Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Radclyffe Hall: Queer Christian themes mark banned book "Well of Loneliness"

Lesbian author Radclyffe Hall is a crucified Christ figure in a 1928 cartoon by Beresford Egan

A queer Christ figure is the main character in the world’s best known lesbian novel, “The Well of Loneliness” by Radclyffe Hall. She was born 135 years ago today on Aug. 12, 1880.

The book was banned for obscenity in England in 1928, not just because it portrayed lesbian love, but also for using religious arguments to support “inverts” -- a 1920s term for LGBTQ people. Hall, a devoutly Catholic British lesbian, was herself pictured being nailed to the cross in a satirical cartoon from the era.

Radclyffe Hall
Hall (1880-1943) is widely recognized as a pioneering lesbian (or perhaps transgender) author. But her Christian side is often downplayed because of the conflict between Christianity and homosexuality -- what was then called “congenital sexual inversion.” Hall lived with those contradictions and tried to reconcile them in her books. Today the Jesus in Love Blog focuses on the role of Christianity in Hall’s life and work.

The Well of Loneliness” ends with a desperate prayer that has been echoed by countless LGBTQ people and still rings true now. The prayer is uttered by the novel’s protagonist, Stephen Gordon. She was born on Christmas Eve and named after the first Christian martyr. As a girl she had a dream “that in some queer way she was Jesus.” Like Hall, Stephen grows up to become a masculine woman who wears men’s clothes, has romantic relationships with women, and identifies as an “invert.”

At the climax of the novel Stephen has a vision of being thronged by millions of inverts from throughout time: living, dead and unborn. They beg her to speak with God for them, and then they possess her. She speaks for queer people from the past, present and future as she gives passionate voice to their collective prayer:

“God,” she gasped, “We believe; we have told You we believe…We have not denied You, then rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”

Such themes led to obscenity trials for “The Well of Loneliness,” even though the novel is not sexually explicit. It gets no more risqué than saying, “She kissed her full on the lips, as a lover.” In Britain it was condemned and all copies were ordered destroyed. It was only published in America after a court battle.

British judge Chartres Biron was especially outraged that Hall defended LGBTQI people by affirming that they are part of God’s creation. In his decision Biron wrote::

“I confess that the way in which the Deity is introduced into this book seems to me singularly inappropriate and disgusting. There is a plea for existence at the end. That of course means a plea for existence in which the invert is to be recognized and tolerated, and not treated with condemnation, as they are at present, by all decent people. This being the tenor of the book, I have no hesitation whatever in saying that it is an obscene libel, that it would tend to corrupt those into whose hands it should fall, and that the publication of this book is an offence against public decency, and obscene libel, and I shall order it to be destroyed.”

Both sides of the controversy were satirized in “The Sink of Solitude,” a series of cartoons including “Saint Stephen” by Beresford Egan. One drawing shows Hall nailed to a cross wearing her trademark sombrero. A near-nude Sappho leaps in front of the martyred author and Cupid perches on the crossbeam. The crucifixion is witnessed by the evangelical Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks, who helped enforce the censorship order.

Hall was upset to see herself portrayed in a way that she considered blasphemous. The drawing strengthened her resolve to write a modern version of Christ’s life as her next novel. Titled “The Master of the House,” it concerns Christophe, a compassionate carpenter born in Provence, France to a carpenter called Jouse and his wife Marie. He ends up being crucified during the First World War.

Writing the book was so spiritually intense that Hall developed stigmata on the palms of her hands during the two-year creative process. She believed it was her best book, but it got bad reviews and sales slumped. In America the book was seized not by police, but by creditors because her publisher went bankrupt.

Almost all references to “The Master of the House” describe it as a deeply religious book without further explanation. Actually it is an adaptation of Christ’s story for modern times. One of the only detailed summaries comes from the Delphi Classics edition of “The Complete Works of Radclyffe Hall.” It states:

“This 1932 novel concerns Christophe Benedict, a carpenter who lives in Provence. Almost saint-like, he is deeply spiritual, compassionate and experiences visions of a previous life as the Carpenter of Nazareth. He is attracted to girls, but refrains from having a relationship, held back by some unknown power -- his closest friend is his male cousin Jan, (but this is not a novel about homosexuality). When the 1914-1918 war begins, he enlists and is posted to Palestine. A close encounter with the enemy leads to a dramatic turn of events.”

Hall’s religious devotion dates back to 1912, when she was in her early 30s. She converted to the Roman Catholic Church under the influence of her first long-term lover, Mabel “Ladye” Batten. Her baptismal name was Antonia and she chose Anthony as her patron saint. Together they worshiped at London’s fashionable Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, known as the Brompton Oratory.

Hall and Batten made a pilgrimage to Rome, where a financial donation led Pope Pius X to bless them in a semi-private audience at the Vatican in 1913. “They went to confession and mass in St. Peter’s and bought triptychs, gilt angels and an alabaster Madonna,” biographer Diane Souhami reports in “The Trials of Radclyffe Hall.”

Batten, who died in 1916, was a Catholic convert too, as was Hall’s next lover, Una Troubridge (1887-1963). All three of them were part of a trend. A surprising number of upper-class English lesbians and intellectuals converted to Catholicism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in a trend related to the Oxford Movement. Conversion was a way of rebelling against English society while maintaining connection with tradition. Hall was also interested in Spiritualism.

An independently wealthy heiress, Hall gave generously to the church. In the 1930s she and Troubridge made their home in Rye, a village in East Sussex where many writers lived. The Catholic Church of Saint Anthony of Padua was constructing a new building when they moved to Rye, and biographer Souhami reports that Hall “poured money into this church” to bring it to completion and furnish it.

“She paid for its roof, pews, paintings of the Stations of the Cross and a rood screen of Christ the King. A tribute to Ladye was engraved on a brass plaque set into the floor:
Of your charity
Pray for the soul of Mabel Veronica Batten
In memory of whom this rood was given.
She paid off all the outstanding debts of the church… Masses, benedictions, processions and venerations stemmed from her beneficence.

One source says that she and Troubridge left their money to the church after their deaths. Hall died of colon cancer at age 63 on October 7, 1943. She is buried with Ladye in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

At the time of her death, “The Well of Loneliness” had been translated into 14 languages and was selling more than 100,000 copies per year. It has never gone out of print. For decades it was the only lesbian book generally available, and therefore it made an enormous impact on generations of queer people. It remains on many lists of the top LGBT books.

Hall is the subject of several book-length biographies, including not only “The Trials of Radclyffe Hall” by Diana Souhami, but also “Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall” by Michael Baker, “Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John” by Sally Cline, and “Radclyffe Hall: A Life in the Writing” by Richard Dellamora.

“The Well of Loneliness” has sparked controversy not only from conservatives, but also among the LGBTQ community. The novel is often criticized for expressing shame and self-hatred, defining all lesbians as masculine, and presenting a stereotyped butch-femme lifestyle. Hall has long been classified as a lesbian, but now there is debate over whether she was a transgender man. Secular LGBT readers tend to dismiss the religious aspects as embarrassing and irrelevant relics of a bygone era.

One scholar who affirms the role of religion in Hall’s work is Ed Madden, English professor at the University of South Carolina. His article “The Well of Loneliness, or the Gospel According to Radclyffe Hall” is included in the 2003 book "Reclaiming the Sacred: The Bible in Gay and Lesbian Culture,” edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain. It was originally published in the Journal of Homosexuality, where the abstract summarizes it this way::

“Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel, 'The Well of Loneliness,' is repeatedly described as a "bible" of lesbian literature. The novel itself repeatedly alludes to biblical stories, especially the story of Christ. Yet there has been little sustained analysis of the biblical language of the novel. Most feminist and lesbian critics have dismissed the biblical allusions and language as unfortunate and politically regressive; religious critics have ignored the novel. This essay reexamines the biblical nature of the novel, especially its portrayal of the lesbian Stephen Gordon as a Christ figure. The study further claims a creative and interventionary power in Hall's use of biblical narratives and tropes, a power traceable in public reception to the novel and in courtroom reactions to the use of spiritual language in a text about lesbianism. By writing the life of a lesbian as a kind of gospel of inversion, Hall turns a language of condemnation into a language of validation, making her use of biblical language a kind of Foucauldian "reverse discourse." The novel's power lies in its portrayal of a lesbian messiah, and in its joining of sexological and religious discourses.”

Another scholar who writes in depth about the queer Christian aspect of Hall’s work is Isabella Cooper. She was a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at the University of Maryland in College Park when she wrote “The Passion of Stephen Gordon: The Messianic Lesbian Artist in Radclyffe Hall’s 'The Well of Loneliness.'” The article appeared in the Transverse Journal in 2011. In the article she states:

“The Well’s readers have frequently noticed the deliberate parallels Hall draws between Stephen and Christ; they have also noticed Hall’s identification with both. Some readers have mocked the novel for precisely this reason. Hall’s strategy of creating an alter-ego/ protagonist and identifying her with Christ reflects her understanding of her role as a Christian lesbian artist. She attempts in this novel to perform a powerful work of redemption for those whose desires society and the Church label sinful. In order to combat the stigma of sinfulness, Hall fashions (and speaks through) a protagonist whose Christ-like suffering and self-sacrifice challenge her readers, and whose ability (by the novel’s end) to reconcile her commitments to her faith, her art, and her sexual identity enable her to take on a messianic role.”

Hall would probably be the first to insist that she was no saint, but she is included in the LGBT Saints series here at the Jesus in Love Blog because was a pioneer in the effort to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. Thank you, Radclyffe, for voicing a prayer from queer people of all times: “Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!”

Related links:
Radclyffe Hall, E. Lynn Harris, and Franz Kafka: Christianity, Queerness, and the Politics of Normalcy” by Margaret Soenser Breen (International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies)

Joan of Arc and Radclyffe Hall: Inspiration and Influence” by Steven Macnamara

Full text of "The Well of Loneliness" free online (

This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year. It is also part of the Queer Christ series,which gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

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