The Trials of Radclyffe Hall

‘The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’ by Diana Souhami

Quercus · 432 pp · 1998

Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Biography
Winner of the Lambda Literary Award 2000
A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week

Radclyffe Hall is most famous for The Well of Loneliness, her landmark novel about lesbian love. It became a cause célèbre in 1928 when the British establishment put her publishers on trial under the Obscene Publications Act and her book was ‘burned in the King’s furnace’. But Radclyffe Hall’s trials were congenital, familial and romantic as well as legal. Born in 1880 in Bournemouth in a house inappropriately named ‘Sunny Lawn’, her mother drank gin in an attempt to terminate the pregnancy and her father fled the family home. Life changed for Radclyffe Hall aged eighteen when she inherited her father’s estate. She was free to travel, employ servants, call herself John, write novels and pursue women.

The ‘trials’ of Radclyffe Hall were the 1928 Crown prosecution of her anodyne novel The Well of Loneliness – the book was censored solely because of its lesbian subject matter – and also the personal trials of her own stormy character and emotional life. But the trial at the book’s core is of the bigotry of the English establishment of the day.


Read an excerpt

The Fifth Commandment

On a summer day in 1884 a blue-eyed four-year-old with ash blonde hair walked with her English nurse in the old cemetery in West Philadelphia near her grandmother’s house. It was quiet there, the day was clear, she could smell boxwood, pine and new-mown grass. She walked on a gravel path littered with tiny shells, which she stopped to collect. There were high trees to her right, an avenue ahead and, to her left, bare grass, mounds of earth and new graves.

A small group wearing black came towards her across the grass. A woman among them, tall with a long veil and gloves, seemed to stare at her. Two of the men carried between them a white wooden box. The group stopped by a freshly dug hole beside which was a mound of earth. They lowered the box into the hole and a man began shovelling in earth. At the sound of the earth hitting the box, the woman jerked back. The movement made the girl think of her mechanical bear on its green baize stand at home in London. The woman bent over the hole in the ground then raised her face and screamed. She seemed to scream at the sky, the trees, the man shovelling earth and the little girl out with her nurse.

Consolation for such ontological terrors was not on offer to Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall from her mother whom she feared and despised: ‘Always my mother. Violent and brainless. A fool but a terribly crafty and cruel fool for whom life had early become a distorting mirror in which she saw only her own reflection.’

In two unpublished autobiographical pieces, Forebears and Infancy and Michael West, in letters and in fictional allusion in her novels, she defined her mother as grasping, violent and capricious. ‘I cannot,’ she said, ‘keep the fifth commandment.’ Home for a child, she averred, should be a refuge, a place of affection and kindness. Hers was ‘bereft of security’ and haunted by the feeling that something was wrong. ‘I pity those whose memories of home have been rendered intolerable as have mine. They and I have lost a great sweetness in life.’

The mother of her fantasy was religious and peaceful. ‘A woman one would long to protect while coming to in turn for protection.’ The mother she had, Mary Jane Hall, ‘late Sager formerly Diehl’, was attracted and attractive to rakish men and had startling mood swings. She gave birth on 12 August 1880 to a daughter she had tried to abort, whom she never liked and to whom the acutest insult she could fling was, ‘You are like your father.’ Not an ounce of the child’s blood, she said, came from her. The girl was Radclyffe through and through. Her hands, nose, temper and perversity were the curse of the father, the devil incarnate.

This birth took place in England in a house called Sunny Lawn at Westcliff, Bournemouth. ‘Sunny Lawn’ God Help Us, Radclyffe Hall wrote:

A night of physical passion and then me, born solely of bodily desire, of animal impulse and nothing more. For I cannot believe those parents of mine could ever have known the love of the spirit. Nor did I bring peace into that distracted home by drawing their warring natures together. Quite the contrary. At the time of my birth a deadly quarrel was raging.

She learned of this quarrel from her mother. Her parents parted for ever a month after her birth. Her father, Raddyffe Radclyffe-Hall, known familiarly as Rat, the man whom she so resembled, whose blood alone flowed in her veins, was, so she heard, a degenerate who beat and abused his wife, chased her round the house with a pistol, had sex with the servants and threw a joint of cold lamb at the cook.

Mary Jane Sager met him in Southport, Lancashire in 1878. She was travelling with his cousin, James Reade, who had settled in New Orleans when he married her aunt. He had gone to America from Congleton, Cheshire, where his family owned silk mills. He was in Southport visiting family and recovering from a back injury – he had been thrown and kicked by a horse.

Mary Jane had an aspirational regard for the English gentry. She was twenty-seven, widowed and dissatisfied at living with her mother in Philadelphia. In her teens she had run off with and married a young Englishman, Wallace Sager, who died of yellow fever. The Halls, their cousins and uncles the Reades, Martins and Russells, were conservative gentry who had ladies for wives. ‘They believed in God, upheld the Crown and supported the Church of England.’ They were clergymen, factory owners, teachers, doctors. Portraits showing their sidewhiskers, stiff clothes and solemn thoughts hung on the library walls of Derwent, a greystone estate with an elm park in Torquay, Devon.

Rat’s father, Charles Radclyffe-Hall, was President of the British Medical Association and a physician at the Western Hospital for Consumption. He was author of Torquay in its Medical Aspects and Is Torquay Relaxing? He founded a charitable sanatorium there for the treatment of ‘reduced gentlewomen with affected chests’. His career was lucrative, his business acumen shrewd, his nature cautious and thorough and his wife rich in her own right. Esther Westhead when he married her in 1847 was, at thirty-six, a widow with three children – a son and two daughters.

Radclyffe was the only child of her second marriage. He studied law at Oxford but did not qualify. He had a large allowance and no desire to work. He collected mandolins, wrote songs, did magician’s tricks, took photographs of the New Forest and waves crashing on rocks and painted landscapes his daughter when adult judged ‘too appalling for words’. He hunted, kept horses, and dogs whose names were in the Kennel Club books – French poodles were his favourite breed. He liked travel, owned a yacht and never stayed in one place long.

He wore expensive clothes and diamond studs in his cuffs. Women took up his time. ‘I regret to say that his love affairs were seldom in accord with his social position.’ He offended his father by a foray into acting under the alias Hubert Vane and a fling in Torquay with a local fisherman’s daughter.

He and Mary Jane Sager married at St Andrew’s parish church, Southport, on 2 July 1878 within months of meeting. The ceremony was to legitimise the birth of their first daughter, Florence Maude. Walter Begley, a friend from Radclyffe’s student days, a large, shambling clergyman with nervous mannerisms, officiated. The wedding breakfast was held in a hotel. Mary Jane’s mother stayed in Philadelphia. The Halls from Torquay and the Reades from Congleton deplored the speed of the alliance, the irregularity of the reception, the uncouthness of Americans, the fisherman’s daughter, the scandalous Hubert Vane. In his wedding speech Rat said, ‘You’ve heard of the glorious stars and stripes, well I’ve married one of the stars may I never deserve the stripes.’

He called himself a painter and wore a green velvet coat, check trousers and a silk bow tie. He sailed with his wife to Philadelphia to meet his in-laws. This honeymoon was not a success: ‘They quarrelled in private and they quarrelled before friends in public, they quarrelled before the negro servants, they quarrelled from the moment they opened their eyes. Their scenes were crude, disgraceful and noisy.’

A year later, in 1879, Radclyffe’s father died, leaving him a trust income of £90,000. Domestic chaos and divorce were not considerations in Charles Radclyffe-Hall’s will. It was a document of propriety with family loyalty and indissolubility at its root. By the terms of it at Radclyffe’s death the family capital would pass in turn to his children.

But Radclyffe’s marriage was a disaster. It did not so much fail as implode. When Marguerite was born the doctor was unavailable, the nurse was at the chemist and Rat was in bed with the maid. ‘When I was born my father was being blatantly and crudely unfaithful. The details were too base to record.’ The maid, Elizabeth Sarah Farmer, was ordered from the house by Mary Jane. She moved to London and gave birth to another of Rat’s daughters the following year. She registered the child as Mary Ratcliffe Farmer, left blank the box ‘Name of Father’ and took in needlework to supplement the £200 a year he gave her.

Three weeks after Marguerite’s birth Florence, her legitimate baby sister, died. She too had had wide-set blue eyes and ash blonde hair. For the last eight days of her life she also had infected gums, diarrhoea and convulsions. Mary Jane said she died ‘by reason of her father’s sins’ – that she had inherited syphilis from him. Rat left Sunny Lawn never to return.

Mary Jane became hysterical. It was seven weeks before she registered her second daughter’s birth. She gave the father’s occupation as Gentleman, left blank the box ‘Name of Child’, then started court proceedings. She claimed that a month into the marriage her husband used violent and abusive language, beat her and in September 1880, with one daughter dying and another newborn, deserted her. Through counsel Radclyffe denied the charges. He said her temper was so violent, her personality so unstable, it was necessary physically to restrain her.

Mary Jane was granted judicial separation, custody of the child and substantial maintenance. But socially her life was bleak. She had an unwanted child and no house of her own. The Halls accused her of provoking her husband and would have nothing to do with her. There was nothing for her in Philadelphia, Sunny Lawn was a house of horrors, she knew no one in London, and English society viewed her as American, gold-digging and vulgar.

In a gesture of respectability she had her daughter christened in a Protestant church. ‘My mother had me christened Marguerite. She could not have chosen a more inappropriate name. I detested it.’ A Mrs Baldrey, who lived in Bournemouth in a big house with a pine-tree drive, was godmother. She gave Marguerite a prayer book with an ivory cover and a Bible with a silver gilt clasp.

Marguerite, the abiding evidence of rash desire, the recipient of her mother’s rage and disappointment, was shunted about for her first six years. She was assigned to Nurse Knott who dressed her in frills and curled her hair. She remembered an Atlantic liner, Nurse Knott vomiting, the bathroom of Grandmother Diehl’s Philadelphia home where the taps gushed hot and cold water and the bath was panelled in mahogany. And then, on a certain November day, she remembered standing on the steps of a house in Notting Hill, west London, a glass window patterned like in a kaleidoscope over the door.

This house was to be home for a while. The woman who owned it wore black satin. She and Nurse Knott drank tea and talked of their dislike of Marguerite’s mother. Marguerite persisted in enquiring why and was ushered to bed. On the first-floor landing was more stained glass: a dragon and St George with a knife. The nurse explained that the saint was killing the dragon and if Marguerite did not behave he would come down and kill her too.

Mother was usually absent or suffering a headache or a rage. She wore exotic clothes, smelled of perfume, laughed a lot, but cried more. She played the piano and sang in a high soprano voice. Her moods were unsettling, her temper short. Household problems enraged her. She screeched at the servants, withheld their wages and summarily turned them and their possessions out of the house.

Grandmother Diehl came to stay. To her, Marguerite said she owed her moments of childhood happiness. ‘Without her I think I must have died of sheer starvation of heart and spirit.’ She had long, coiled-up hair, blue eyes, spoke in a soft drawl and was used to a house without men. Her father had died when she was a child. At seventeen she had married Edwin Otley Diehl, a stockbroker. She had her daughter and two sons, but when widowed at twenty-three took her children to live with her mother.

She called Marguerite sugar plum, which somehow turned into Tuggie. ‘To her I was Tuggie til the day of her death.’ She took her to matinées, read Dickens aloud, took her shopping at William Whiteleys department store where the green stair carpet was woven with yellow globes of the world. She did not scold and was never unkind. Through her Marguerite said she discovered ‘an altogether new sensation… a sensation that made you discontented unless you were with the person you wanted to be near. A sensation that made you want to look at them and admire them and be praised by them and kissed by them. It was no less a factor than love.’

Her grandmother wrote down her efforts at poems and praised her ‘inordinately’. When Marguerite asked why her mother cried and was disliked by Nurse Knott and why her father had gone, Grandmother Diehl, however circumspectly, always tried to reply.

‘If she and I could have lived alone I feel that we two would have been content.’ Here was the fantasy mother who talked of heaven, God and love, was soft-spoken and attentive and who made her feel worthwhile. But she kept disappearing to America. And between them was Mary Jane Hall. ‘The influence of my mother was so potent that it held my grandmother perpetually in chains.’

Mary Jane’s tyranny ruled, her ungovernable tempers and ever-changing moods. In the Notting Hill sitting-room she and Grandmother Diehl talked of money, the Case and Raddyffe, a man whom Marguerite associated with all that was worst in the world. It was Radclyffe who prompted her mother’s invective. Grandmother Diehl would say, Do be careful, the child is in the room. Mary Jane, in subdued rage, would then spell words out, not speak them. Which exasperated Marguerite, for she was dyslexic – a disability associated with birth trauma – and though she could memorise stories, poems and songs, spelling eluded her and she had difficulty learning to read or write.

Mother’s attention was unwelcome. Sometimes she clasped and kissed her, called her her poor, poor little girl, cried into her neck and made the front of her dress wet. Marguerite recoiled, so her mother wept the more and said that even her own daughter did not love her. Then abruptly she would stop and tell Mrs Diehl to get ready to go to the theatre. ‘Why Mary Jane,’ Mrs Diehl would say, ‘you’re up and down like a thermometer.’ And Marguerite, alone in her room, learned to hate her.

Revenge and venality sustained Mary Jane. The Case went on for years with legal wrangling over custody and money. In an initial decree for separation, granted on 25 February 1882, Rat was ordered to pay £1,250 a year. Mary Jane then took her case to the Chancery division of the court to claim on Marguerite’s behalf against the grandfather’s will. She delayed divorce fearing Radclyffe might remarry and his father’s money pass to other legitimate children. In a second hearing one third of his inheritance was awarded to Marguerite to be administered in trust. Against this settlement Mary Jane’s allowance was reduced to £750 a year. This allocation of funds was to cause inordinate bitterness from mother to daughter in later years.

The marriage had been a disaster, its disintegration was cruel. Marguerite was its victim. Mary Jane denigrated her husband and all his relatives and denied her daughter contact with any of them. Marguerite saw her father no more than a dozen times. Another of her abiding fantasies was that life would have been better had she been brought up by the Halls at Derwent.

There were few visitors to her mother’s house. Social graces were not demanded of Marguerite nor learned by her. No one troubled much what she did. She had lessons with her nurse in the mornings and a walk in Kensington Gardens. She needed special tuition which she did not receive. She liked to hear stories read aloud, she learned rudimentary arithmetic and to sing and play the piano. But she could not read or write. She stayed confused as to which letter was which.

Without children to play with she invented Daisy, an imaginary friend. She protected Daisy from the stained-glass dragon and played with her in the park. Daisy admired all Marguerite did. Her advent alarmed Nurse Knott, who suggested to Mary Jane that her daughter needed friends.

Told to desist from this game, Marguerite had a temper tantrum and bit her nurse on the hand. Ushered to her mother’s bedroom, where her mother was brushing her hair, she refused to say her imaginary friend, her alter ego, did not exist. More than a game, it was an exercise in consolation, an endeavour to repair a fractured world. Her father had called her Daisy, and a Marguerite is a genus of daisy. Her mother saw in her face and manner an image of the man she loathed. She pushed her to the bed and beat her with the silver hairbrush. When she had finished she consigned her to the nurse and slammed the bedroom door. ‘It was a hard whipping given and received in temper, an unfortunate whipping.’ It was one of many administered while her mother was out of control. Its predictable effect was to inspire her daughter with defiance, hatred and rage.

In 1886 Grandmother Diehl returned to Philadelphia. Marguerite was to go for her summer holiday to Marlow-on-Thames with her mother and nurse. Her grandmother would stay on alone for a while in the Notting Hill house, then sail. Marguerite pleaded with her to take her too. Her grandmother cried, bought her a caged canary called Pippin and told her to be a comfort to her mother.

‘Life all at once became blank, empty, awful.’ Marguerite was separated from the only person she loved. Mother, with her beatings and exhortations, was best avoided. Father, the worst person in the world, had disappeared. Her mother said she was like her father, ergo she was bad.

She retreated inwards, was solitary, watchful, strange. She did not know how to play with children, trust a parent or how to feel safe. In the inchoate world of childhood, responses were formed by her and reactions made. She took into her feelings all that happened, sought control of her world, made emotional equations, disturbed connections, that echoed on into the books she was to write and the adult life she chose. Dark forces informed her early years. Abandonment elided with insecurity, hatred of her mother with aggrandisement of herself. Unfairness called for justice and violence for revenge.

Praise for The Trials of Radclyffe Hall

At a time when certain Tory MPs are getting themselves in a fluster about the “aggressive homosexual community”, Diana Souhami’s tremendous biography of Radclyffe Hall underlines their place in a long, dispiriting line of establishment homophobes.

Victoria Segal · Guardian

This reviewer found herself engrossed from page one. Carried along at breakneck speed by the pace and wit of Souhami’s style. Fascinating and frightening, a magnificent book.

Teresa Waugh · Spectator

An outrageously entertaining book.

Victoria Glendinning · Daily Telegraph

Ye Gods what a character. From start to finish of Souhami’s book my lower jaw kept dropping with amazement.

Val Hennessy · Daily Mail