Radclyffe Hall owes her prominent place in histories of English lesbianism to her most celebrated novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928), and to [End Page 303] the successful prosecution of its publisher for obscenity. Conventional wisdom holds that the book and the court case helped fix in the public mind a certain “butch look” for the emerging lesbian, just as the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895 had pinned an image of dandyish effeminacy upon homosexual men. The novel couched its pioneering defense of female sexual inversion in sexological terms (the heroine, Stephen, with her mannish traits and same-sex desires, couldn’t help it; she was born that way), and the trial highlighted the dapper Hall in her sharp suits, smoking jackets, and bowties, with her short hair, cigarettes, and cigars. While post-Stonewall lesbian feminists tended to lambaste this masculine performativity, more recent scholars have helped revive the reputation of the “stone dyke,” and the rise of transgendered studies and activism has given Hall and The Well renewed respect.
The sensationalism of the case, the prominence of the novel, the persistent reinvention of book and author, and Radclyffe Hall’s colorful life story—her conservative politics, her conversion to Catholicism, her spiritualist beliefs, her faith in eugenics, the trials, and her triangular relationships with three women, Mabel Batten, Una Troubridge, and Evguenia Soulin—have all ensured the attentions of a string of biographers. In navigating through these biographical details, Richard Dellamora is heavily indebted above all to the work of Michael Baker and Sally Cline.1 The novelty of his study lies in his detailed, sophisticated exploration of Hall’s writings, published and unpublished. He claims, plausibly, that she “continually attempted to write her way to a secure sense of selfhood” (5).
Dellamora’s contention is that Hall, who preferred to be called John rather than her given name of Marguerite, understood herself to be gendered as a masculine female—what we would now categorize as queer. “Queers always exist athwart their assigned gender identities,” he asserts (2), and this is why in recent years queer studies have given John a more accurate awareness of her sense of embodied selfhood. Dellamora’s stated aim in dissecting her writings in this search for selfhood is to emphasize the three concerns that mainly engaged her: female same-sex desire, engenderment, and spirituality. Even in Hall’s earliest writings—poems and drawing-room song lyrics—Dellamora detects a self-conscious playing with autobiographical reference. Her lyrics to the popular song “The Blind Ploughman” (1913), for example, could be decoded by those in the know as an affirmation of the creative possibilities of Sapphic desire.
The poems also revealed a strong interest in speculative psychology, and Hall’s immersion in this and in Spiritualism, Theosophy, mysticism, and Catholicism forms a principal feature of Dellamora’s analysis. Theosophy, for instance, with its view of gender as doubly male and female, psychic and material, provided her with a queer self-understanding, her embodied [End Page 304] self activated in relation to gender difference. Spiritualism—she turned to the Society for Psychical Research after Batten’s death in 1916 and wrote a report for it in 1919—enabled her to write about the two most important sexual and emotional relationships in her life (the report could be read, in effect, as a lesbian coming-out story), and involvement in the society provided a public forum for both her partnership with Troubridge and her masculine style and libertine behavior. Catholicism, represented in her religious novels such as Adam’s Breed (1926), allowed her to identify with the sacrificial figure of the crucified Christ, and here Dellamora picks up on those scholars who have argued that Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theology, ritual, and devotion provided space for the self-realization of late Victorian and early modernist sexual dissidents.
Hall turned to novel writing after a libel trial in 1920 that thwarted an attempt to bar her from the Council of the Society for Psychical Research for her “heresy” in breaching the permissible limits...