When The Well of Loneliness came out in July 1928 the reviewers were not astonished. Both Leonard Woolf and L.P. Hartley thought the book sincere, but overemphatic. The Times Literary Supplement also called it sincere, and Vera Brittain said it was ‘admirably restrained’. It sold quite well, going into a second impression, and Radclyffe Hall, with her lover Una Troubridge, thought of taking a cottage in Rye. She may have felt some disappointment, having planned her novel in a crusader’s spirit. She claimed to have written the first full-length treatment in English of women who loved women. In Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, she said, ‘the subject was only introduced as an episode.’ (She seems not to have known Dickens’s Tattycoram and Miss Wade.) She wanted to ‘smash the conspiracy of silence’, but found herself instead mildly successful at W.H. Smith and the Times Bookshop.
The case was altered only by James Douglas, the editor (also in a crusader’s spirit) of the Sunday Express. Douglas decided, a month later, to feature the book and its photogenic author, in her ‘severe’ smoking-jacket, as evidence of ‘the plague stalking shamelessly through public life and corrupting the healthy youth of the nation’. The rest of the popular press divided up for or against the Express’s stunt, The Well sold out, the Home Secretary gave his opinion against the novel and Cape was summoned to Bow Street to show cause why it should not be destroyed in the public interest. John Hall (to give her the name she preferred) was not called upon to give evidence, and was silenced, when she tried to interrupt, by the magistrate. In this way the Beaverbrook press started The Well on its career as the best-known lesbian novel in the English language.
At heart, The Well is a nice long solid Great-War-period romantic novel. The ethos is that of If winter comes, or The Forsyte Saga. Stephen, the hero/heroine, driven out of her grand ancestral home, joins an ambulance unit, is wounded and gets the Croix de Guerre, and won’t declare her compromising love until she is sure it’s returned. When Mary succumbs she supports her by writing, but has to work such long hours that Mary, left on her own, takes to drink. To save her from degradation and childlessness Stephen, in a great act of self-sacrifice, drives her into the arms of a man, who marries her. Those were the days of Boots Circulating Libraries, and The Well only needs one adjustment, though an important one, to make it a first-class Boots book. This, in fact, has always been the objection of its most serious readers. Stephen’s final plea, ‘Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world,’ doesn’t mean ‘I am different, let us be different in peace’ but ‘I am the same, why can’t you admit it?’ Stephen is a transsexual, but the suggestion is that she wants to conform to society and can’t, just as Peter Pan, as Barrie finally admitted to himself, wanted to grow up, but couldn’t. Women are treated in The Well without much sympathy, and almost always as empty-headed. The whole book supports the view that men are naturally superior, which is why Stephen would prefer to be one. Another drawback to its defence of lesbians (‘my people’, as John called them) is the frightful gloom and ill-fortune attending on the minor characters, who grow consumptive or deranged, or commit suicide in garrets. Stephen’s circle of friends, it seems, is doomed. Whatever else the novel does, it doesn’t show the lesbian life as recommendable.
Michael Baker has taken on the task of relating The Well to John’s own life. ‘It is arguable,’ he writes, ‘that had John drawn more on her own personal knowledge, a better novel would have resulted.’ But she would have had, of course, to romanticise herself less. Her other novels, in particular Adam’s Breed and the touching Unlit Lamp, speak for the victimised and repressed. The life of Radclyffe Hall herself was not tragic, not sacrificial, not self-denying. Writers are not obliged to be like their books. But there is something disconcerting, which Baker evidently feels, about the discrepancy here.
John was born as Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe-Hall in a house in Bournemouth called Sunny Lawn. She was not a masculine-looking child; Sir Arthur Sullivan called her ‘Toddles’. But Toddles suffered deeply from the division between her rarely-seen father and her violent, hysterical mother. (The bewilderment of children growing up without love was what she was to do best in fiction.) In 1901, with not much in the way of education, she came of age and inherited her grandfather’s fortune. This meant freedom to travel, and in 1907, at Homburg, she met Mabel Batten, a dashing, well-connected older woman who was there to take the waters and play roulette. Mabel had a warm mezzo-soprano voice; she was the kind of woman Sargent painted, and he did paint her. She was thought to have been one of Edward VII’s mistresses.
By 1907 Mabel was 50, had spread emotionally and physically, and was known as ‘Ladye’. Ladye’s hot-water-bottles were called Jones and Charlie, and she petted and spoiled them. As John’s first lover, she did duty, too, for the unsatisfactory mother. Together they began to cruise to ‘dear abroad’, leaving Ladye’s complaisant husband to spend his time at his clubs. There was no scandal, Ladye having a truly Edwardian adroitness in managing the pleasures of the flesh. She was a Catholic convert, and John, too, was received by the Jesuits at Farm Street. Both of them were convinced that they must have met in some previous existence. But in a few years’ time Ladye’s forces had begun to wane. John became first impatient, then unfaithful. In 1915 she met Una Troubridge, who wrote in her Day Book that ‘our friendship, which was to last through life and after it, dated from that meeting.’
Baker’s title (unlike, for instance, I.A.R. Wylie’s Life with George) doesn’t refer to the homosexual’s divided nature. ‘Our Three Selves’ were Ladye, John and Una. During the war there was a tormenting ménage à trois at the Vernon Court Hotel which made Ladye (she too kept a diary) ‘sick at heart. Atmosphere sad beyond words.’ In 1916 she died of a heart attack. She had been at a tea-party, singing one of her own patriotic compositions, and came back, tired out, to find that John was not there. The resultant guilt and self-reproach, John found, could only be absolved by communication with the spirit world. With the help of Mrs Leonard, who was undoubtedly a powerful medium but sometimes, perhaps, resorted to likely guesses, Ladye was heard to forgive. ‘She says ... “I understand you and know you never hurt me intentionally ... I say most emphatically nothing could or shall prevent our meeting or my coming to you as long as God permits.” ’ Subsequently Ladye gave John permission to cut her hair short. The son/daughter was recognised as Una’s husband. Admiral Troubridge returned from action to find himself unwanted and his little daughter neglected. He was obliged, under protest, to apply for a legal separation. ‘A great peace and relief upon me,’ Una noted. ‘Deo Gratias.’
The Twenties were John and Una’s heyday, a period of what Baker calls ‘hectic socialising’. The two of them were instantly recognisable figures at first nights and private views, and were, of course, well-heeled travellers. ‘We stopped where we felt inclined,’ Una wrote, ‘and allowed the ex-chefs of royalty to feed us.’ Life was kept at fever pitch by quarrels and reconciliations, illnesses real or imaginary, and the false exhilaration of moving house. If all else failed, they could call in doctors and solicitors, or buy more and more pet dogs, or sack the servants. In politics they supported ‘our class’ and Mussolini’s Italy. Through all this Una remained John’s faithful wife, providing the reassurance which writers need. ‘After a day and a night spent like Jacob, wrestling with the angel of her own uninspired obstinacy, [John] would hand me the resulting manuscript ... and command me to read aloud ... having been asked if I was tired and told I was reading abominably and sometimes informed that I was ruining the beauty of what I read, the manuscript would be snatched from my hands and torn to shreds.’ But no price was too high to pay. If the marriage was necessarily sterile, at least the books had been born. All Una’s emotional capital was invested in John’s genius.
Michael Baker doesn’t claim to be a critic and therefore makes no attempt to decide whether her faith was justified. In any case, to Una, as to Ladye, John was unfaithful. During the hot summer of 1934, when they were in France, they had to call in a nurse from the American Hospital in Paris. She was a White Russian, Mongolian or ‘Chinky-looking’, and, Una thought, ‘quite unmistakably of our own class’. John, at 54, fell insanely in love with Evguenia Souline. She was restrained, but only for a short time, by the thought of the example of infidelity which she would give to ‘my people’ (Havelock Ellis had claimed that lesbian relationships were by their nature unstable). But Souline, who treated John as a source of easy money, was unpredictable and hard to get, and John, perhaps because of this, couldn’t exist without her. In her many hundreds of letters to her ‘sweet torment’ she began to refer to Una as a ‘terrible obligation’ and a load which might be beyond bearing. Only the Second World War separated these later Three Selves.
At intervals throughout the long story a curious heartlessness appears. Ladye stands deserted in the darkening hotel room. Admiral Troubridge is left astounded and embittered when Una hints to her friends that he has infected her with syphilis. Una’s small daughter is found wandering in the street with no one to care for her. As an adolescent, she is asked to call John ‘Uncle’. Una, after twenty years of loyalty, is left hanging about, recovering from a hysterectomy, while out at Passy John is in bed with Souline. In the words of The Well of Loneliness, ‘God alone knows who shall judge of such matters.’
Michael Baker has written this biography with a calm, flat-footed perseverance which contrasts effectively with the agonies of his subject. He has turned up a considerable amount of new material. In addition to Una’s Day Book, which was also used by Richard Ormrod in his Una Troubridge (1984), he has had access to Mabel Batten’s diaries and to the letters to Souline. But while Ormrod declared ‘a measure of personal empathy’ with Una, Baker doesn’t precisely explain what led him to write such a long book about Radclyffe Hall. Perhaps what attracted him, in the end, was her courage. Courage is not the same thing for the well-off as for the poor. John thought of herself as a martyr, but it was a martyrdom de luxe. I’m not thinking, however, of her defiance of the law or even of her fortitude in her last illness, but of her experience, through so many years, of being treated as somewhat ridiculous. Rupert Hart-Davis’s remark ‘It was always said that at a dinner-party, when the women left the table, Johnny Hall found it hard to make up her mind whether to go with the women or remain with the men’ says it all. But Radclyffe Hall was never deflected, either by friends or by enemies. She never wavered in her immense seriousness. She continued to hold her head high, even in the face of English jokiness.