“All Part of Nature”: Radclyffe Hall’s Life

Born Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall, the writer who would go on to be known simply as Radclyffe Hall often, in her private life, went by the name John.

May 3, 2024By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

radclyffe hall life


Radclyffe Hall is today best known as the author of the once-vilified 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which is now celebrated as a landmark work of lesbian fiction and credited with ushering in a wave of lesbian pulp fiction later in the twentieth century. Like Stephen Gordon, the protagonist of her most famous work, Hall led a difficult life, first as an unwanted child and later as a lesbian in a society that neither recognized nor tolerated same-sex relationships between women. Here, we will take a closer look at Hall’s remarkable life story.


Radclyffe Hall’s Early Life

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Photograph of Radclyffe Hall. Source: The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas


Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall was born on August 12, 1880 in Bournemouth, then part of the county of Hampshire, England. Her father, Radclyffe “Rat” Radclyffe-Hall, was a man of independent means, having inherited a sizeable fortune from his father, a physician and former head of the British Medical Association. Educated at Eton and the University of Oxford, he rarely worked, instead spending his time seducing women and having affairs.


Hall’s mother was Mary Jane Sager (née Diehl), an American woman from Philadelphia who had already been married and widowed once before. Hall’s father left his wife and daughter in 1882, though he did bequeath Hall a substantial inheritance that would mean she would never have to work or marry in order to support herself.


Left to the tender mercies of her mother and her mother’s third husband (Hall’s stepfather), the Dalmatian professor of singing Albert Visetti, Hall had a difficult home life while growing up. The relationship between Visetti and Hall’s mother was often strained, and Hall, in turn, disliked both of them intensely.

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Although her mother had been helping herself to some of Hall’s inheritance from her father throughout her childhood, as Hall matured, she found that she had more than enough money on which to live in considerable luxury. With no desire to marry and no one she needed to please but herself, she took to dressing in men’s clothes. Having read the sexological work of Havelock Ellis, she referred to herself as a “congenital invert” rather than a lesbian. She used her newfound independence in her twenties to pursue other women, though these affairs would eventually end when the other women married.


Discovering Her Sexuality & Experimenting with Gender Expression

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Mrs George Batten Singing, by John Singer Sargent, 1897. Source: New York Art Tours


While Hall’s romantic relationships with young women floundered once they got married, in 1907, she met Mabel Batten, a 51-year-old married woman with an adult daughter and grandchildren, at the Bad Homburg spa in Germany. Hall and Mabel fell in love, and following the death of Batten’s husband, the couple began living together.


Mabel first gave Hall the name “John,” by which she was thereafter known to her loved ones. Moreover, Mabel, an amateur singer of Lieder, introduced Hall to other literary, artistic, and intellectual women, several of whom were also lesbians. Regarding Hall’s own literary endeavors, it was Mabel who encouraged her to submit her poetry for publication. Between 1906 and 1915, Hall published five volumes of poetry.


In 1915, however, Hall also met and fell in love with Mabel’s cousin, the sculptor Una Trourbridge. Like Mabel, Una was a married woman, being the wife of Vice-Admiral Ernest Trourbridge and the mother of a young daughter. Nonetheless, Una and Hall remained together as a couple until Hall’s death. Their relationship, however, inevitably strained her relationship with Mabel before she died in 1916.


Despite having found happiness with Una, Hall paid for Mabel’s body to be embalmed and buried with a silver crucifix blessed by the Pope. Following her conversion to Catholicism in 1912, Hall maintained her Catholic faith, alongside her belief in spiritualism and metempsychosis, despite the Church’s position on same-sex relationships.


Like her philandering father before her, however, Hall was not always faithful to Una. In 1934, when Una fell ill with enteritis, Hall engaged a Russian nurse named Evguenia Souline to care for her. Hall and Souline soon had an affair, of which Una was aware. Though deeply hurt by Hall’s infidelity, she endured the affair and remained with her.


Becoming a Published Author

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UK first edition of Adam’s Breed, 1926. Source: Lycanthia Rare Books


Having already published five books of poetry under her full name, Hall’s first two novels were both published in 1924. The Forge, a social comedy, is in marked contrast with The Unlit Lamp, which centers on the protagonist Joan Ogden, whose dreams of independence and studying medicine are threatened by the maneuvres of a mother who is emotionally manipulative and dependent in equal measure. The Unlit Lamp was also the first work by Hall to be published under the name Radclyffe Hall, The Forge having been released under the marginally longer name M. Radclyffe Hall.


Just a year after the publication of The Unlit Lamp and The Forge came A Saturday Life in 1925, also a comic novel. This was shortly followed by Adam’s Breed in 1926, which tells the story of an Italian headwaiter who adopts a hermetic lifestyle in the forest after becoming disgusted with his line of work, including food itself. Adam’s Breed was both a critical and commercial success, winning both the James Tait Black Prize and the Prix Femina, thus replicating a success at that point only enjoyed by E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India.


Perhaps emboldened by the success of Adam’s Breed and feeling more confident in her skills as a writer, she went on to publish her first short story to feature homosexuality and soon began work on The Well of Loneliness, which would go on to be her most well-known, and controversial, novel.


Courting Controversy: The Well of Loneliness on Trial

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UK first edition of The Well of Loneliness, 1928. Source: Swann Galleries


After the success of Adam’s Breed, Hall embarked on an ambitious new project, writing to her publisher that she was “put[ting] [her] pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world.”


The result was The Well of Loneliness, in which Stephen Gordon, a masculine-presenting lesbian, is spurned by society and her own mother in her quest for love and acceptance, which takes her from the battlefields of the First World War to bohemian Paris, where there were no laws prohibiting same-sex relationships between men (unlike in the United Kingdom) meaning that gay subcultures thrived. And yet, despite all her searching, Stephen still finds that society’s view of sexuality is at odds with her happiness, and the novel ends with Stephen’s earnest prayer to God to “[g]ive us also the right to our existence.”


In asking that same-sex relationships between women be treated with acceptance and tolerance rather than fear and disgust, The Well of Loneliness was described as propaganda by the editor of the Sunday Express, James Douglas, who used his newspaper to launch a public campaign against Hall’s novel. Arguing that the novel posed a risk to the moral integrity of young men and women, Douglas successfully pressed the (also deeply conservative) home secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, to take legal action against The Well of Loneliness.


The Well of Loneliness was put on trial over charges of obscenity on November 28, 1928, the outcome of which was a guilty verdict. Hall’s novel was therefore taken out of circulation in the UK. In America, however, after a trial on the same charges, the novel was found not to have violated any laws and was made freely available to US readers, securing Hall’s position as an icon of queer literature.


Late Style & Radclyffe Hall’s Later Life

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Photograph of Radclyffe Hall. Source: Literature Cambridge


The controversy that centered around The Well of Loneliness was often deeply hurtful to Hall. One anonymous lampoon, written in verse, titled “The Sink of Solitude,” largely reserved its mockery for Douglas and Joynson-Hicks, though Hall did not go unscathed either. An illustration depicting her crucified that was featured in the anonymous work particularly appalled the Catholic Hall.


In response to this, her next novel, The Master of the House (1932), focused on the character of Christophe Benedit, a carpenter whom Una described as a “modern Christ figure.” Advance sales for the novel were promising, and the novel made the top spot on The Observer’s bestseller list. The critical reception of the novel was less favorable, however, and sales soon dwindled.


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Portrait photograph of Radclyffe Hall, c. 1930. Source: The British Library


Hall spent the 1930s living with Una in Rye, East Sussex, England, a small town that boasted a surprisingly large number of writers among its inhabitants. In addition to her affair with Evguenia Souline, she also had affairs with other women during this time, including the American singer and actress Ethel Waters. In 1930, she was honored with the Gold Medal of the Eichelberger Humane Award.


In 1943, Hall was diagnosed with cancer of the rectum, which, though operated on, proved fatal. She died later that year at the age of 63. Her body was interred in a vault in Highgate Cemetery alongside her former lover, Mabel Batten.


After a difficult childhood, Hall entered a world that was reluctant to either recognize or tolerate those of her sexual orientation. She endured further public vilification due to the trial of The Well of Loneliness. But, in daring to write “in the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world,” she sparked a wider cultural conversation surrounding lesbianism and became an icon of queer literature.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.