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Radclyffe Hall and the

John Simkin

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At the age of twenty-one Radclyffe Hall inherited a large sum of money that left in trust by her grandfather Charles Radclyffe-Hall. A lesbian, she lived with the singer Mabel Veronica Batten, who was twenty-five years her senior, until her death in 1916. Soon afterwards she began a relationship with Una Elena Troubridge (1887-1963), a talented sculptor. She was married to Admiral Ernest Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall sued him for libel after he described her as "a grossly immoral woman".

According to her biographer: "Believing herself a man trapped in a woman's body, she liked to be called John, assumed a male pseudonym (her father's name, significantly), and cultivated a strikingly masculine appearance, sporting cropped hair, monocles, bow-ties, smoking jackets, and pipes. A woman's best place, she proclaimed, was in the home."

In 1928 Radclyffe Hall published the novel, The Well of Loneliness, about the subject of lesbianism. The publisher, Jonathan Cape, argued on the bookjacket that: "In England hitherto the subject has not been treated frankly outside the regions of scientific text-books, but that its social consequences qualify a broader and more general treatment is likely to be the opinion of thoughtful and cultured people." There was a campaign by the press to get the book banned. The Sunday Express argued: "In order to prevent the contamination and corruption of English fiction it is the duty of the critic to make it impossible for any other novelist to repeat this outrage. I say deliberately that this novel is not fit to be sold by any bookseller or to be borrowed from any library."

Behind the scenes the Home Office put pressure of Jonathan Cape to withdraw the book. One official described the book as "inherently obscene… it supports a depraved practice and is gravely detrimental to the public interest". The chief magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ordered that all copies be destroyed, and that literary merit presented no grounds for defence. The publisher agreed to withdraw the novel and proofs intended for a publisher in France were seized in October 1928.

Maude Royden, a woman preacher, gave passionate support for the book. A sermon on the subject was published in The Guildhall Monthly in April 1929. "I feel bound to say that I find it difficult to understand why an official who permits the publication of books so filthy that it soils the mind to read them, and the production of plays in which everything that is connected with sex is degraded, in which marriage and adultery alike are treated as though they were rather a nasty joke, should have fastened on this particular book as being unfit for us to read. I do not desire that those other books or plays should be suppressed; I have no faith at all in that way of dealing with evil. It is better to concentrate our efforts on trying to be interested in something that is good than to take a short cut to virtue by repressing what is evil."

Radclyffe Hall wrote to Maude Royden explaining her motivation for writing the novel: "May I take this opportunity of telling you how much your support of The Well of Loneliness has meant to its author during the past months of government persecution. I wrote the book in order to help a very much misunderstood and therefore unfortunate section of society, and to feel that a leader of thought like yourself had extended to me your understanding was, and still is, a source of strength and encouragement."




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