A Woman to Know: Radclyffe Hall

If our love is a sin, then heaven must be full of such tender and selfless sinning as ours. — Radclyffe Hall

(image via National Portrait Gallery)


You've probably seen it on bookshelves: "The Well of Loneliness." The book today looks like any other story of star-crossed lovers; but by its original reception in 1928, Radclyffe Hall had created a work of "obscene libel."

Radclyffe wrote her novel, a book about a lesbian relationship, in the 1920s, as she was living her own life out of the closet. She frequently dressed in men's clothing and openly carried on affairs with women. Some of her friends even called her "John." Her protagonist in "The Well of Loneliness" similarly went by "Stephen" and styled herself in suits, eventually falling in love with another woman and grappling with the realities of their forbidden attraction.

Radclyffe had published other books about LGBTQ life before "The Well of Loneliness" hit shelves — but the book's clandestine descriptions of kisses and its one-line portrayal of lesbian sex (the oh-so-spicy "That night, they were not divided") sent the British censors into a tizzy.

Despite thousands of letters of support from readers and fans, Radclyffe was charged with obscenity and ordered to appear in court. In 1929, just one year after its publication, the censors ruled that all British copies would be destroyed. Following another trial across the pond, Radclyffe's book was finally allowed to be sold in America, where it went on to become a literary classic. Queer women in America revered her as a cultural icon, and even though Radclyffe published other works and won other accolades, "Well" would remain her most lauded work. She lived with her partner, Una Troubridge, until her death in 1943.

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