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date: 14 October 2019

Hall, Radclyffe

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History

Richard Dellamora

Hall, Radclyffe 


English novelist and social rights activist. Best known as the author of The Well of Loneliness—called by some “the lesbian bible”—as a young woman Hall was known for her athleticism, good looks, and boyish sexual charm. Born Marguerite Radclyffe‐Hall, she began her literary career as a writer of verse and lyrics for songs, most notably “The Blind Ploughman,” a popular favorite during World War I. Hall's first long‐term partner, Mabel Veronica “Ladye” Batten, a socialite and salon singer, introduced her to pro‐suffrage feminists and an international circle of wealthy Sapphic women.

In 1916, Batten experienced a fatal stroke in the midst of a quarrel over Hall's affair with a younger woman, Una Troubridge. Overcome by guilt, for six years Hall immersed herself in psychical research in an attempt to achieve reconciliation with Batten. Her first extended publication in prose, two lectures and a long article on her research, led to a court action in 1920, in which she successfully sued a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research who had accused her of being “a grossly immoral woman.” With Troubridge now as partner and literary collaborator, Hall achieved quick success with a series of novels in the mid‐1920s: two successful comedies, The Forge (1924) and A Saturday Life (1925); The Unlit Lamp (1924), her first completed and possibly best novel, a powerful study of an incestuous female triangle including a mother and daughter; and Adam's Breed (1926), the first of three religious novels. With these books Hall developed a strong following among lesbian readers, who recognized their own situations and challenges in those of her fictional characters.

Hall's next novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928), explores the social and psychological existence of a masculine woman—or “sexual invert,” to use the parlance of the day. The suppression of the novel by the Tory government turned Hall into an international celebrity and best‐selling author. A similar attempt to suppress the book was made in the United States in an important obscenity trial in New York; it was unsuccessful.

Because of Hall's emotional directness, psychological acuteness, and political alertness, The Well of Loneliness has continued to be widely read. Preoccupied with the social existence of women with sexual and emotional ties to other women, Hall makes a strong case for the marital rights of same‐sex partners. At the same time, her sensitivity to the experience of masculine women has given the book strong appeal in recent years to butch females and also to transsexual and transgendered subjects.

Unfortunately for Hall, the other side of celebrity proved to be depression, psychological and social isolation, and a sense of being persecuted. In the 1930s her relationship with Troubridge deteriorated, and her next novel, The Master of the House (1932), failed. In 1934 she fell in love with Evguenia Souline, a young stateless Russian émigré living in Paris, whom Hall believed to be bisexual. They continued to communicate until, after a long series of increasingly debilitating ailments, Hall died in 1943. Her final novel, The Sixth Beatitude (1936), permeated with a naturalist mysticism similar to that of filmmakers of the period such as Michael Powell and Roberto Rossellini, refigures her elusive beloved as Hannah Bullen, a lower‐working‐class unmarried mother and an intensely virile woman.


Baker, Michael. Our Three Selves: A Life of Radclyffe Hall. London: GMP, 1985. Remains the best chronological account.Find this resource:

Cline, Sally. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John. London: John Murray, 1997. The first biography from a feminist slant, with important new material.Find this resource:

Doan, Laura, and Jay Prosser, eds. Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on “The Well of Loneliness.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. The only available critical study of the novel.Find this resource:

Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Argues persuasively for The Well of Loneliness as an account of transgendered and transsexual experience.Find this resource:

Richard Dellamora