One Night in Maidenhead

Jean McNicol

  • Noel Coward and Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits by Terry Castle
    Columbia, 150 pp, £15.95, November 1996, ISBN 0 231 10596 7
  • Your John: The Love Letters of Radclyffe Hall edited by Joanne Glasgow
    New York, 273 pp, £20.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 8147 3092 2
  • Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John by Sally Cline
    Murray, 434 pp, £25.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5408 X

‘Honey, she’s a forerunner, that’s what she is, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind. I believe she’s the beginning of things like me.’ Radclyffe Hall has long since been left behind, along with Joan Ogden, the heroine of her first novel, The Unlit Lamp, and the character to whom these words refer. The young women she had overheard, Ogden thought, were ‘aggressively intelligent ... not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair; women who did things well ... women who counted and who would go on counting ... They might still be in the minority and yet they sprang up everywhere.’ This passage, with its untroubled description of lesbianism, is unusual in Hall’s fiction – although it is true that even these confident young women exist only to point up Joan’s own failure in this respect and others. The portrayal of homosexual life in Hall’s famous novel, The Well of Loneliness, is much more gloomy and melodramatic, and bears little resemblance to her own not terribly tragic life.

Early in her suggestive and elegantly written study of Noël Coward and Radclyffe Hall, Terry Castle admits that Hall’s ‘style is for the most part the antithesis of Coward’s – painfully discursive, polemical, almost entirely devoid of gaiety, archness or ambiguity’. Castle attempts to ‘Cowardise’ Hall, though allowing that ‘she may never be exactly sprightly,’ and to break down the stereotypical opposition she sees exemplified in the pair between the writings and the lives of gay men (‘worldly and facetious’) and women (‘humourless and self-involved’). She does this by tracing both their friendship – part of a ‘rich yet neglected’ history of ‘cultural relationships’ between gay men and lesbians since the beginning of this century (several of her examples are members of the Bloomsbury Group whose friendships can’t be said to have been ignored or used to further a theory of separate development) – and what she sees as their, more or less disguised, fictional portraits of each other.

Jonathan Brockett in The Well of Loneliness bears an unmistakable resemblance to Coward. Hall’s heroine Stephen Gordon (Radclyffe Hall was called John for most of her adult life) knows that Brockett, a playwright with soft white hands and an effeminate voice, is a man ‘who would never require more of her than she could give’. When they visit Versailles together he talks to her about Marie Antoinette and Madame de Lamballe. Rumours about Marie Antoinette’s lesbianism were current at the time and two Oxford dons, Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain, who in 1901 had seen an apparition of the Queen near the Petit Trianon, published an account of their experience, An Adventure, in 1911, around the time this scene is set. Marie Antoinette, according to Terry Castle’s essay on this subject, ‘plays the part of both seductive object of desire and visionary emblem of female-female bonding’. Certainly, the two women, who had only just met, lived together for the rest of their lives as ‘husband and wife’. Hall clearly expects her readers to be familiar with the stories about the Queen. Brockett says to Stephen that Marie Antoinette and Madame de Lamballe ‘must often have felt pretty miserable, poor souls; sick to death of the subterfuge and pretences. Don’t you ever get tired of that sort of thing? My God, I do!’ But Stephen doesn’t want to confide in him and his interest in her isn’t entirely friendly: he has ‘a hard, clever face with sharp eyes that were glued to other people’s keyholes. That was why Brockett wrote such fine plays, such cruel plays.’

Like Valérie Seymour (a character based on the American lesbian Natalie Barney, a well-known hostess in Paris), Brockett doesn’t particularly want to be ‘normal’, believes that ‘loneliness’ is not inevitable and that renunciation need not be necessary. Their appearance in the novel challenges its inexorable progress towards tragedy and melodrama, but they fail to prevent Stephen’s absurd self-sacrifice, as she forces her girlfriend into the arms of a man. Brockett abruptly leaves a low dive, refusing to take part in the ‘garish and tragic night life of Paris that lies open to people such as Stephen Gordon’, just as the book gathers speed for the final disaster, which is itself made possible by Valérie’s rather heartless acquiescence – she agrees to pretend that she is having an affair with Stephen. Brockett isn’t similarly compromised, and his presence in the novel remains, as Castle stresses, a ‘salutary incoherence, a rebuff to the dire’.

Brockett may not be a real man but even he is man enough to enlist in the First World War, and demands that custard creams be sent to him in the trenches. The manly Stephen can only become an ambulance driver – her unit, in fact, is staffed largely by ‘inverts’, members, like her, of the ‘third sex’. Hall was influenced by the work of the turn of the century sexologists who held the essentialist view that biology is the cause of homosexuality. One of them was Havelock Ellis, who wrote an ‘opinion’ published with The Well of Loneliness. Stephen Gordon is born ‘a narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a thing’: her physical characteristics, which are often repeated, are intended to show that her later sexual preference is innate, that her inversion is not chosen but natural. She is ‘midway between the sexes’: her mother sees her as ‘a blemished, unworthy, maimed reproduction of her husband’. When she is only seven, her father acquires a book by a German writer, which he reads and rereads. After his death Stephen finds the volume: it is by Krafft-Ebing. But reading it doesn’t help her to accept her condition and she turns immediately to the Bible which ‘fell open near the beginning. She read: “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain.” ’ The scar on Stephen’s face (the result of a wartime wound), which becomes livid at times of stress, functions as that mark. Despite Hall’s attempts to court the sympathy of heterosexuals by writing about a textbook case of inversion – Stephen has not been led astray, she is not morally vicious – The Well of Loneliness was still found to be obscene and banned in 1928, the year of its publication, because it failed to criticise ‘unnatural vice’, asking society instead to acknowledge it.

In a letter to her last lover, Evguenia Souline, included in Joanne Glasgow’s selection, Hall writes: ‘I have never felt an impulse towards a man in all my life, this because I am a congenital invert. For me to sleep with a man would be “wrong” because it would be an outrage against nature.’ She thought that Souline might well be bisexual: ‘That also is a very common fact in nature. It is neither good nor bad.’ According to the sexologists, the masculine invert tended to form relationships with feminine women who were also capable of being attracted to men. Mary Llewellyn, Stephen’s lover, is one of these women: she darns Stephen’s socks, admires her ‘masculine underwear’ and looks up to her. ‘Mary, because she was perfect woman, would rest without thought, without exultation, without question; finding no need to question since for her there was now only one thing – Stephen.’ Even their dog David responds to Stephen’s masterful nature, seeing that ‘queer, intangible something about her that appealed to the canine manhood in him’. (But David is fickle: when a real man comes on the scene he finds Martin ‘a more perfect thing, a more entirely fulfilling companion’.) In Mary’s ‘very normality lay her danger’, however, and Stephen’s inability to marry her, to give her a child, to dance with her in fashionable nightclubs, even to take her to the ancestral estate (Stephen’s mother forbids it) drive Mary to despair and to too many brandy and sodas. Stephen, who respects normality and knows that ‘had nature been less daring with her, she might well have become ... a breeder of children, an upholder of home, a careful and diligent steward of pastures’, eventually forces Mary to leave her and to take refuge with Martin.

Radclyffe Hall led an existence immeasurably less constrained by social or familial disapproval than that of her character, and was very often to be found, accompanied by her partner Una Troubridge, at the Waldorf Grill or at the first night of a Noël Coward play, rather than skulking, as Stephen Gordon did, in seedy clubs like Le Narcisse. She did, however, share Stephen’s conservatism and her traditionally ‘male’ role in relationships, even wishing, like Stephen, that she could father children (‘Jolly for you if I had been a man,’ she wrote to Souline). Troubridge, who gave up a career as a sculptor soon after beginning her relationship with Hall (she had won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Art at the age of 13), wrote in her biography of her lover of Hall’s ‘protection mania’. Troubridge believed that this trait was already evident when Marguerite Hall was a child, trying to take care of her grandmother and her pets, and to keep herself and them out of her mother and stepfather’s way. Troubridge is horrified by the nasty stepfather’s insistence that the girl leave Pippin, her pet canary, behind in a hotel. (Hall made up for this in later life by saving whole menageries of animals from unsuitable homes.) Her parents had split up when she was very young and her mother soon married again. Alberto Visetti, the stepfather, was a singing teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and the couple were a match in unpleasantness if nothing else. Troubridge omitted stories about Visetti’s sexual abuse of his stepdaughter from her biography, fearing, she wrote in one of many letters addressed to her dead partner, ‘lest we have psychoanalytic know-alls’ saying that ‘you would have been a wife and mother but for the experience.’ Hall was fonder of her father, the feckless and rakish Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall, who died of TB when she was 18, but always wrote balefully about her childhood: ‘I was born like a bird with a broken wing. A rabbit in a trap with a splintered bone. I was born where the sound of waves is the sound of tears.’ This loses something when you discover that her place of birth was Bourne-mouth. In 1901 – when she was 21 – Hall inherited her grandfather’s fortune and left home, taking her grandmother with her. She continued to support her mother financially and pride in her position as the provider is one of her distinguishing features.

This was especially evident in her affair with Souline, a White Russian refugee who worked as a nurse in Paris, and who was equally determined to retain her independence. They met in 1934 when Souline was engaged to nurse Una Troubridge. ‘I felt the whole of me reaching out to you, crying out that I must and would protect you,’ Hall wrote years later. ‘You, who so despise being protected!’ Hall, an experienced, confident, rather overbearing woman, began immediately to bombard Souline with letters, money and protestations of devotion. Souline seems to have been terrified. Despite this, and despite Hall’s promise to Troubridge that she would not be unfaithful ‘in the fullest and ultimate meaning of the word’, the affair was soon consummated and Hall’s letters adopt a masterful tone, praising herself for telling Souline ‘all the facts of life’ and asserting that ‘the right and proper person to tell you was John, your deeply adoring lover.’ ‘I found you a virgin and made you a lover,’ she writes proudly, ‘a most blessed responsibility ... I find that to take an innocent woman is quite unlike anything else in life. Is perhaps the most perfect experience in life if real, deep love and tenderness goes with it, if with it goes the will to protect, the will to hold & the will to keep.’. The problem was that Hall couldn’t manage this: she had no intention of leaving Una Troubridge, her partner for almost twenty years, who had supported her during the obscenity trial and who reminded her ‘over and over again until I have nearly gone mad ... that the eyes of the inverted all over the world are turned towards me ... they have respected me because of my own union that has been faithful and open.’ Her hopes of a ménage à trois soon failed: ‘Try hard to love me more than you hate Una.’ Troubridge wasn’t too keen on Souline either, writing in her biography of Hall that it was not ‘a happy connection ... John was a sensitive, highly evolved European ... Evguenia was a creature of impulse and violent surface emotions ... as violent and uncontrolled as a savage.’ (Hall herself wrote – to Souline – of her lover’s ‘queer, little, ugley, alian, Chink face’, and called her ‘Royal Chink Piggie’, although as a general’s daughter she was at least of ‘our class’.) Souline withdrew from their sexual relationship in 1938 and, despite Sally Cline’s insistence in her new biography of Hall that ‘de-emphasising genital lovemaking did not render their relationship asexual’ and that ‘we must not be beguiled by the standard heterosexual assumptions about what takes place in a lesbian relationship,’ Hall herself doesn’t seem to have been too happy about this. ‘I myself have been a great lover – I have loved and then grown weary and bored and put an abrupt and brutal end to the thing just as you have done ... Well, now perhaps I am paying for my past and the price is high.’

It’s easy to see why Souline wanted to keep her distance as the letters rained down on her, full of instructions and praise of the ‘good and careful Piggie Hall who puts on warm coats, and keeps its hoofs dry, and never goes out without an enormous Pig-Umbrella! Also, who goes to bed nice and early and only drinks milk and soda water.’ Hall disliked Souline working as a nurse (partly because she worried about Souline’s health: she had had TB), but disapproved, too, of most of her attempts to change career, fearing that they would keep Souline from her side. Souline’s absence was held to damage Hall’s capacity to write – although in fact she published only one novel, The Sixth Beatitude, during the time of their relationship. The allowance Souline received was hedged round with qualifications (‘When I thought it my duty to stop your allowance if you persisted in remaining in Paris, I said very many times that the allowance would not stop provided you went to any suitable climate’). When Souline arrived in Britain just before the war (Troubridge had gone to a lot of trouble to get her rival a visa, describing her efforts in her journal as ‘another obstacle removed by me’) Hall, by now seriously ill, wrote depressing and needy letters, mostly about her health and her continued attempts to force Souline to live near her: if she lived in Devon, as Hall now did, Souline would receive £250 a year; if not, £100. By the time of Hall’s death their relationship revolved around the giving or withholding of money. Souline has often been described as a gold-digger, but Cline and Gasgow are more sympathetic to her, and it certainly would have been difficult for her to resist Hall’s offers of support, both because of their frequency and fervour and because of her uncertain position as a stateless single woman. When Hall died of cancer in October 1943 she left everything to Una Troubridge (this was not what Souline had hoped, or indeed had been led to expect), who continued the allowance until Souline’s own death in 1958.

Troubridge herself had been the interloper when in 1915 she began an affair with Hall, who was then living with Una’s cousin Mabel, or ‘Ladye’, Batten. Batten was a wellknown amateur singer; a stately woman who had been painted by Sargent, had been one of Edward VII’s mistresses and appears to have had the archetypal Edwardian capacity to carry on liaisons without upsetting the seemly surface of her life. At 58, however, she often felt ‘seedy’ and the 35-year-old Hall impatient and restless. In May 1916 Troubridge and Hall spent the night together in Maidenhead, having gone there to buy a bulldog. Hall returned to London the next evening, much later than she had promised, and had a quarrel with Batten during which the older woman suffered a stroke. She died ten days later without regaining consciousness. Troubridge later admitted that she had had ‘at 28, as much consideration for Ladye ... as a child of six’. During Hall’s affair with Souline, however, she wrote in her journal that ‘ladye holds my hand day and night. I feel her presence ... I am oh so deeply humbly grateful to her for giving me what I do not deserve.’ Hall, meanwhile, wrote to Souline that she ‘would like to sleep for a very long time, to sleep and then wake up [to] hear Ladye who was always so patient, so kind and so wise’.

After Batten’s death the two women made frequent visits to a medium, Gladys Leonard, seeking forgiveness for Ladye’s death and a blessing for their own relationship (seeking in the supernatural a means of legitimation, just as Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain had done). In 1919 they published an account of their experiences in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and Troubridge later credited the ‘regular and painstaking industry’ this involved with ‘training John in that infinite capacity for taking pains that she had so singularly lacked’ and so making possible her career as a writer. (Until then she had written one or two short stories and several volumes of fairly terrible verse. A not unrepresentative couplet runs: ‘The reason why I cannot tell/Perhaps I love these hills too well.’) On Hall’s first visit, Mrs Leonard’s control, Feda, a young Indian girl, ‘began by describing a young soldier; I did not recognise him, and said so.’ (This was in 1916 and so a rather obvious first attempt.) Feda tried again, this time finding an older woman who wanted to make contact; Feda thought she was Hall’s mother, but her description was a ‘brief, but unmistakable’ evocation of Ladye. There is a great deal of discussion of Ladye’s appearance, with Feda commenting atone point on her ‘prettily cut eyelids’, whereupon Hall and Troubridge solemnly declare that Batten ‘was always said to have had very perfectly modelled eyelids, especially when they were closed; they were considered one of her best points.’ Ladye duly forgave John, put her in Una’s charge, gave her permission to bob her hair (this not without a struggle) and told her how much she would like the spirit world: ‘there are plenty of horses that love to be exercised and the ground is so springy.’ She even turned out to have met a dog of Una’s called Billy; one section of their report, ‘The Billy Incident’, consists of their attempts to find out whether the dead dog had indeed suffered from the ailments ascribed to him by Ladye’s spirit. Hall and Troubridge also hired a detective agency and questioned their former head gardener in an attempt to make sure that Mrs Leonard had not gone to Malvern Wells to see the country house which Ladye and John had owned, the layout of which is endlessly and confusingly discussed in the séances. Their ingenious explanations of Feda’s more inaccurate remarks merely betray their determination to believe the wily Mrs Leonard and their attempts to prove the scientific rigour of their investigations are perplexing rather than enlightening. For example:

Supposing a man’s first wife to be communicating with his second wife during a sitting, and the first wife when asked to define her relationship to the husband replied ‘there were two of us that stood in the same relation to Tom’ ... the sitter, being the second wife, might reasonably reply: ‘that is incorrect, because I did not stand in that relationship to Tom at the same time as you did, but I do stand in it now that you have ceased to do so.’

Hall and Troubridge’s report, and this passage in particular, is thought by Terry Castle to have had a ghostly influence on Coward’s 1941 play, Blithe Spirit, in which the spirit of Charles Condomine’s first wife, Elvira, is accidentally summoned, making Ruth, his second wife, jealous of her invisible rival (only Charles can see or hear Elvira). The triangle here, as Castle argues, is a ‘displaced’ heterosexual version of the Hall-Troubridge-Batten one. Even the spirit controls are similar: mischievous little girls who converse in baby talk (Feda calls Hall ‘Mrs Twonnie’), although Daphne, the medium Madame Arcati’s spirit control, is English, not Indian like Feda – ‘some mediums prefer Indians,’ Arcati tells Ruth, ‘but personally I’ve always found them unreliable.’ There are other, varyingly convincing, textual similarities with Hall and Troubridge’s report, but Castle concentrates on the play’s ‘drastic undoing of the marriage plot’. As she says, the play works against the common Hollywood model characterised by Stanley Cavell as the ‘comedy of remarriage’. There is the quarrelsome bickering associated with the form, but no reconciliation. After Ruth is killed in a car accident intended by Elvira, who tampered with the car, to kill Charles, the two women form an alliance against him. Charles, unmoved by his second loss, just wants rid of them and suggests that his wives go away together and ‘take a cottage somewhere’. Madame Arcati finally manages to make the pair invisible and unable to speak, thus ‘laying the ghost(s) of heterosexual desire’, and leaving Charles ‘free, Ruth dear, not only of Mother and Elvira, and Mrs Winthrop-Lewellen, but free of you too’. Madame Arcati is unmarried but with a ‘great chum’ (she also has a bit of a crush on Elvira), and her relationship with Charles, amicable and asexual, is a model, Castle claims, of a new alliance ‘between men who aren’t husbands and women who aren’t wives, but (blithe) kindred spirits to the last’.

This description of Charles and Madame Arcati’s relationship seems rather exaggerated, nor is it clear that the friendship on which the study is based – that of Coward and Hall – was as close as all that. It isn’t known how they met and they don’t seem to have seen that much of each other. Castle’s claim that such relationships are ‘free from the mutual mishandling and complaints endemic in heterosexual bonds’ isn’t very convincing either. It is pushing things to say that the relationship between Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, to name one of Castle’s couples, did not involve ‘mutual mishandling’. Hall herself never got on very well with Bloomsbury, not even with the male homosexuals. E.M. Forster visited her ‘in her tower in Kensington, with her love’, as Virginia Woolf put it, to discuss the wording of a letter in support of The Well of Loneliness. According to Woolf, Forster said that Hall had ‘screamed like a herring gull, mad with egotism and vanity’ and insisted that any letter make plain that her book was ‘a work of artistic merit – even genius’. Hall’s heroine is meant to share this genius. Stephen’s books, it is made clear, will lead her people to the promised land of acceptance: ‘They would turn first to God, and then to the world and then to her.’ Hall had an exalted view of the purpose of her own writing, whether it was to save ‘my inverts’, or to show them the way to the kingdom of God: a Catholic convert, she wrote an interminable book about a Christ figure (and had stigmata-like marks on her hands while she was writing it). Another novel, Adam’s Breed, which won two major literary prizes, is about the orphaned Gian-Luca who, belonging to no country and loving no one, relies only on himself, until he learns pity, realises that ‘no country on earth could give me what I want’, gives away his possessions, becomes a hermit and dies, thus going to ‘his country’. His body is left ‘lying in a stable attached to an unimportant inn’. Radclyffe Hall could never resist this kind of heavy-handed symbolism. Her belief that she was an important writer seems so far-fetched now that her arrogance is almost poignant. ‘Do you know who I am?’ she wrote to Souline. ‘I am really a very well known author whose career is watched by a very large public ... You have fallen in love with Radclyffe Hall, not with Mary Jones or anyone like her.’