Shadowy corners in the Hall of fame

Radclyffe Hall

September 12, 1997

Is there a reason that so many rich, upperclass lesbians whose lives spanned both world wars were pro-fascist? Certainly Radclyffe Hall and her friends-the writer Natalie Barney (who gave Ezra Pound the radio transmitter from which he broadcast his pro-fascist rants), the painter Romaine Brooks, the playwright Gabriele D'Annunzio - formed a pro-fascist cultural cadre. In Sally Cline's new biography of Hall, this pro-fascism is ethereal, not part of the texture of Hall's life. And Cline offers an apologia: Hall's "crusade on behalf of lesbians had not yet led her to empathise with other persecuted groups". Nor would it. The difficult question is not asked: why has lesbian emancipation been compatible in the lives of elite women with fascism? Is this group so privileged and so distinct that democracy is repugnant; or, in Hall's case, did the brutality in her childhood create an allegiance to dominance and authoritarian control?

She was born August 12 1880 as Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall. Her father, a playboy nicknamed "Rat", saw her only a few times. Her mother, Marie, whom she hated, battered her; and she was physically and possibly sexually abused by her stepfather. "The psychological effects of abuse on her," says Cline, "were . . . extreme nervousness, outbursts of wild temper, feelings of restriction, fear of being out of control, a sense of dread . . ."

Like many abused girls, Hall named and renamed herself: as a published poet (1906 to 1915) she used her birth name; writing novels (1924 to 1943) she was Radclyffe Hall; in private life from 1912 on she was John. She had three long-term relationships: the first with Mabel Veronica Batten, a fashionable singer, 51 to Hall's , nicknamed Ladye, married and with a daughter older than Hall; the second, Una Troubridge, with whom she became involved while still living with Ladye, publicly known after Ladye's death as Hall's partner and the first translator of Colette into English, also married and with a young daughter; and finally, while still living with Una, the younger Evguenia Souline, a White Russian refugee. Infidelity and loyalty - her relationship with Troubridge lasting 28 years until Hall's death in 1943 - characterised her intimacies. She would try to live with Una and Evguenia both; but the imposed closeness created a deep antagonism between them, handled with grace only when Hall was dying.

"For John," says Cline, "the concept of passionate friendship was basic to her interpretation of lesbian love. Love without friendship was emotion without honour." Still, Hall had little patience with Ladye's increasing frailty as she became old, or with Una once Hall wanted to be with Evguenia.

While Ladye mentored Hall, bringing her into a world of women writers, composers, and suffragists, Una and Hall shared an interest in spiritualism and animals. They bred dogs professionally and did sustained research on psychic phenomena. "John's view of marriage," says Cline, "was traditionally masculist"; she had a "disinclination to cook or engage in housework". Una gave up her own artistic aspirations to be Hall's helpmate, and, not unlike Sophie Tolstoy, was relegated to manuscript copying. Hall was "a creature of her class rather than a woman who identified with women." Patrician, rich, she used money to control relationships. A convert to Catholicism, she had what Cline calls a "hunger for absolution" and was driven by the need to punish herself.

Famous for the obscenity trial of the 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, Hall had her first legal fight in 1918 - a slander action she brought against St George Lane Fox-Pitt, who in response to her research paper read at the Society for Psychical Research called her a "grossly immoral woman". It was, said Hall's lawyer, "as horrible an accusation as could be made . . . (and) could only mean that the plaintiff was an unchaste and immoral woman who was addicted to unnatural vice." The jury found for Hall and awarded her Pounds 500 in damages. Hall won by being silent about her lesbianism. Fox-Pitt appealed and won the appeal on a legal formality. A new trial was ordered. Hall backed off. A decade later she came out (in every sense) fighting: "Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!" pleaded her heroine Stephen Gordon.

The struggle of the artist who is born a lesbian and stigmatised for her masculinity is at the heart of The Well of Loneliness. As Cline says, the theme of the artist's vocation is overwhelmed "by the crushing fame the novel attracted as a result of the court case." Stephen Gordon is, according to Cline, "the first portrait in English literature of a butch woman who is not a man, who does not ape men, but who adopts roles traditionally associated with men. . ." The use of "butch" suggests role playing; but there is no indication that either Hall or her Stephen Gordon were playing at all: they wanted freedom and rights that only men had. In The Well of Loneliness Hall posits that lesbians are born, not made; that same-sex desire is tragic because of the larger society's hostility; that the "loneliest place in the world is the no-man's land of sex"; that the masculine lesbian affronts society by wanting male privilege. Influenced by Havelock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, Hirschfeld, and Carpenter, she accepted and furthered what Cline calls the "medical colonisation of sexuality". Making lesbianism more visible, she helped destroy the protective cover of socially accepted romantic friendships between woman. Ironically this increased clarity led to viewing homosexuality as a disease. Her vocabulary may have become archaic, but her stance was prescient and brave.

Except for her advocacy of homosexual rights, her politics were ugly. She renounced her support of female suffrage when, on the heels of a threatened miners' strike in 1912, hundreds of militant women fought police in the streets of London and smashed windows. "Have the Suffragettes no spark of patriotism left, that they can spread revolt and hamper the government in this moment of grave national danger?" she wrote in an anonymous letter to the Pall Mall Gazette. A trip to Florence in 1921 similarly brought her into contact with Fascists and Communists fighting in the streets; and for her the Fascists were the good guys. She was deeply anti-Semitic: "I believe (the Jews) hate us and want to bring about a European War and then a World revolution in order to destroy us utterly." Her hatred was explicit. "Jews! Jews! Jews!" she wrote in 1938. "Millions of them trying to push their way into England. . ." By 1942, knowledge of mass deportations of Jews in France made her queasy: "the wholesale slaughter of the Jews is too fearful, the more so as one feels helpless to do anything for the poor devils..." She was now 62, nearly blind after several eye operations and with severe colitis. That same year she had abscesses on her gums, pleurisy, double pneumonia, haemorrhoids, and was in a coma for several weeks. In 1943 she was diagnosed with rectal cancer and had a colostomy; but the cancer was inoperable. She died on October 7 1943.

Asking whether "we should consider Radclyffe Hall predominantly as a boundary-breaking lesbian writer or as an important novelist ... (concerned with) multiple exile," Cline communicates the displacement, the loneliness, and the resourcefulness of Hall's life - a life that she made up as she went along. There was no already published script, no social narrative in which her needs and choices were already contextualised. Cline treats Hall creative work with respect and she is friendly to Hall's life. Cline's biography is conceptually sophisticated and conveys the emotional complexity of this brave and troubled woman. But I am distressed by the idealisation of Hall - her place (with Barney et al) as icon in lesbian and feminist mythology. Pro-fascism is not just a weird tic or an odd hobby or a slightly bizarre attitude. It goes to the heart of one's conception of humanity; and therefore one must ask - why is lesbian liberation so comfortable with fascism? Or, put more optimistically, why was it?

Andrea Dworkin is author of the forthcoming Life and Death to be published by Virago.

Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John

Author - Sally Cline
ISBN - 0 7195 5408 X
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 434

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