Trials of Radclyffe Hall

Trials of Radclyffe Hall

by Diana Souhami

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The extraordinary life of a great English eccentric and author, as seen by one of England's leading biographers.

A fascinating figure of English literary and political history, Radclyffe Hall was born in 1880 in Bournemouth, England. Hall suffered through an exceedingly unhappy childhood until her father's death. With her inheritance, Hall leased a house in


The extraordinary life of a great English eccentric and author, as seen by one of England's leading biographers.

A fascinating figure of English literary and political history, Radclyffe Hall was born in 1880 in Bournemouth, England. Hall suffered through an exceedingly unhappy childhood until her father's death. With her inheritance, Hall leased a house in Kensington and began to live the way she pleased. She started dressing in chappish clothes, called herself Peter, then John, and wrote her first collection of verse. She was a political reactionary, a reformed Catholic, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, fussy about food and obsessive about work. She got her pipes from Dunhill's, wore brocade smoking jackets, spats in winter, and had her hair cropped off at the barber's.

Hall is most famous today for her book, The Well of Loneliness, which she wrote in 1928. A novel about lesbian love, the book caused an enormous scandal on its publication and it was suppressed both in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where Hall was put on trial under the Obscene Publications Act.

Brilliantly written, witty, and satirical, this major new biography by Diana Souhami brings a fresh and irreverent eye to the life of this fascinating eccentric.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Fifth Commandment

On a summer day in 1884 a blue-eyed four-year-old with ash-blond 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 toward 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 shoveling 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 shoveling 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 andcapricious. "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 she was 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 August 12, 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 forever a month after her birth. Her father, Radclyffe 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 around 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 traveling 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 side whiskers, stiff clothes and solemn thoughts hung on the library walls of Derwent, a gray-stone 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, as an adult, judged "too appalling for words." He hunted, kept horses, and dogs whose names were in the Kennel Club books--French poodles were his favorite 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 July 2, 1878, within months of meeting. The ceremony was to legitimize 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.

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