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Radclyffe Hall: More than a Martyr

RADCLYFFE HALL: A WOMAN CALLED JOHN By Sally Cline 434pp. $32.50 Overlook Press

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Radclyffe Hall is remembered these days largely as an early lesbian icon. Her name is inextricably linked to her groundbreaking 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, which brought the theme of lesbian sexuality--of female 'inversion,' as it was called at that early date--out into the open, without either the euphemism or the condemnation that had always accompanied it before.

The book's subsequent obscenity trial is one of the most famous in English literary history, perhaps second only to that of Ulysses, and it brought out the leading literary lights of the era on both sides of the Atlantic rallying to its defense. The Well, which was found 'obscene' and remained banned in England until 1949, became a cult novel and remains so to this day. Hall, an openly 'butch' lesbian in an age of heated debate over the status of both inverts and women, is remembered best for her "masculine" public image and for her shocking novel.

In her new biography of Radclyffe Hall, Sally Cline has decided not to take the easy path, and steps away from making The Well the central focus of Hall's life. Instead, Cline takes the long view, exploring Hall's entire life from beginning to end within the context of the history in which she lived her life and wrote her books. The result is an exhaustively informative, if occasionally tedious, literary biography. It takes a lot of effort to get through it, but the life it explores is a genuinely fascinating one.

One of the great strengths of Cline's book is that very richness of context: in her hands, our journey through Radclyffe Hall's life becomes a journey through half a century of political, literary, and cultural history. The picture we derive from her biography is that of a writer who, far from existing for only a single moment of historical controversy, lived richly and fully--and in very interesting times. We whirl with the young Hall through the wild nightlife of Jazz Age London, watch her early involvement with the women's suffrage movement, and chafe with her when, at the outbreak of the First World War, she is prevented by her sex from being able to fight at the front.

Perhaps most interestingly, we also meet a lifetime's worth of friends and lovers: an amazing melange of artists and writers, aristocrats, suffragettes, and lesbians. It becomes impossible to keep track of all of them, a veritable "regiment of women" with an array of delightful 1920s names that could come straight out of P.G. Wodehouse: Toupie, Winaretta, Honey, Budge...and an apparently endless succession of Violets. But Hall's wide network of personal and professional acquaintances also included many of the period's most famous feminists, suffragettes, and publicly visible lesbians-- such as the novelist May Sinclair, the composer Dame Ethel Smythe, and the Paris-based painter Romaine Brooks. Her literary acquaintances were similarly eminent (and, in many cases, similarly "deviant"): Hall's partner Una Troubridge first translated the sexually daring French author Colette's works into English; Hall and the English playwright Noel Coward wrote each other into their works; and no lesser lights than the writers of the Bloomsbury Group--including Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster--entered the story when they came to the defense of The Well of Loneliness.

Cline is also serious about analyzing all of Hall's literary output, and she offers interesting discussions of Hall's poetry and short stories, the later and less successful novels, and the great early books. The latter are often overshadowed by the subsequent notoriety of The Well. For example, Adam's Breed, Hall's remarkable fourth novel, first rocketed her to the top of the bestseller lists and swept the English literary awards in 1927.

Cline also makes an effort to tie together the various threads running through Hall's life and work. While her insights are often interesting, her relentless attempts to psychoanalyze Hall can become grating--after a certain point, one no longer wants to hear that the nuances of the writer's friendships with women can all be traced back to her dysfunctional relationship with her mother. But most of Cline's arguments, including her suggestion that Hall's work can be read as exploring the various facets of the "alienated individual confronted with the mystery of the universe," are straightforward and can be useful lenses through which to view Hall's work.

Its richness of information and exhaustive detail is one of Cline's book's most praiseworthy achievements. Unfortunately, it's also the factor that consistently weighs it down. Cline seems to have aimed to write both a scholarly work and one with popular appeal. But her careful, exhaustive and often pedestrian style makes it a slow read and a frequently heavy one; there's no inspired prose to be found here. The text's punctiliousness about names and dates is a mixed blessing, of course: for the reader with a consuming interest in Hall, or a general fascination with early lesbian culture and literature, the book will be a treasure trove of anecdotes, literary analysis and historical details. But it's hardly a light romp through history, and for the casual reader, this is probably not the best way to be drawn into Hall's life and writing.

To Cline's credit, the book isn't a hagiography. Her obsessive attention to detail and her effort to represent more than one side of a given story leaves us with a picture of Hall as a person who, in the final analysis, falls considerably short of sainthood. Hall's behavior toward each of her long-term partners when she fell in love with someone else was unpleasant, to say the least: it's tacky by any standards to start dating your lover's nurse while she's laid up in the hospital. Hall was also a possessive and controlling lover, a consistently neglectful parent to Una Troubridge's young daughter Andrea, a lifelong aristocrat and elitist, and a political conservative whose early allegiances swayed toward fascism and anti-Semitism--none of them traits are precisely endearing to a modern audience.

But Hall's close-minded and stubborn nature was also the root of her finer qualities, a fact which comes through nowhere more clearly than in the matter of The Well of Loneliness. A newly best-selling and award-winning writer, Hall put her career at risk and her personal life on public view in order to consciously write a book that reach out to and to try to help win acceptance for "my people."

Hall's second long-term lover, Una Troubridge, told her that she was the first fanatic she had ever met: "one who, if the need arose, would go to the pillory for the sake of her convictions." Troubridge was ominously prophetic: Hall was, publicly and privately, martyred for her cause. But she was prepared to put her private self on view, and, once it was all out in the open, refused ever to back down from her stance or to try to hide what she was. Cline, in placing Hall in her larger cultural and literary context, has also succeeded in showing us what an extraordinary act of courage it was for this women, at this time, to make the choice she did. The book is a difficult one, and it does not succeed on all levels. But in this at least it mirrors its subject: the life it paints is that of a difficult, complex, troubled and thoroughly fascinating woman.

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