The Trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami
|The Trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami|
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste|
|Summary: The life of Radclyffe Hall, best remembered for her landmark lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 573||Date: March 2013|
|External links: Author's website|
It is a coincidence that the year 1928 saw the first appearance of two English novels which were denounced and initially suppressed on the grounds of obscenity and their potential to corrupt innocent readers – D.H. Lawrence’s 'Lady Chatterley’s Lover' and Radclyffe Hall's 'The Well of Loneliness'. Lawrence's many novels, stories and poems are widely read today, but Hall and her works are hardly remembered except by a minority. Diana Souhami has done her a service in this generous yet deeply probing life of a literary trailblazer.
Born in Bournemouth in 1880, Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall was the lonely child of parents who hated each other and separated shortly after she was born. Her mother and stepfather virtually ignored her (until later in life, when she was famous and wealthy enough to be their meal ticket, especially when it came to paying medical bills), and as a young woman she realised she was in the words of Havelock Ellis, a 'congenital invert', the then widely-used and accepted term for lesbian. A number of brief affairs with women whom she subsequently lost when they married was followed by a nine-year relationship with Mabel Batten, who gave her the name 'John' which she subsequently took and used for life, and they lived together after the latter was widowed. When Batten was dying, Hall fell in love with her cousin Una Troubridge, wife of a naval officer, and much to his fury, both women set up house and lived together.
Between 1924 and 1926 Hall (I find it difficult to refer to her as John, sorry) wrote and published four novels, which all sold fairly well though are all but forgotten today. Two years later came The Well Of Loneliness. At first it received largely favourable reviews and encouraging sales, until it came to the notice of James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, angrily condemned it as outrageous, perverted, an affront to public decency and not fit to be sold by any bookseller or lent by any library. He would rather give a healthy boy or girl a phial of prussic acid than a copy of the book. Even though Hall's narrative was far more restrained and less sexually explicit than Lady Chatterley – a reference to 'she kissed her full on the lips' being about as steamy as it ever got - members of the government and the legal authorities joined forces to manipulate the legal system in having the book declared obscene on the grounds of defending 'unnatural practices between women', and suppressed.
Souhami was fortunate in being able to consult Home Office papers which had been kept from public view on the grounds of sensitivity for seventy years and which, as she had suspected, shamed the legal process. They demonstrated that politicians and the law connived to get the result they wanted, and left nothing to chance. She also shows that Douglas's campaign against Hall's book was motivated less by a burning desire to protect the minds of innocent young girls who were unaware that lesbianism even existed and might possibly be driven to experiment with same-sex relationships, than the knowledge that thundering against a 'filthy publication' would do wonders for his paper’s circulation. Such strategy was sadly commonplace long before the Rupert Murdoch era. The whole sordid campaign is described in painstaking detail, as is its effect on the hapless author.
The book brought her a reputation as a lesbian icon and literary pioneer, and a fearless fighter against homophobia. Paradoxically she was the very antithesis of a rebel or anti-establishment figure, being a right-wing patriot and mainstay of the Roman Catholic Church. The whole legal case against her book threatened to turn her into a fervent socialist and into turning her back on Britain in order to settle abroad, but this effect was shortlived. However, she wrote and published very little during the rest of her life.
As a person, she seems to have had few redeeming qualities. Although Souhami is unstinting in her admiration of a character who was well ahead of her time in devoting herself to the fight against prejudice and bigotry, she portrays her subject as a deeply flawed, not to say selfish and thoroughly dislikeable character. She was the employer from hell as far as her servants were concerned, dismissing them without notice for any petty refraction and disposing of pets when she became bored with them or – like her servants – did the merest thing wrong. In 1934 she took another lover, Evguenia Souline, a Russian émigré many years younger than her. All three women lived together in an increasingly uncomfortable triangle, with Troubridge bitterly resentful of the arrangement. Souline was shameless about asking Hall for money but wearied of her possessiveness, often complaining that she felt like a mere tart who was being used for physical satisfaction by a mistress.
Hall was evidently a very unhappy woman for the last few years of her life, at the centre of a relationship with two women whom she loved but who hated each other, in addition to being harried by an elderly ailing mother who had more or less abandoned her but expected her to pay all her medical expenses, and in poor health herself. It must have come as a relief when she died of cancer, but the legal wrangles over her will and the fighting between Troubridge and Souline make for painful reading. The latter’s death, also from cancer, in 1958, is documented, although I had to resort to the internet to find out what happened to Troubridge, who survived them both and died in 1963.
That omission apart, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Souhami has brought the personalities to life as well as the atmosphere of the 1920s when Britain was evidently a much more repressive country than France and America. The years of the Second World War and the privations these relatively wealthy women had to ensure are also vividly portrayed. Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography after its first publication in 1998, this is a relatively long and often sombre volume, but a very good read.
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