by VEGA SHAH
The Ransom Center is home to the collection and papers of British author Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943) and her partner, Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge (1887-1963), a sculptor and translator. The couple, being openly lesbian partners, are remembered as LGBTQ pioneers, with Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928), making lesbianism more visible in English society, despite the banning of the novel in England.
The Hall-Troubridge papers have been digitized and are accessible online in a new digital collection. Explore more than 40,000 images of Hall and Troubridge’s papers, letters, and photos, that provide insight into their personal correspondence, as well as topics such as gender, politics, and spirituality.
To learn more about the experience of digitizing the collection, I spoke with Alejandra Martinez, the project librarian of the Hall-Troubridge papers, and Zoe Roden, a collections assistant at the Center. As a Marketing and Communications Intern, I was excited to have the opportunity to learn more about one of the collections and how experts approach digitizing materials. In turn, this article aims to shed light on Hall and Troubridge’s complex identities as reflected by their collection, as well as highlighting the work of digitizing the archive, and how someone making this material public deals objectively with subjects ranging from controversial politics to questions of identity, to cute dogs.
Q&A with Alejandra Martinez and Zoe Roden
Alejandra Martinez: As the Hall-Troubridge online archive project librarian, and I’ve been digitizing the works of Radclyffe Hall over the past couple of years, thanks to a grant funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and I’ve had a wonderful team helping me along the way as well.
Zoe Roden: I’m working with Alejandra on intake, quality checking, and appending metadata.
I recently had the opportunity to explore literary materials in the Hall and Troubridge Collection. One of the first things I looked at was a manuscript of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. In November 1928, many of the copies were destroyed, and the final book was banned in England after being found in violation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Obscenity has had a very complex legal history and has often been criticized for being arbitrary. Regarding The Well of Loneliness, what do you think about the obscenity ruling for the novel and the commentary of what it means to be obscene that surrounds it?
How did you get involved with this collection?
Zoe Roden: The Well of Loneliness was banned and destroyed under the Hicklin test, which somewhat made being “socially deviant” and “obscene” synonymous. So when dealing with books like this, judges would often just ask “Well, what does obscene mean?” They would pull out a dictionary and read literal synonyms for what obscene meant. So that would be “dirty,” “lascivious,” and “lewd.” That left many queer authors vulnerable, because if something was deemed to be amoral for a vulnerable audience, especially in the United Kingdom, then they could immediately just be destroyed en masse.
I was doing some reading and learned that Radclyffe Hall preferred to be called “John” in her adult years and had a complex relationship with her gender identity. How is this reflected in the archive?
Alejandra Martinez: The nickname “John” tended to be used by close friends in Hall’s life, usually people like Una Troubridge and Evguenia Souline, a Russian nurse that she had a lengthy affair with. She was a very complicated person, so we did our best to highlight that, and also just underscore that Hall’s contributions to queer culture and lesbian culture are relevant, while also respecting that she didn’t have maybe the same language that we do now to talk about the nuance of identity that she might’ve been experiencing. There were different kinds of language at the time used. For example, she was a self-described “invert,” which was a word used for folks who might’ve been queer or non-binary at the time. So just making sure we highlight that, but also showcase things like her use of “John” as a pen name or a name with people she really loved.
Another complicated aspect of Troubridge and Hall’s life, was their fascist beliefs. This was notable, especially at the rise of World War II, when Troubridge’s native Italy was falling under the influence of Benito Mussolini. What are your insights on this aspect of their identity?
Alejandra Martinez: This has definitely been something that we’ve been trying to handle with as much nuance as possible as we’ve been getting these materials ready for the public. She was a fascist sympathizer, there’s no way to tone that down. So, we are planning on having texts with disclaimers and other things mentioning those beliefs. Definitely, as I’ve been digitizing, I’ve come across things that were upsetting to digitize, such as descriptions of other marginalized groups within their writing. It was definitely hard to sit with. I think the way we’ve been trying to talk about this is to not shy away from it —to be frank about it —because it was a part of their identity as much as being these queer pioneers in literature. It’s a messy thing because they were queer, but they were also largely protected by their class. They were both very wealthy and were both white, British women.
Zoe Roden: I was really impressed by the way the team chose to handle it. I think we have all these ambitions for how we want to depict queerness in the archive, and coming and seeing it actually happen has been really illuminating. I think, especially in the past few years, there have been a lot of efforts to lift up these queer voices and search for representation in the past that aids our current efforts today; but, to be out in that period was a massive privilege and also to have anything in the archive is also a massive privilege. So the chance that we’re going to find the radical voice somewhat flattens a lot of these people in the archive. All to say that I’ve been really impressed and really lucky to be able to work with this team.
During my research about Radclyffe Hall, it was really hard to find any writing about her being a fascist. Much of what I found highlighted the fact that she was a pioneer, like you said, of LGBTQ literature. So I think it is really great that you’re showing that that’s not the only thing that defined her and influenced her writings.
Alejandra Martinez: Thank you for that. I hope that’s going to translate. I think to do otherwise would be, like Zoe mentioned, kind of flattening. If we want to give people this information to accurately research or just to learn more about them, we have to be honest about everything.
How has digitizing this collection helped bring light to queerness in archive, as well as going against typical narratives that you might see from that time period in literature?
Alejandra Martinez: In general archives, holding materials from a woman at this time, especially a queer woman, is huge. It’s definitely different from what we usually expect to see. Also, when we think about love letters or diary entries between partners that we might see in an archive, I think most folks tend to think of it from, a heterosexual standpoint. But as I was digitizing Una’s diaries, something that stood out to me was a section of her diary entries after Radclyffe Hall’s passing that were just letters to Hall after she passed. That really touched me. It’s very moving. To hear her try and reach out to Hall in some way, even after she was gone. And I think just being able to open that to folks, to see queer love in this way is really cool.
Zoe Roden: I deal a lot with people who were openly gay around the same period, but it’s never the love letters that get archived. It’s always their literary works or their financial information or their healthcare information. But I think their love letters in regard to the whole collection go together in such a strong way. You can really match their correspondence for a number of years, which is really beautiful, and I’m excited to see it all online.
Something I thought was really interesting about Hall and Troubridge was how spiritual and religious they were. How do you both see the spiritual influence manifest in their respective works and their interactions with each other, as well as within the archive?
Alejandra Martinez: I think, especially in Hall’s case, a lot of Christian themes come to light. I think in Adam’s Breed I’m remembering correctly, a former World War I soldier who’s dealing with life after the war, there were a lot of themes regarding faith. Also in Hall and Troubridge’s correspondence with each other. I remember digitizing a lot of faith-based materials in the collection. There is material that gives insight to how religious they were, and I would say within their works as well.
In your personal opinion, what would you say is a part of the collection that resonated with each of you?
Alejandra Martinez: I mentioned my interest in Una Troubridge’s diaries. This is a little bit more of a fun answer because Radclyffe and Troubridge were dog breeders. They bred Dachshunds. There is a great section of the collection that was a joy to digitize. There were a lot of wonderful dog pictures, dogs everywhere. It was probably the best week I had digitizing material. I’m really excited for those…all of the little Wiener dogs.
Zoe Roden: The dogs had the fanciest names too, like Fitz-John Thorgils of Tredholt. It’s really, really funny. I think just because of my line of work, I’m mostly working with uploading and impending metadata, so the pages really mattered to me. Something that really stood out is the massive amount of blank pages. Especially, because at this time there was a paper shortage in the UK. So I think it’s a really good sense of Hall and Troubridge’s class status and seeing their position in society. Just passively for me, it’s a massive deal because it’s always on my mind, I’m always grappling with the many blank pages I’m ingesting.
More than 60,000 digitized items and a new educational resource based on the papers of Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge papers are now online thanks to researchers at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. This project was supported by a Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The grant program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Harry Ransom Center gratefully acknowledges the support of CLIR and Mellon.