to its heavily publicised trials, the book became an international talking point. It was published in the United States to great critical acclaim, and commercial success; selling more than 100,000 copies in its first year, despite its unusually high price point. U.S. publishers enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to defend it against censorship, and when the NYPD invaded the publisher’s New York offices to confiscate 865 copies of the book, many prolific writers once again came to Hall’s defence. Amongst those who spoke up against the suppression of her novel were names such as Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay and F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

After a lengthy trial the New York Court of Special Sessions ruled that Hall’s novel was of great literary merit, and that it dealt with a “delicate social problem” which in itself did not violate the law. All charges were dropped. 

Despite the controversy behind her most seminal work, Hall continued to write. She would go on to publish three other novels. Hall was so personally hurt by one newspaper cartoon depiction of her being crucified as a Christ-like figure, an image she felt was unforgivably blasphemous, that she wrote her first novel after The Well of Loneliness as a modern re-telling of the life of Christ. Hall even claimed to have developed stigmata on the palms of her hands whilst writing it. 
          In the 1930s, she remained outspoken; about both her feelings and experiences of being a social outsider, and her staunchly Roman Catholic views – sometimes lending her name to neo-fascist and anti-Semitic movements, famously supporting Benito Mussolini. During the Second World War, she embarked on a long-term affair with a Russian émigré, Eugenie Souline; the nurse who had cared for Hall’s partner Una whilst she was in hospital, and whom she eventually asked to move into her Florence, and then Devon home alongside her, and her partner – a decision that Una painfully tolerated. 
Hall was a staunch elitist, a neglectful parent, and a controlling and possessive partner, but she was a singular force of nature. In her memoirs about her former partner, Una wrote that Hall was "one who, if the need arose, would go to the pillory for the sake of her convictions."

Hall eventually developed bowel cancer and passed away in 1944 at the age of 64. Although her body of work is extensive, The Well of Loneliness remains her most famous book, and is now rightly celebrated for its huge social and cultural impact. For decades, in both the U.S. and the U.K, studies showed that it was the only work of lesbian literature that many women had access to and had read. Although often denigrated for its lack of style and outdated, conservative views, the impact it had on whole generations of queer women is undeniable. One Holocaust survivor once wrote of her time in the war; "remembering that book, I wanted to live long enough to kiss another woman."
The novel’s powerful ending finishes with a desperate, and highly emotional plea from the main protagonist, Stephen Gordon. She prays; “…’God,’… ‘We believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!” 

The book was eventually published in 1949, six years after Hall’s death. It has since been translated into 14 languages and has never gone out of print.

Follow Kitty on Twitter: @KittyWenham