ADMIRERS of the pioneering lesbian novelist Marguerite Radclyffe Hall gathered yesterday for an informal ceremony to celebrate the restoration of her burial vault in Highgate's western cemetery.
Ten years ago, the grave of the author of The Well of Loneliness, in the Lebanon Circle of vaults, was in a state of disrepair. The gate to the tomb was bricked up, the coffin damp and damaged by satanists, and the facade was crumbling.
Yesterday, Monica Still, 71, who, with her late partner Marya Burrell, spent years raising pounds 7,000 to restore the tomb, presided over a small gathering of well-wishers in the closed Victorian cemetery on the 51st anniversary of the author's death to mark the completion of the work.
Sixty-six years ago, The Well of Loneliness, which explores the homosexual love between a young girl and an older woman, was banned in Britain despite the support of many famous authors after a celebrated obscenity trial.
It was the first novel in the English language to treat the subject of lesbianism in a mature, compassionate and honest fashion. Ms Radclyffe Hall, known as John to her friends and lovers, attempted to elevate lesbianism from its status as sexual aberration to a distinct sexual category, the so-called 'third sex'.
Yesterday, Ms Still said: 'The whole reason why Marya and I started this appeal was to repay a debt of gratitude to a woman who stood up at a time when it was very difficult to stand up and be counted.'
When they were 19-year-old nurses in Hastings, Ms Still and Ms Burrell had a year-long affair. At the time, Ms Radclyffe Hall lived in nearby Rye.
The couple parted, but more than 30 years later, in 1972, they reunited after Ms Still appeared in a television advertisement for Pedigree Chum and Ms Burrell recognised her.
They spent the last seven years of Ms Burrell's life living in Wittisham, Kent, not far from Rye, and started the Radclyffe Hall Memorial Fund. Ms Burrell died at the age of 63 in 1988.
Today the vault has been unbricked, the tomb's interior repainted, its grilles, facade and gates restored and Ms Radclyffe Hall's coffin encased in a new oak, lead-lined casket. 'John was a great lover of English oak,' Ms Still mused yesterday.
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