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Radclyffe Hall (1880–1943)

Author of The Well of Loneliness

22+ Works 3,346 Members 62 Reviews 2 Favorited

About the Author

Born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, the writer called herself John as an adult. Educated at King's College, London, Hall began her career writing poetry set to music and performed prominently before World War I. Under the influence of the socialite Mabel Batten, Hall became devoutly Roman Catholic and show more met Una, Lady Troubridge, who was to become Hall's lifelong companion. The Well of Loneliness (1928), a frank and touching portrayal of lesbian sensibilities, was banned in Britain and America (despite George Bernard Shaw's comment that the novel told of things people should know about), nearly ruining her literary career. Copies of the book were widely confiscated; censors expressed moral outrage, especially because Hall's characters showed no contrition for their "vices" and were portrayed sympathetically. Despite aggressive attempts at censorship, though, audiences clamored for the novel, which attained a strong popularity. Hall wrote of lesbianism as natural and pleaded for tolerance, yet her writing manifests a degree of guilt that in some way affirms her society's widespread prejudice that homosexuality was a deformity. Despite her fierce defense of The Well of Loneliness, none of Hall's later writing explicitly deals with homosexual themes. Still, though Hall was less self-accepting than contemporary gay writers, The Well of Loneliness endures as a relatively rare and valuable documentation of lesbian lives and aesthetics in the early twentieth century. (Bowker Author Biography) show less

Works by Radclyffe Hall

Associated Works

The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1993) — Contributor — 295 copies
The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1983) — Contributor — 235 copies
Erotica: Women's Writing from Sappho to Margaret Atwood (1990) — Contributor — 168 copies
The Penguin Book of First World War Stories (2007) — Contributor — 107 copies
The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (1995) — Contributor — 80 copies

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Common Knowledge

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Discussions

Group Read, October 2020: The Well of Loneliness in 1001 Books to read before you die (October 2020)
The Well of Loneliness in Book talk (March 2011)

Reviews

A landmark work this may be, literary fiction it is not. This was an absolute grind to read. I agree with Jeanette Winterson on this one: it reads like a misery memoir. I got through it, but only just . . .
 
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fountainoverflows | 48 other reviews | Feb 13, 2024 |
*4.5? 4.8?*

Do the best you can, no man can do more — but never stop fighting. For us there is no sin so great as despair, and perhaps no virtue so vital as courage.

Um. Wow.

I came across this book in my many forays of pre-Stonewall queer history when I was writing a novelization of queer 1920s New York. Lucky for my research, my main characters were male, but I still came across the few and far between primary source fictions of queer women and bookmarked them. I received this book as a gift this Christmas, and seeing a lull in school work, dedicated myself to the 166k word, 400-page clunker. (After reading War and Peace, it was a reassuring number, believe me.)

And man am I glad I read it.

A word of caution: If you don't like old-style prose, you probably won't like it. If you don't like a lot of detail that comes inherent to that style, you probably won't like it. And if you can't appreciate Christianity/Religiosity for a queer person and the many sufferings of it, you probably won't like it.

As I began reading, the idea that Stephen is a transgender man, instead of a "butch" lesbian, seemed to take over me. The linguistic and psychological concepts to differentiate same-sex attraction and gender identity were not known at the time, and it made Stephen's character at times both frustration and immensely fascinating. Coming into the book I was expecting a lesbian narrative, and the more I heard Stephen's feeling of being a boy, the more I grew convinced they were probably transgender, and thus a key part of understanding would be lost to me. As the book progressed, however, my theory seemed to waver, and I'm still not sure how Stephen would identify in the modern world. To me I realized, it didn't necessarily matter to my understanding of the novel's themes of a world not accepting something natural. No matter how Stephen would align themselves, the sentiments still stand: All queer people deserve to be treated equally.

From one character to the next we see how unjust the life is for an "invert". From Angela's twisted sense of selfishness to save her own unhappy honor, to Anna's disgusting denunciation of her child, to Puddle's true inclination never uttered to Stephen, to Martin's awkward growth of love and embarrassed leaving, to the deeply tragic story of Jamie and Barbara, and especially down to Stephen's last sacrifice—not only is the message abundantly clear but seems to also strengthen the connection Stephen had with her father, Sir Phillip.

Sir Phillip is the original God in this story, the Father who understands and accepts his child—but is too afraid to tell her or others for fear of hurting them. This then is the God the Father Stephen prays to at the end, the Father who loves and understands her, but for one reason or another is silent. Stephen finds his scrawled book of Psychopathia Sexualis like the commandments, and through it learns her Father accepts her. He just didn't tell her explicitly. The story is ultimately one of Stephen returning to her Father; enjoying his unabashed love as a child before being banished from her Eden of Morton, she must seek to find peace in her silent, God the Father once more.

And so I found attention to religion beautiful. Being religiously-inclined and grappling with my faith as I try to return to my own halcyon days of God (as Hall themselves would so eloquently put it), the struggle of religion was poignant to me. Stephen's life is underlined by a feeling of God: at times she believes in none of it, at others she seems to understand the power that He really is there—the symbolism of Stephen as Jesus comes to mind, sacrificing herself for her love so she may have a better life. If Hall could be a devout Catholic in the face of her sexuality, her trials—and hell—even WWI, then anyone could. I've been praying for my own spirituality recently, trying to understand my encounters with spirits against a world that tells me I must be insane, the outmoded creation stories, and twisted single-mindedness of the Christian we've all come to revile. It seems like a blessing then that I read this book at the time that I did, and I hope one day I'm at peace with my encounters with the unexplained and otherworldly, and the universality of a God for all people on earth no matter what creed. For now, I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the book, something I'll hold on to for life:

Then an unexpected, and to her very moving thing happened; his eyes filled with pitiful tears: ‘Lord,’ he muttered, ‘why need this have come upon you — this incomprehensible dispensation? It’s enough to make one deny God’s existence!’

She felt a great need to reassure him. At that moment he seemed so much younger than she was as he stood there with his eyes full of pitiful tears, doubting God, because of his human compassion: ‘There are still the trees. Don’t forget the trees, Martin — because of them you used to believe.’

‘Have you come to believe in a God then?’ he muttered.

‘Yes,’ she told him, ‘it’s strange, but I know now I must — lots of us feel that way in the end. I’m not really religious like some of the others, but I’ve got to acknowledge God’s existence, though at times I still think: “Can He really exist?” One can’t help it, when one’s seen what I have here in Paris. But unless there’s a God, where do some of us find even the little courage we possess?’


(For anyone more interested in Hall's relationship with her spirituality, I recommend this article written by a queer Christian site
The book is not 5 stars only because of the length. Sometimes I felt myself slogging through (sometimes being the keyword), though I genuinely liked the writing style in all its stately obsequiousness to detail I know many do not appreciate. Sometimes the attention to detail, especially of natural elements, went on for paragraphs and I wanted to bang my head against something to wake it up. I felt at times the themes were not completely cohesive either, as the details seemed to muddy the message Hall was going for.

I could write 3 papers on this book and the literary merit it still holds—why it is not in schools hounds me. I feel the value of the book escapes the masses, not by any deficiency of themselves but rather of the time and the subject manner. We have equal protection under the law now and classical religion is dwindling. The pertinent issues were already niche 90 years ago, I understand the canon's ignorance of it, though it makes my heart ache. If only Hall could see the happy, queer marriages able to take place in churches now—though a part of me knows she sees it all already.

***
‘God,’ she gasped, 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!’
… (more)
½
 
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Eavans | 48 other reviews | Feb 17, 2023 |
This is a book to give rise to mixed emotions. On the one hand, it makes you feel angry that Joan feels she has no other option but care for his mother, despite her ambitions and the support she has from Elizabeth. And angry at Mrs Ogden for being to too clingy. On the other, there's the relationship between Elizabeth and Joan that pushes both of them forward, until Joan disapppoints Elizabeth one final time. Radclyffe Hall didn't write this novel as her great lesbian love story, but that's how it reads, and in many ways it was more compelling than Stephen and Mary in The Well of Loneliness.… (more)
 
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queen_ypolita | 4 other reviews | Dec 6, 2022 |
I read this book for a graduate reading list that I put together on lesbian novels. It was a fascinating read, historically, but on an emotional level it s devastating. I've often thought about re-reading it, but need to wait for a few sunny days on the beach when I'm in a splendid mood.
 
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Chris.Wolak | 48 other reviews | Oct 13, 2022 |

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