1934, Radclyffe Hall – Letter to Mr. Munson

Radclyffe Hall,  1934. Letter to Mr. Gorham Munson, dattiloscritto, pp.

E’ la nota esplicativa che accompagna una lettera di Radclyffe Hall dove risponde alle domande fattele su Il pozzo della solitudine. La lettera fu acquisita dai “Lesbian Herstory Archives’ (LHA) nel 1994, come dono di un uomo che casualmente l’aveva trovata tra le carte dei genitori deceduti.

Vedi allo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Well_of_Loneliness e le Newsletter dell’LHA https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Well_of_Loneliness

Pubblicata in origine dai LHA, è ancora rintracciabile su webarchive.org


The Lesbian Herstory Archives is pleased to announce the acquisition of a letter written by Radclyffe Hall. The letter, written in 1934, details her reasons for writing The Well of Loneliness and discusses the legal and social trials and tribulations that followed. To our knowledge, this is the only known formal writing by Hall about her experiences relating to the publication of the work that brought her both fame and infamy, became known as the “classic” lesbian novel, and which she considered her “best book.”
The letter appears to be written in response to an inquiry from Gorham Munson, a literary scholar who died in 1969. It comes to us by way of a New York man who found the letter in his deceased parents’ closet. A lesbian co-worker urged him to donate the letter to the Archives; he did so in the spring of 1994.

Radclyffe Hall, 1886-1943, was born in Hampshire, England. At the age of 17, she inherited a large sum of money from her estranged father. Lady Mabel Batten, many years Hall’s senior, became her artistic mentor and lover, encouraged Hall’s work, and introduced Hall to London’s literary circles. Hall considered herself a congenital invert, accepting the psychology of her time, and sought through her writing to allay the stigma of that identity. Following her liaison with Batten, Hall had a nearly thirty-year relationship with Lady Una Troubridge, which Troubridge recounts in a 1961 biography of her lover. With Troubridge at her side, Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness which, Hall admits in the letter, draws “ruthlessly” from her emotional life, providing the novel with realism and sincerity. She explains that a goal of the novel was to render an informative, sympathetic, and politically useful account of inversion. The Well reflects Hall’s notions about love, sexuality, and society; it also reveals her racism, classism, and anti-Semitism.

Hall’s reasons for writing The Well are remarkably familiar and resonant today. She hoped the novel would inspire “the inverted in general to declare themselves,” beckoning her fellow inverts to come out of the closet. She sought to provide positive role models for her “own kind” and to increase “tolerance” in the world, particularly among parents, for the inverted. Hall portrayed homosexuality as biologically-based; protagonist Stephen Gordon is a martyr to her nature by, in the end, giving up her beloved Mary to “normal” love. In this letter Hall presents the notion of lesbian and gay marriage, “though I may not be here to welcome its coming.” Fifty years later, we are the inheritors of her vision.

In 1928 censors in England and the United States suppressed the book for its portrayal of lesbianism, although the book contains little explicit sexual content by contemporary standards. “Simple working, the humble and the poor as well as a host of distinguished men and women…came forward to defend me.” Some of the intellectual figures who supported Hall during the trial included Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, and Aldous Huxley; others, “whom I had supposed to be friends,” supported her when the press did, then shunned and attacked her, “howling with the wolves,” when another portion of the press attacked her. The most painful part of the censorship ordeal, what Hall calls “the blot on my escutcheon,” was that, in spite of The Well’s international renown, it was long banned in her native England. The Well’s popularity and social significance are undeniable. Reprinted more than any other work of lesbian fiction, The Well has been embraced by lesbians as a landmark in our literary tradition.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives conducted a survey among lesbians on our mailing list about their experiences in reading The Well. Their responses were published in the September 1986 LHA Newsletter. The University of Texas at Austin holds more of Radclyffe Hall’s writings, including photographs and letters to Evguenia Souline, Hall’s lover later in life.

The letter has been reprinted in its entirety by The Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, with permission from the Estate of Radclyffe Hall. Copies are available upon request. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope at least 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ in size, along with $1.00 to cover printing costs, to LHEF, P. O. Box 1258, New York, NY 10116.

Copyright © 1997 by LHEF, Inc.


2. 6. 34. The Forecastle,
The Huchsteps
Rye, Sussex.

Dear Mr. Munson,
In reply to your request I am sending you the enclosed notes upon my writing of my novel: “The Well of Loneliness”, in order that you and Professor George Willis may make use of them for the purpose of which you wrote me, namely, your History of Contemporary English and American Fiction. I have tried to cover all the ground alluded to in your questions and have, as you asked me, added such matters as seemed to me likely to be of interest and use to you,
I shall look forward to receiving and reading the promised copy of the completed work; thanking you in anticipation,

Yours sincerely,
P.S. Perhaps you will be good enough to let me know that you have received the notes safely.

With the exception of: “The Master of the House” published 1932 (Jonathan Cape Inc., New York), I consider “The Well of Loneliness” to be my best book. It was a book that required extreme care in the writing because of its (then) unusual subject, a subject which I desired to bring to the attention of a wide public in all sincerity and frankness.

“The “Well of Loneliness” took me all of two years to write, and into it I put much strenuous work, deep sympathy and understanding. As is always my method, I worked at the book for long hours at a stretch, on some occasions for as much as sixteen hours. Sometimes I would work all night, sometimes all day. When working during the day I was, as always, when writing a novel very erratic with regard to my meals. There were, of course, days or nights when I did not work at all but lay fallow waiting for the reservoir to fill up. The method of work and the time it took to complete the book are both characteristic of my literary work in general.

I only decided to write “The Well of Loneliness” after most profound consideration, and deep study of my subject, and, moreover, I waited to write it until I had made a name for myself as an author, this because I felt, that it would, at that time, be difficult for an unknown writer to get a novel on congenital sexual inversion published. Also I wished to offer my name and my literary reputation in support of the cause of the inverted. I knew that I was running the risk of injuring my career as a writer by rousing up a storm of antagonism; but I was prepared to face this possibility because, being myself a congenital invert, I understood the subject from the inside as well as from medical and psychological textbooks. I felt therefore that no-one was better qualified to write the subject in fiction than an experienced novelist like myself who was actually one of the people about whom she was writing and was thus in a position to understand their spiritual, mental and physical reactions, their joys and their sorrows, and above all their unceasing battle against a frequently cruel and nearly always thoughtless and ignorant world, a world which seeks to label a fact in Nature as “unnatural” and thus as being a fair target for ridicule or condemnation.
In my book I endeavoured to portray in Stephen Gordon the finest type of the inverted woman, knowing well that such a type does, in fact, exist side by side with the weaker members. My book had a threefold purpose. Firstly, I hoped that it would encourage the inverted in general to declare themselves, to face up to a hostile world in their true colours, and this with dignity and courage. Secondly, 1 hoped that it would give even greater courage than they already possess to the strong and courageous, and strength and hope to the weak and the hopeless among my own kind, spurring all classes of inverts to a mighty effort to make good through hard work, faithful and loyal attachments — if such attachment’s are contracted — and, above all, to sober and useful living; in a word spurning all classes of inverts to prove that they are capable of being as good and useful citizens as the best of the co-called normal men and women, and this against truly formidable odds. Thirdly, I hoped that normal men and women of good will would be brought through my book to a fuller and more tolerant understanding of the inverted; that those parents who had chanced to breed male or female inverts would cease from tormenting and condemning their offsprings, and thus — as is only too often the case — doing irreparable harm to the highly sensitized nervous system that is characteristic of inversion; above all would cease destroying that self respect which is the most useful and necessary prop to those of all ages in their journey through life, but particularly to the young invert. I hoped also that my book would reach school teachers, welfare workers, indeed all those who had the care of the young, and that it might even prove useful to doctors and psychologists who are often hampered in their work and their studies by meeting only those inverts whose plight has rendered them physically or psychically unfit, those inverts who owing to persecution have become the prey of nervous disorders and cannot thus be considered fair examples of the inverted as a whole. Whether or not I have succeeded in my aim time alone will show.

In his commentary at the beginning of my book, Havelock Ellis says: “So far as I know, it is the first English novel which presents, in a completely faithful and uncompromising form, one particular aspect of sexual life as it exists among us today.” He is correct I think; at all events when I sat down to write “The Well of Loneliness”, I felt that I was about to underake the task of a pioneer, and that I must therefore be perpared to face the consequences — frequently unpleasant — that accrue from most pioneer work. As an American journalist of my acquaintance wrote to me wittily when the storm broke: “You have torpedoed the ark, and therefor you mustn’t be surprised that Mr. And Mrs. Noah have come out to see what’s happened!”
What happened in England was a Government prosecution, two Police Court actions both of which we lost in truly amazing circumstances, and as a result the suppression of the book which, however, was published again in Paris unabridged and in its original language within one month of that suppression. Had I required proof of the blind and bitter antagonism that exists against the inverted, and which in itself shows the vital necessity that existed for the writing of my book, then I had that proof as I sat in the police courts and listened to the conducting of those two cases. A brief resume of the English proceedings appears in the Twelfth Printing of the Two Dollar American Edition. (Covici, Friede Inc:).
What happened in the United States appears in the “Victory Edition” 1929. (Covici, Friede), The account of the attempt made by Mr. Sumner to get my book suppressed in America also, and of the lawsuits that followed, is given in great detail by that brilliant lawyer and champion of literary freedom, Morris Ernst, who, incidentally, fought the forces of retrogression on behalf of my American publishers. This account is indeed well worth reading, and it tells the story of the battle of “The Well of Loneliness” in the United States far better than I could hope to tell it. In the end my book was victorious. I have great cause for gratitude towards America; great cause for gratitude also towards all those eminent American men and women who came forward in defence of the book, and great cause for gratitude towards the three American judges who conducted the last case in so seemly and so emineintly just a manner,
Have I suffered through the writing of “The Well of Loneliness”? Yes and no. I certainly felt very strained end weary by the time the battles were ended. Of course many strange cnd unexpected things happened to me after the English suppression. Until the book was publicly attacked, some of those whom 1 had supposed to be sincere friends taking their cue from a fine and generous Press, perhaps appeared to accept the book in the spirit in which it had been written; but after the public attack — taking their cue from the then antagonistic portion of the Press — they leapt on me, howling with the wolves. I was down, as they thought, and so they trampled. But then there rose up many in my defence and among these the most unexpected people: simple working people, the humble and the poor as well as a host of distinguished men and women some of whom I had only known by name until they came forward to defend me.
Very moving and unforgettable sympathy was extended to me by all classes of society. For instance, a subscription was started to pay my legal expenses which, however, I could not very well accept in view of the fact that I possessed certain assets — I was able to sell my London house and thus procure the necessary ammunition. One very rich man, unknown to me personally, generously offered to pay the whole of my expenses himself begging me to engage the best possible barristers, while quite a number of poor working men wrote to me saying that if a subscription was started they would like to contribute their hard earned shillings, And so it was that those dark and distressful days held for me their patches of sunshine. Indeed the sympathy of the British working classes was one of my greatest supports at that time and I am never likely to forget it.
A less agreeable side of the picture is the notoriety that the suppression of the book caused to fall upon me — I could not then escape it nor can I even now six years after the book’s publication. I do not like notoriety, it embarrasses me and makes me feel shy, but I realise that it is the price I must pay for having intentionally come out into the open, and no price could ever be too great in my eyes. Nothing is so spiritually degrading or an understanding of one’s morale as living a lie, as keeping friends only by false pretences. It is this that drags many an invert down, that whittles away his or her self respect and with it his or her usefulness as a citizen. The worthy among the inverted — those fine men and women whom Nature has seen fit to set apart as variants from the more usual type hate the lies and the conspiracy of silence that a ruthless society sometimes forces on them. Like their more normal brethren they are honest, simple souls who long to live honestly and to live as themselves, they desire to form a part of the social scheme, to conform in all ways to the social code as it exists at present. Because, though they see its imperfections as every intelligent person must, they realise that nothing in this world can be perfect and that, on the whole, this code as it is — save for its injustice towards themselves — is a workable and necessary proposition unless we are to fall into chaos. Such inverts desire to legalise their unions. Preposterous, do you say? And yet it may come, though I may not be here to welcome its coming.
I have often been questioned regarding my methods of work. Many people have asked me how I wrote “The Well of Loneliness”. My reply is that I wrote it exactly as I always write my books, that is to say I first thought out the plot from beginning to end in its every detail — it is quite usual for me to know the last words of a book as I write the first words. I envisaged the people, I saw them one and all with the eyes of my mind, I heard their voices with the ears of my mind — my characters must come alive before I can write them, and having come alive they must then posses me.
I cannot dictate a book in its first stage, I must have the marraige of pen and paper. Later I dictate from my manuscript to my typist, polishing what I have written as I go. My ears are generally more helpful than my eyes, I will hear my mistakes before I will see them, The typescript of a chapter complete, I always have it read aloud to me, than I begin to polish again — sometimes I polish a great many times. I am patient, I think, as authors go, indeed I am frequently that dull thing: painstaking.
The bulk of this particular book was written at a roll top American desk in my romantic little London study. The desk, I remember, I had bought secondhand; it was yellow fumed oak and extremely ulgly. But I also wrote “Adam’s Breed” at that old desk, and when I came to sell it I found to my surprise that I felt for it a certain affection, and so I gave the desk to a friend, knowing that she would treat it kindly.
“The Well of Loneliness” was a tiring book to write; after it was finished I felt pretty well washed out, but then came the storm a month after publication and this left me no time to think about myself, the only thing that mattered was to keep the book alive, to rescue it from those who had set out to kill it.
I still deeply regret its banning in England, nor can I derive complete consolation from the fact that it has been translated into many languages and received in the principal countries of Europe with appreciation and understanding. Until my book is permitted to come home I shall feel that I have a blot on my escutcheon. Then again, I undoubtedly opened the door to a flood of literature on the same subject the banning of my book was unpopular, and the Government did not and does not wish to court further opprobrium by tampering any more with literary freedom, Far be it from me to wish books to be banned, I stand or fall by literary freedom; I consider that the young should be guarded in their homes, that parents and guardians should be the only censors. I, personally, have never set out to write books that are suitable for the nursery. But I do feel very sad when I read some of the books that have rushed through the door over my dead body, books giving a completely distorted idea of true congenital sexual inversion; books written with flippancy – funny, I admit, but ruthlessly ridiculing the whole subject; or, worse still, books written with an eye to sales, dirty, unworthy, lewd little books that their authors should have strangled at birth. Books that harm the cause of the invert incalculably, painting as they do so false a picture by dwelling only on the worst type of invert, by stressing only the physical side and thus throwing the whole picture out of drawing. Alas that such books nearly always have good sales, as indeed do similar volumes dealing with normal sexuality, I can only suppose that this is why they are published.
One last word, It has very frequently been said that “The Well of Loneliness” is my own life, that Morton was my home, Raftery my horse and Sir Philip and Lady Anna my parents; that Angela Crosby really lived and still lives, and that Mary also is a real person. This is not so, the book is pure fiction so far as such details and such people are concerned; I only drew upon my own experience when I came to write certain fundamental emotions that are characteristic of the inverted. Then, I admit, I did drew upon myself, I drew very ruthlessly upon myself, hoping that by telling my readers the truth, “The Well of Loneliness” would carry conviction.

Copyright © 1997 by LHEF, Inc.

(End of letter)