In E M Forster's Maurice, the only words which the hero can find to describe himself are as "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort"; 15 years later, his female counterpart might have substituted "of the Radclyffe Hall sort". In 1925, Hall published the book that gave a voice to British lesbians.
The disenfranchised cannot always choose their role models, but rarely can the faute de mieux factor have applied so strongly as to Radclyffe Hall. She was a wealthy woman who used money as a means of emotional control; a crypto-fascist and an anti-semite. But - and the "but" echoes in defiance of Bloomsbury reticence - she dared to speak out on behalf of her own kind.
That her trials were congenital, familial and romantic as well as legal is the thrust of Diana Souhami's engrossing biography. The congenital trial is that she regarded herself as a man trapped in a woman's body. Subscribing to a dubious theory of the "third sex", she established a curious hierarchy of "inversion" with herself and her heroine, Stephen Gordon, at the top. Less masculine figures, such as her lover Una Troubridge and Tallulah Bankhead, came lower down.
The familial trial was that she was born to parents who loathed each other. Her father, "Rat", celebrated her birth in bed with the maid. His behaviour justified his sobriquet, but his death left his 18-year-old daughter with a fortune large enough to secure her independence. She detested her mother and her stepfather, an Italian singing teacher who made advances to her when she was 10.
The romantic trials were less of sexual orientation than of behaviour. After an early infatuation with one of her stepfather's pupils and affairs with two cousins, she met the first of her three great loves, Mabel Batten (Ladye), whose past conquests had included two princes (Wales and Mirafiore). Through Ladye, she was introduced to Una Troubridge, whose infection with syphilis by her husband had left her with a profound disgust for his sex. Their uneasy menage a trois continued until Ladye's death, after which Hall and Una became a familiar couple in the fashionable lesbian circles of Natalie Barney and Colette. …