Radclyffe Hall was a lesbian writer in the late 1800s and early turn of the century, a seemingly unlucky combination of two not equally impossible things. It was difficult for a woman to be a writer—particularly a poet, a profession with deserved repute as the ultimate starving-artist aspiration. It was harder to be a lesbian. And it was possible that Radclyffe Hall was something else as well: an early public example of gender fluidity. Hall dressed in men’s clothing, often went by John, and dared to be open in her work and personal life. Unlike many of her contemporaries, her sexuality is not hidden in metaphor nor obfuscated in the misinterpretations of historians and critics. Today, newly-released archives reveal the private support her work earned in its time—a better story than the dark and frustrating narrative of queer fiction and its suppression.
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1928 was the year of Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando, a pioneering work of gender and sexuality. The novel depicts a gender-fluid protagonist whose transformation is as literal as it is metaphoric, as magical as it is dismissible in all its magic. Commentary on sexuality (serious work, coming from a documented bisexual) vanishes into the cloud cover of language—or worse, it is deliberately hidden. Orlando has historically been “a book to explain away rather than embrace,” a lighthearted adventure rather than a work for serious scholarly interest. This is, of course, not what the book actually is, but what scholars of the day needed it to be: if it was fun, it could not be controversial. 1928 was also the year of Radclyffe’s Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a novel more explicit in its intent.
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The novel was explicit in its grasp at LGBT+ representation, a fact documented in Hall’s own letters. She warned her publisher of her upcoming novel’s subject: “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world.” Such representation was more than Hall’s intent—it became her accomplishment. The Well of Loneliness depicts the accomplished life of the noble and endearing Stephen—a woman with a man’s name, a man’s clothing, and what was perceived to be a man’s desires. It takes aim at the associated existential questions, asking who am I really? at a time in which that question had so many wrong and wronger answers. And in its boldest move, the novel ends with both a plea and an excoriating demand: “give us also the right to our existence!”
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The novel was never explicit in its actual content. While earlier drafts contained lesbian sex scenes, the final product was chaste in its sexuality and raw in its emotions. The editor of The Sunday Express was the loudest voice commenting upon Hall’s accomplishment, a work widely-regarded as the pioneer of lesbian fiction: “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” His words would reflect those of Stephen’s mother, displaying the hateful rhetoric soaking through generations of art and lived experience: “this thing that you are is a sin against creation.” Though the book was inarguably devoid of any sexual obscenity, true moral crisis of the novel was something it contained—an open description of an experience that could not be hidden. And since it could not be hidden, it would have to be buried.
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Over three decades after Oscar Wilde’s 1895 obscenity trial, The Well of Loneliness, too, was condemned. The book would not be published in the UK; icons of the time, including Winston Churchill, suggested it be destroyed. It seemed the only mercy of the thirty years between the two trials was that Hall escaped this incident with both her life and mind, less an accomplishment and more a fortunate coincidence. The UK would not see publication of Hall’s novel until after her death, and authorities seized all copies published abroad. But that wasn’t the end of the story—nor was it the beginning.
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The censorship of The Well of Loneliness is an inextricable part of its origin story, but it isn’t the whole tale. That story neglects the bravery of American publisher Pascal Covici, who took out a loan amounting to over $100,000 in today’s currency in order to purchase the rights to the controversial novel. The year was still 1928, but the publisher’s actions confirmed that this was a time that merely implied hatred rather than demanded it. Many readers felt that the novel showed them a world they could understand, even as society told them not to. Now, readers and critics have access to archives of Hall’s correspondences—and the powerful truths they reveal about compassion, love, and self.
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One American reader expressed support during the obscenity trial: “The picture you paint of the poor [homosexual] should make everyone more charitable … No one could finish your book, Miss Hall, without donning a sword and shield forever in the cause of [homosexuals].” A UK native expressed the timeless power of literature to change perspectives: “At first it repulsed and disgusted, and then the pathos and beauty of it got me, and if I had it in my power to help those poor souls I would have offered my services.” But this was a story some readers had heard before—a story they had lived.
“I discovered myself in Paris and dreaded this thing which I thought abnormal,” one reader confessed. The novel had not shown this anonymous individual a new perspective on life. Instead, the new possibility was that their own perspective was correct—the revolutionary idea was not that homosexuality existed but that it might be love. “It has made me want to live.”