Rye’s Queer Icon: Radclyffe Hall

Rye has been home to many writers and creatives over the years, but one of the most famous – or infamous – writers to spend time there is Radclyffe Hall.

 

Radclyffe Hall was born Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall in Bournemouth, Dorset, on 12th August 1880. Her father was a wealthy layabout who abandoned his family three weeks after his daughter was born, leaving Hall with her mother, who made no secret of the fact that she had tried to terminate the pregnancy but failed. Hall grew up with this knowledge, and consequently greatly disliked her mother. Her father, although a failure as a parent, did leave Hall his fortune, which meant that she would not have to work or marry in order to support herself.

 

This left Hall free to live as she pleased, and the life she chose provoked scandal and outrage in conservative Britain. She openly embraced her lesbianism and began going by the name of “John”; she wore men’s suits, smoked tobacco, and engaged in many affairs with other women. It was one of these affairs that shaped the next chapter of her life. While on holiday in 1906, Hall met the fifty-one-year-old socialite Mabel Veronica Batten, and the two soon began an affair. Hall had had some literary ambitions before this, but Batten encouraged her and introduced her to a London publisher. A few years after, Hall began work on her first novel, The Unlit Lamp, which was published in 1924.

 

Although she dedicated the novel to Batten, Hall was romantically engaged with another woman at this point, Una Troubridge, who would be her companion and lover for the rest of her life. Hall continued writing, and in 1928 she published the novel that would make her name – the ground-breaking The Well of Loneliness.

 

Although Hall was openly gay, this was her only novel to deal openly with the subject of lesbianism, following the life of Stephen Gordon, a lesbian struggling to find love and happiness in the face of social oppression. The book was not erotic or explicit, and its goal was to humanise lesbians and appeal for greater empathy and understanding, but it was still decried as obscene and became the target of hate campaigns intending to vilify the book and Hall’s character.

 

Following the media outcry, Hall and Troubridge moved to Rye. Hall loved the town, capturing its beauty in her writing, and the couple lived there until 1940. Hall’s health began to deteriorate and in 1943 she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in London on October 6th 1943, with Troubridge by her side.

 

by Alice Smales

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