Wednesday, 21 November 2012

There just aren’t any juicy bits

Beverley Nichols on Radclyffe Hall
(written in 1958)
“But in the twenties it [the term ‘homosexual’] was taboo, and I think it is correct to say that the first time it came into general circulation was during the case of The Well of Loneliness, by Radcylffe Hall.

“This book – though not as fine a novel as Adam’s Breed, for which she was awarded the Femina Vie Heureuse prize – is one of the most austerely moral works ever written. And yet fate has ordained that it should be stocked in shady Parisian bookshops cheek by jowl with such erotica as The Harems of Harlem and Pleasures of the Rod. It is placed there, of course, with the idea that young persons who have heard of its reputation may purchase it in the hope of finding passages of lurid vice. In fact, it is about as vicious as Pride and Prejudice and its powers of corruption are hardly equal to those of a grocer’s catalogue.

“And yet…what an uproar it made! Such a hullabaloo is unthinkable in the fifties, and for this reason it may perhaps be instructive to recall some of the personalities in a case which though it was an affaire de scandale was not without its humour.

“Radclyffe Hall was a very virtuous woman. She was brave, honourable, and deeply religious, and had it not been for that unfortunate accident of nature she might have ended up as a bishop or a field marshal.

“But she was embarrassing to meet in public. She used to attend many first nights wearing a black military cape, with a high stiff collar and a man’s stock. Her grey hair was cut and parted like a man’s. Her entry into the theatre always caused a minor sensation, and whenever I saw her striding towards me I used to beat a rapid retreat into the one place where, ironically enough, she was unable to follow me.

“At home, it was a different matter. She had a pretty house at Rye, where she was accepted by the locals as an amiable eccentric. Rye is an almost hysterically picturesque town in Sussex. When you walk down its narrow streets you feel that at any moment a horde of Morris dancers may burst through the doors of one of the oldy-worldy cafes. Sometimes, to your alarm, they do. The bonne bouche of Rye is Henry James’ old house at the top of the High Street. It was later occupied by the Edwardian novelist, E. F. Benson, who made it the setting for the Lucia novels, which are among the minor neglected masterpieces of English comic literature. They are worthy of a shelf not so very much lower than the novels of Jane herself, but most of them, alas, are out of print.

“At home, Radclyffe Hall impressed one as a person of passionate integrity and almost overwhelming moral rectitude…provided that one did not regard her as a woman. How could one regard her as a woman? There was nothing in the least feminine about her. I can see her now, standing in front of the fireplace at Rye, doing what some of us called her ‘British policeman act’. This is the symbolic gesture associated with the conventional music-hall cop…hands clasped behind the back, chin thrust up, knees bent and jerked outward in a springy, aggressive motion. While indulging in these callisthenics she would discourse intelligently about the latest novel. It was her boat that she knew nothing about housekeeping. She must have regarded this ignorance as a sign of virility, because she so often referred to it. ‘Couldn’t boil an egg,’ she would proclaim gruffly, jerking her knees out with extra gusto. ‘Couldn’t light a fire, couldn’t dust a chimneypiece.’

“The man who chose the name of this eccentric but honourable woman in the mud, and whose ‘revelations’ were responsible for banishing her book to the shelves of shady libraries in Paris, was called James Douglas. He wrote a weekly column in a Sunday newspaper with a bombastic fervour that marked him as the spiritual heir to Horatio Bottomley. He had a turgidly rhetorical style, in which he made a farcical use of the apt aid of alliteration. He was unctuously moral and a great champion of the muscular Christian.

“This was the man who launched his attack on The Well of Loneliness…a novel which had already been soberly and generously reviewed in such journals as The Times, and had been received without a flutter of protest by the majority of the subscription libraries. If anybody were ever to compile an Anthology of Overstatement, one sentence in Douglas’s article would deserve a page to itself. Here it is:

’I would rather give a healthy boy or girl a phial or prussic acid than this novel.’

“The young reader of today may well ask himself ‘but what was all the fuss about? Was there really anything in the book that might cause anybody harm?’ I can answer that question with precision. On the day after the storm burst I happened to be lunching in Fleet Street with a young journalist whose editor had given him the not very elevating task of going through The Well of Loneliness and extracting what he was pleased to call ‘the juicy bits’, in order that they might be relayed to a greater public. He was in a state of great depression.

“ ‘There just aren’t any juicy bits,’ he said sadly.

“ ‘But surely,’ I said – for my ears were still stinging from the assaults of James Douglas’s article – ‘there must be some?’

“He shook his head. ‘There’s a lot about a girl reading bits of Freud in the library of a country house, but that could all be published in the Church Times. Then there’s a lot of rather starry-eyed talk about the girl friend. That could go straight into the Methodist Recorder. There’s only one solitary sentence of seven words in the whole book that could possibly be regarded as objectionable.’

“ ‘Yes?’ I listened breathlessly.

“ ‘It’s at the end of a chapter where they go away together, and walk about in the field. The daylight fades, the moon rises, and they talk interminably…it couldn’t be more starry-eyed, till those seven words.’

“ ‘But what are they?’

“ ‘I’ll show you.’ He opened the book and pointed to a sentence that he had underlined. I read it…

‘And that night they were not divided.’
Radclyffe Hall (12th August 1880 – 7th October 1943)

Beverley Nichols (9th September 1898 – 15th September 1983)

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