Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe-Hall, the second child of Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall (1846–1898) and Mary Jane Sager (1854–1945) was born on 12th August 1880 at West Cliff, Bournemouth. The death of her elder sister in infancy left her as an only child.
Her parents divorced in 1883. According to her biographer, Michael Baker: "She rarely saw her father thereafter and was unloved by her volatile mother, who remarried in 1890. Her mother's third husband was Alberto Visetti, a professor of singing at the Royal College of Music. Despite showing a precocious musical talent, she received scant encouragement from her stepfather (though he did, it seems, make sexual advances towards her). Her education was fitful and she remained a chronic bad speller all her life."
At the age of twenty-one she inherited a large sum of money that left in trust by her grandfather Charles Radclyffe-Hall. A lesbian, she lived with the singer Mabel Veronica Batten, who was twenty-five years her senior, until her death in 1916. Soon afterwards she began a relationship with Una Elena Troubridge (1887-1963), a talented sculptor. She was married to Admiral Ernest Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall sued him for libel after he described her as "a grossly immoral woman".
According to her biographer: "Believing herself a man trapped in a woman's body, she liked to be called John, assumed a male pseudonym (her father's name, significantly), and cultivated a strikingly masculine appearance, sporting cropped hair, monocles, bow-ties, smoking jackets, and pipes. A woman's best place, she proclaimed, was in the home."
Although she had enough money to live in leisure, Radclyffe Hall decided to take up writing and published several novels, including The Forge (1924), The Unlit Lamp (1924), A Saturday Life (1925) and several volumes of poetry. Her fourth novel, Adam's Breed (1926) was a best-seller and won two prestigious literary prizes, the Femina Vie Heureuse and James Tait Black.
In 1928 Radclyffe Hall published the novel, The Well of Loneliness, about the subject of lesbianism. The publisher, Jonathan Cape, argued on the bookjacket that: "In England hitherto the subject has not been treated frankly outside the regions of scientific text-books, but that its social consequences qualify a broader and more general treatment is likely to be the opinion of thoughtful and cultured people."
Havelock Ellis, the author of argued: "I have read The Well of Loneliness with great interest because - apart from its fine qualities as a novel - it possesses a notable psychological and sociological significance. 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. The relation of certain people - who, while different from their fellow human beings, are sometimes of the highest character and the finest aptitudes - to the often hostile society in which they move presents difficult and still unsolved problems. The poignant situations which thus arise are here set forth so vividly, and yet with such complete absence of offence, that we must place Radclyffe Hall's book on a high level of distinction."
There was a campaign by the press to get the book banned. The Sunday Express argued: "In order to prevent the contamination and corruption of English fiction it is the duty of the critic to make it impossible for any other novelist to repeat this outrage. I say deliberately that this novel is not fit to be sold by any bookseller or to be borrowed from any library."
Behind the scenes the Home Office put pressure of Jonathan Cape to withdraw the book. One official described the book as "inherently obscene… it supports a depraved practice and is gravely detrimental to the public interest". The chief magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ordered that all copies be destroyed, and that literary merit presented no grounds for defence. The publisher agreed to withdraw the novel and proofs intended for a publisher in France were seized in October 1928.
Several writers, including, Arnold Bennett, Vera Brittain, John Buchan, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Victor Gollancz, George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf, Julian Huxley, Violet Markham, T.S. Eliot and Harley Granville-Barker, signed a letter of protest about the banning of the The Well of Loneliness to The Daily Chronicle.
Maude Royden, a woman preacher, gave passionate support for the book. A sermon on the subject was published in The Guildhall Monthly in April 1929. "I feel bound to say that I find it difficult to understand why an official who permits the publication of books so filthy that it soils the mind to read them, and the production of plays in which everything that is connected with sex is degraded, in which marriage and adultery alike are treated as though they were rather a nasty joke, should have fastened on this particular book as being unfit for us to read. I do not desire that those other books or plays should be suppressed; I have no faith at all in that way of dealing with evil. It is better to concentrate our efforts on trying to be interested in something that is good than to take a short cut to virtue by repressing what is evil."
Radclyffe Hall wrote to Maude Royden explaining her motivation for writing the novel: "May I take this opportunity of telling you how much your support of The Well of Loneliness has meant to its author during the past months of government persecution. I wrote the book in order to help a very much misunderstood and therefore unfortunate section of society, and to feel that a leader of thought like yourself had extended to me your understanding was, and still is, a source of strength and encouragement."
Radclyffe Hall followed The Well of Loneliness with The Master of the House (1932), Miss Ogilvie Finds Herself (1934) and The Sixth Beatitude (1936). Michael Baker has argued: "All these works, traditionalist in style but exhibiting an impressive psychological grasp, reflect in varying degrees her deep sense of being a social outsider and, increasingly, demonstrate her preoccupation with a search for spiritual self-knowledge through suffering and denial."
Although she continued to live with Una Elena Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall fell in love with a Russian nurse, Eugenie Souline in 1934. Despite the initial protests of Troubridge, the three women lived together in Florence. A staunch Roman Catholic she held right-wing opinions and during the late 1930s held neo-fascist and anti-semitic views.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Radclyffe Hall, Ttoubridge and Souline left Italy and settled in Devon. Radclyffe Hall developed bowel cancer and died on 7th October 1943 at her flat in Pimlico. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery. Just before her death Hall changed her will, leaving everything to Troubridge, including the copyrights to her works. In her new will she asked Troubridge to "make such provision for our friend Eugenie Souline as in her absolute discretion she may consider right". However, Troubridge only provided Souline with only a small allowance.