Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge was born on March 8, 1887. The life partner of author Radclyffe-Hall, she worked as a sculptor and translator.
(Not liking her first name, Radclyffe-Hall generally used just her surname in public.)
In 1908, Una Vincenzo Taylor married Commodore Ernest Troubridge. But in 1915, on a visit to her wealthy older cousin, the singer Mabel Batten, Una fell in love with Mabel’s longtime lover, Radclyffe-Hall. Mabel died the following year and Una moved in with Radclyffe-Hall.
According to the Guardian, Una Vincenzo’s husband, now a rear-admiral, “cordially approved and took part in the growing friendship between the ladies.”
But the rear-admiral initially, at least, seemed unaware of the lesbian nature of his wife’s relationship with the author. It was wartime and he often spent months at a time at sea. Troubridge stayed with his wife and Radclyffe-Hall for a few months in 1917 and they all remained great friends. Like Una, Troubridge addressed Radclyffe-Hall as John, the pet name conferred on her by Mabel.
However, when the old salt returned home in early 1919 following almost two years in the Balkans, an argument between now-Admiral Troubridge and his wife prompted a legal separation. But they did not divorce, so when he was knighted later in the year, Una Vincenzo became Lady Troubridge.
All of this became public knowledge in 1920 when Radclyffe-Hall sued St George Lane Fox-Pitt for slander. Fox-Pitt was the son-in-law of the Marquess of Queensberry, notorious for his feud with Oscar Wilde. Although not a blood relative, Fox-Pitt apparently inherited the old bigot’s homophobia.
Conversing with the dearly departed
Una Vincenzo and Radclyffe-Hall felt responsible for Mabel Batten’s misery in the year preceding her death. Wracked with guilt over the distress their relationship caused her, they sought reassurance that she found happiness on the other side.
They hired a medium and held seances. Una wrote down every word spoken by Mrs Osbourne Leonard as she supposedly channelled the late Mabel. They later published an account of the experiences in the Society for Psychical Research’s Journal. The society dedicated itself to paranormal research — telepathy, apparitions and ghosts, conversing with the dearly departed… The members regarded themselves as respectable scientists and certainly not kooky in any way. Goodness gracious, no.
Radclyffe-Hall subsequently gave a presentation of their ‘research’ to a meeting of the society. It was a great success and a past president then proposed her for membership.
But one person remained unimpressed. St George Lane Fox-Pitt, the eldest member of the society, claimed later that he walked out. He then made it his mission to deny Radclyffe-Hall membership.
Also a prominent member of the Moral Education League, Fox-Pitt saw himself as something of a moral exemplar. He ranted to the Society for Psychical Research’s secretary, the journal editor and other members about Radcliffe-Hall’s supposed ‘gross immorality’. He claimed Admiral Troubridge recently stayed with him and told him the author wrecked his marriage. Additionally, he described Mabel, still fondly remembered by the British public, as ‘an objectionable woman’ and ‘guilty of gross immorality’.
Fox-Pitt relished the opportunity for a fight, probably thinking the times suited him. Just two years before, the world-famous dancer Maud Allen sued a publisher who insinuated that she was a lesbian in an article titled The Cult of the Clitoris. The court case destroyed Maud’s career.
Confident of his defence, Fox-Pitt represented himself against the two eminent King’s Counsel retained by Radclyffe-Hall.
But the court case got off to a bad start for him. Sir Ernest Troubridge refused to appear in court but sent a letter to Radclyffe-Hall’s lawyers denying he ever said what Fox-Pitt alleged.
Lord Reading, the Lord Chief Justice presided and seemed to regard the defendant as a fool. He lectured Fox-Pitt on the inappropriateness of calling another woman immoral to the society secretary and journal editor, both women. But most of all, Lord Reading objected to Fox-Pitt’s slandering of the deceased Mabel Batten.
“There is no justification for that.”
Fox-Pitt realised that without Sir Ernest he could not score the previously anticipated great moral victory by proving Radclyffe-Hall and Lady Troubridge lesbians. He changed tack and tried to claim it was the author’s research on seances that concerned him, not her morality.
Lord Reading refused to let him off the hook.
“But you alleged unchastity and sexual immorality.”
Fox-Pitt responded that when he said immoral, he referred to Radclyffe-Hall’s research paper, not her morals.
“I used the word not in the popular sense but in what might be called the exceptional sense.”
Unchaste and immoral woman, addicted to unnatural vice
As Radclyffe-Hall’s lawyers stated, “The words could only mean that the plaintiff was an unchaste and immoral woman, addicted to unnatural vice.”
Fox-Pitt attempted to convince the jury that when he talked to the dead, he did so scientifically. However, when Radclyffe-Hall and Lady Troubridge held a seance, it was little more than ‘fortune telling’ and therefore ‘immoral’.
Lord Reading mocked Fox-Pitt mercilessly. The end of the trial saw him out of pocket and the subject of public ridicule.
The triumphant Radclyffe-Hall and Lady Troubridge then set out to show they were indeed lesbians. The author never denied she was a lesbian in court. Only that she was immoral.
Thereafter, John and Una flaunted their sexuality — out, loud and proud lesbians.
In 1975, Dame Rebecca West recalled seeing them in London 50 years before.
“One would often see them striding down Wigmore Street to the Times Book Club. Two ladies stepping out in designed conspicuousness. Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall was elegant in a flowing cape and a Spanish broad-brimmed hat which covered a beautifully cropped head of ash-blonde hair.
“Beside her tripped Una, Lady Troubridge, occasionally wrinkling her delicious nose and brows to keep in place her monocle but always, however she was dressed, looking like the nicest boy in one of the best public schools.
“Obviously they were trying to tell us something and they succeeded. It was generally realised that this was a protest against society’s rejection of female homosexuality. If the symbolism of capes and broad-brimmed hats and monocles was not plain, the message was made plain by the general knowledge that Una, Lady Troubridge, had left her husband to live with Miss Radclyffe Hall (the hyphen came and went). All ambiguity was banished by the publication of Miss Radclyffe-Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness which was courageously explicit.”
The illustration accompanying this article is from a painting by Romaine Brooks.