Posts Tagged ‘Radclyffe Hall’


Radclyffe Hall became famous – perhaps infamous in her day – for her novel The Well of Loneliness a ground-breaking novel in lesbian literature. I loved that novel – although it gets increasingly bleak and is not terribly positive. I was compelled to keep reading and didn’t at all mind Hall’s rather flowery writing style. Before writing that novel Hall was already a published novelist and poet. The obscenity trial that followed the publication of The Well of Loneliness resulted in an order for all copies to be destroyed. A Saturday Life was published three years before that book which was to cause such an unwarranted furore. It is an altogether lighter book, a comic novel about a precocious child, artistic experience and the possibility of reincarnation.

Sidonia Shore is the only daughter of the gently vague Lady Prudence Shore, a woman whose head is generally somewhere in Ancient Egypt. Her husband, himself a great Egyptologist has died, and she is determined to carry on his life’s work and ensure his name is not forgotten. Her daughter Sidonia is only seven years old as the novel opens, when the child’s nurse finds her dancing naked in the drawing room. When challenged, Sidonia bites the nurse and the shocked woman has no choice but to rouse Lady Shore from her Egyptian ruminations. Sidonia’s mother is rather at a loss as how to deal with her eccentric child – and enlists the help of her friend Lady Frances Reide who lives nearby and is a frequent visitor.

Sidonia is clearly a precocious child – and Frances suggests that her mother enrol her in the Rose Valery dance school in Fulham. Here the pupils – under the tutelage of their teacher, endeavour to recapture the soul of Ancient Greece.

“Sidonia’s first appearance at the Rose Valery School was positively melodramatic. To begin with, she looked so extremely unusual, with her pale face and shock of auburn curls. She was little and quiet and immensely self-possessed, not at all put out by the groups of gaping students. The moment Rose Valery set eyes on the child she had, or so she said afterwards, great difficulty in stifling a scream of pleasure.”

Prudence and Frances can only hope that Sidonia is able to express herself artistically at the school, while keeping her clothes on. Sidonia behaves impeccably to begin with – but she finds clothes so restrictive for dance – and soon removes them, dancing naked before her classmates in the cloakroom. Frances has some work to do in persuading Rose Valery to allow Sidonia back after this – she has been receiving letters from uncles after all. For a few years Sidonia is happy dancing at the school – but the strictures of the school and clothing begin to take their toll on her talent, and her dancing changes. Soon Sidonia finds she no longer loves dance – and completely gives it up.

Over the next twenty years, Frances continues to support and counsel Sidonia and her mother. Sidonia changes artistic discipline every few years. With extraordinary enthusiasm she takes up each new interest, perfecting and obsessing over each new talent as it crops up. Sidonia appears to have the most extraordinary talent for everything she takes up. Piano, wax modelling, sculpture and singing are each taken up fully embraced and then discarded. Lady Shore can barely keep up, so lost in her own world is she, that her daughter’s artistic developments are a constant confusion.

a saturday life2When she is in her sculpture phase, Sidonia is working under the tutelage of Einar Jensen alongside a roomful of other students who she never really gets to know. She is determined to be awarded the travelling scholarship, and to go to Italy and continue her studies there. Once Sidonia is set on something it’s sure to happen – and she does win the scholarship and persuades Frances to accompany her to Italy. Frances is a wonderful foil to Sidonia’s wild enthusiasm, wryly sardonic, sensible and practical – she’s not keen to go to Italy – she is far more at home, spending time in the predictable though vague company of her old friend. However, Sidonia gets her own way as usual.

It is in Italy, that Frances first learns about a Saturday Life in an old book she buys. It provides one explanation for Sidonia’s taking up and throwing off of artistic disciplines. A theory requiring a belief in reincarnation.

“People who are living a ‘Saturday life’ are said to have no new experiences, but to spend it entirely in a last rehearsal of experiences previously gained. They are said to exhibit remarkable talent for a number of different things; but since they have many memories to revive, they can never concentrate for long on one. This also applies to their relationships with people, which are generally unsatisfactory.”

In Italy Sidonia is introduced to the Ferraris, a family of singing teachers – old friends of Frances’. Soon, Sidonia has lost all interest in sculpture and taken up singing as if she was born to it. Frances is furious at her wasting the scholarship and its not long before she returns to England – happy to be more and more in the company of her old friend Prudence. When Sidonia returns to London, she meets David, falling hopelessly in love. David is quite a contrast to the rest of the book, and like Frances I had my doubts about him. He is a traditional type with fixed ideas about women.

“‘I think that you ought to have married. Why haven’t you married, my dear?’ He stood surveying her critically, but his eyes were not altogether unsympathetic. She thought: ‘Supposing I tried to explain? And began to laugh softly to herself. ‘Bless you!’ she said, ‘I’ve never wanted to marry.’
‘All women do,’ he told her.
‘Not being a woman, how can you know?’
‘Because I’m a man, I suppose.’

The reader of course understands early on that Frances is a lesbian, Hall gives us plenty of clues. Living alone, wearing rather masculine clothes, quietly devoted to Prudence. She is easily the most interesting character in the book.
The ending is enigmatic – has Sidonia found her last great fulfilment in life – will it be a happy ending?

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The well of loneliness

First published in 1928 – The Well of Loneliness was immediately banned when it appeared and was subject to a famous trial. Once thought of as the archetypal ‘lesbian novel’ it is now quite often criticised for being dated, the prose rather overwritten. Though I understand these criticisms I don’t agree with them, yes there are aspects of this novel that now seem rather dated, however it is still I think a superb novel. The prose, a little flowery perhaps is quite glorious in its way, Hall’s descriptions of the Malvern countryside particularly lovely. When Radclyffe Hall published The Well of Loneliness she was riding on a crest of a wave of success, she knew full well what publishing such a book would do to her career, but feeling it to be a story that had to be told went ahead anyway. The novel is now I believe still studied for its themes of sexuality and gender, and as such it is an interesting social document, aside from being a really excellent and still hugely readable novel.

*(I’ve tried not to put spoilers into this review – apologies if some slip in, I did want to discuss it as fully as I can)*

“The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that seeing nothing it might avoid Truth. It said to itself: ‘If seeing’s believing, then I don’t want to see — if silence is golden, it is also, in this case, very expedient.”

Stephen Gordon is born into an aristocratic Worcestershire family toward the end of the Victorian era. Her parents have been married for ten years; the longed for child is expected and assumed by both to be a boy, and Sir Philip chooses the name Stephen for his first born. When the child arrives it’s a girl, a girl baby who instantly does look a little different a “narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby”. Sir Philip decides to stick with the name Stephen anyway. As Stephen grows up, she is not quite like other little girls of the time, she doesn’t like fussy dresses, or genteel pursuits, she loves her horses, hunting and the Malvern Hills. At seven Stephen develops a debilitating crush on a housemaid and is utterly devastated when she spies her kissing a footman. During her childhood years Stephen’s relationship with her beautiful mother Anna, is a distant one, Anna is the love of Sir Philip’s life, she I suppose pretty typical of a type of Victorian upper-class woman, pretty, fragile, protected and innocent. Anna Gordon has no idea that there might be anything about her daughter that might be different, or that might cause her difficulties. Sir Philip however is very much aware; he adores his awkward daughter they have a very special bond, often riding out together with the hunt. At around the time Stephen develops her infatuation for Collins the housemaid, Sir Philip has already consulted a book by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and so starts his understanding of his daughter’s true nature, the truth of which he chooses to conceal from his wife, and also from his confused daughter, when later she asks him, whether there is something wrong with her.

As Stephen grows up she finds local society more and more difficult, aware that she is sometimes the subject of gossip and sly smiles. One of her most important and touching relationships is with her horse Rafferty (tears alert!) – Hall understands perfectly the relationship people have with the animals in their lives. Her other staunch ally and companion is her governess Puddle, who in her grey quiet way also understands Stephen, far more than Stephen realises. With the passage of time, experience, and finding a certain book in her father’s study, Steven comes to identify herself as an ‘invert’.

“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad; you’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet–you’ve not got your niche in creation. But some day that will come, and meanwhile don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely. Have courage; do the best you can with your burden. But above all be honourable. Cling to your honour for the sake of those others who share the same burden. For their sakes show the world that people like you and they can be quite as selfless and fine as the rest of mankind. Let your life go to prove this–it would be a really great life-work, Stephen.”

In time scandal and family discord forces Stephen to leave her beloved home of Morton in Worcestershire. At twenty one she is a very wealthy young woman, and so with her faithful Puddle she sets up home in London, Rafferty stabled nearby. With an ageing Puddle running her home and looking after Stephen just as she ever did, Stephen begins to write her first novel. A novel, that when it is published is an extraordinary success. Just before the outbreak of war Stephen meets Jonathan Brockett, a fellow ‘invert’ who urges her to go to Paris for the sake of her art. When the First World War comes Stephen finds occupation with the ambulance service, eventually joining a unit on the front line. Here she meets Mary Llewellyn, with whom she sets up home in Paris after the war.

I think some of the criticism that has been levelled against this novel, is that it is particularly negative. Stephen’s life and the lives of many of the people she associates with during her time in Paris are unhappy, lost, cast out from the places and the people they loved; they exist in a shadowy world, thrown together by necessity.

“Since this is a hard and sad truth for the telling; those whom nature has sacrificed to her ends–her mysterious ends that often lie hidden–are sometimes endowed with a vast will to loving, with an endless capacity for suffering also, which must go hand in hand with their love.”

One of the most fascinating things about this novel (and I agree many of the ideas, are dated and would seem at best inaccurate to us today as well dreadfully stereotypical) is that with this novel Hall is saying that women like herself were very much born – their ‘inversion’ god given and natural. This was not an idea that would have been understood at this time, and though Hall is crying out for homosexual people to be allowed rights of existence, her portrayal of their existence is often strangely negative. Nevertheless I loved the novel, it is one that will continue to cause debate, that is one of the things I loved.


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