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RADCLYFFE HALL by Sally Cline

RADCLYFFE HALL

A Woman Called John

By Sally Cline

Pub Date: Feb. 25th, 1998
ISBN: 0-87951-831-6
Publisher: Overlook

 This workmanlike biography is a welcome fleshing out of a writer still largely known for just one of her books, the pioneering lesbian apologia The Well of Loneliness. Cambridge University scholar Cline (Women, Passion and Celibacy, 1994, etc.) gives Hall (18801943) her due by devoting equal attention to her other works, which in her own time made her a broadly admired writer with a fairly unadventurous style. Hall was a prize-winning novelist (and a poet whose sentimental verses were set to music and became popular anthems) long before she set out to explain the sexual ``inversion'' of women to a heterosexual audience. When The Well of Loneliness came around in 1928, however, Hall was very much in the vanguard in theme, if not in form. Cline's strength lies not so much in psychological insight on Hall herself as in the elucidation of the sexual issues--and more general themes such as the experience of the outsider, courage and spiritual searching--that governed Hall's life and writing. Many of these themes--varying speculations on the nature of homosexuality, the subversion of gender norms--have become familiar, but Cline very vividly portrays an era when they were thrilling discoveries daringly lived out by individual pioneers like Hall herself and the wide cast of colorful characters Cline assembles. The independently wealthy Hall moved in racy circles with the likes of Violet Hunt and Tallulah Bankhead; her longtime partner, Una Troubridge, was the wife of an admiral, whose social company had run to Churchills and Asquiths. Cline limns the polymorphous existence of lesbianism among different classes of women over Hall's lifetime, from a late Victorian tolerance of intimate female ``friendship'' to the harsh moralistic attacks on The Well of Loneliness. Apart from its valuable contribution to the study of lesbian literature per se, this biography dramatizes through Hall's life the complex and still often surprising sexual politics of the early century. (16 b&w illustrations, not seen)