Obscenity Trial of The Well of Loneliness (2869 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay


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Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, was published in July 1928 when Hall was already an established and successful middlebrow author. Her previous book, Adam’s Breed (1926), had won both the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse-Bookman and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was a best-seller. An independently wealthy woman and a well-known figure at society events, Hall and her partner Una Troubridge were also frequently noted in newspaper society columns as stylish dressers in the masculine, tailored fashion of the late 1920s. Their relationship had come under public scrutiny in 1920, when a fellow member of the Society for Psychical Research had accused Hall of immorality and being responsible for the break-up of Una’s marriage to Lord Admiral Troubridge, prompting Hall to sue for libel. Radcylffe Hall had also explored the issue of relationships between women in her earlier work, with her 1924 novel, The Unlit Lamp, depicting a woman who missed her chance of happiness in life because she had decided not to leave her mother to set up house with another woman. The Well of Loneliness explored these themes in more explicit terms, describing the development and emotional adventures of a female sexual invert, Stephen Gordon. Presented as a man trapped in a woman’s body, Stephen had a number of passionate affairs with women and endured the opprobrium of a society which could not accept her nature. The novel was intended as a defence of a “misunderstood” and “persecuted” minority and Hall claimed to have written the book “from a deep sense of duty. I am proud indeed to have taken up my pen in defence of those who are utterly defenceless, who being from birth a people set apart in accordance with some hidden scheme of Nature, need all the help that society can give them” (Souhami, 167-8).

On completion of the manuscript, Radclyffe Hall offered the book to her publisher, Cassell, but was declined. Both Newman Flower at Cassell and Charles Evans at Heinemann felt unable to publish a defence of sexual inversion, but the book was subsequently accepted by Jonathan Cape, publisher of Ernest Hemingway and T.E. Lawrence. Aware of the sensitivity of the novel’s subject matter, Cape proposed a cautious marketing strategy, presenting the book in black with a plain wrapper, and pricing it significantly above the cost of an average novel. Publicity focused on Radclyffe Hall’s established reputation as the winner of literary awards, rather than on the content of The Well of Loneliness. At Hall’s suggestion, Jonathan Cape also solicited an endorsement from the sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose own work on sexual inversion had influenced Hall in her thinking on the subject. Ellis agreed and the endorsement appeared as a commentary at the opening of the book, intended to add an air of scientific authenticity to the project.

In a further attempt to lend the novel literary weight, Jonathan Cape pitched his publicity at a highbrow readership, rather than Radclyffe Hall’s usual middlebrow following, and sent review copies to a range of quality newspapers and journals. The novel attracted serious and largely positive attention from reviewers, many of whom praised the author’s sincerity and courage. Critics offered a range of opinions on the novel’s literary merits, with I. A. R. Wylie in the Sunday Times observing: “Radclyffe Hall writes with distinction, with a lively sense of characterization, and with a feeling for the background of her age which makes her work delightful reading”, while the highbrow author Leonard Woolf in Nation and Athenaeum noted that “the book fails completely as a work of art … [it] is formless and therefore chaotic … the style is not brilliant or beautiful … and Miss Hall drops into journalese or the tell-tale novelist’s clichés, when she wants to heighten the emotion”. The subject matter of the novel also received considerable attention and many reviewers noted the possible discomfort some readers might feel at its theme. In Tatler, Richard King concluded a summary of the novel’s plot with the observation:

You must read the story. And yet you must not read it unless certain aspects of life do not terrify you. Most people will, I fancy, consider it a most unnecessary publication – and this is to put it mildly. They will see in the extraordinary truth and realism which makes the book in its way a little work of art, even in the acute appreciation of beauty and in the writer’s pity for the class about whom she writes, an additional danger, perhaps an added insult. Well, these people must not read it.

Sales of the novel were brisk and it was taken up enthusiastically by the circulating libraries. In keeping with his cautious marketing strategy, Jonathan Cape had only ordered a print run of 1500 copies which soon sold out and the novel went into a second edition.

However, on 19 August 1928, this measured response was challenged in an editorial by James Douglas in the Sunday Express. Under the headline, “A Book That Must Be Suppressed”, Douglas condemned the book in vitriolic language as “an intolerable outrage – the first outrage of the kind in the annals of English fiction”. Claiming to be aware that “sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today… [and] flaunt themselves in public places with increasing effrontery” Douglas nevertheless argued that the subject should not be admissible in public discussion and The Well of Loneliness should not be allowed to “pollute” English bookshops and libraries. Focusing particularly on the dangers which the novel posed to the young, Douglas declared: “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.” Douglas called upon the publisher to withdraw the book from circulation and, failing this, for the Home Secretary and Director of Public Prosecutions to take legal action. Historians and commentators have frequently presented Douglas’ outburst as an indication of broader social hostility to lesbianism in interwar Britain, arguing that his views were representative of much of the male establishment of the period (Bristow, 53; Souhami, 183-4). However, Laura Doan has challenged this view, offering a number of alternative explanations for Douglas’ actions. Appearing a few months after the Representation of the People Act 1928 extended the franchise to all adult women over the age of 21, Doan suggests that Douglas’ article might be interpreted as an attempt to recast a long-standing and now unsuccessful media campaign highlighting the dangers of the flapper and the social consequences of independent, masculine women. In the competitive media climate of the interwar period, the Express had established itself as a sensationalist paper, which exposed the decadence of modern life to its readers, and the attack on The Well of Loneliness fit comfortably within this agenda. James Douglas himself appears to have held strong personal views on social morality, supported by his belief in “muscular Christianity”, and was well-known amongst contemporaries for his crusading journalism and bombastic style. Nevertheless, his fellow journalists were quick to criticise his Well of Loneliness article as a cynical ploy to boost sales in the notoriously slow summer months and to condemn Douglas for irresponsible journalism (Doan, 14-20).

In the immediate aftermath of the Douglas editorial, a range of influential figures in the literary and media world rallied to support the book, regarding Douglas’ claims as an attack on literary freedom. E. M. Forster visited Radclyffe Hall to suggest a public letter of protest which would be signed by himself, Arnold Bennett, Lytton Strachey and others, although Hall was offended that the letter did not vouch for her novel’s literary merit. Ultimately, E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf signed a joint statement on literary freedom which was published in the Nation & Atheneaum on 8 September. Radclyffe Hall also received support from other sources, including thousands of letters from readers in response to the novel (O’Rourke, 94).

Despite this widespread support, the publisher was prompted by Douglas’s article to send a copy of the novel, together with a selection of reviews, to the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, for consideration. He also wrote a statement to Douglas in which he promised to withdraw the book from circulation if the Home Secretary considered it necessary. Cape apparently believed that the Home Secretary would dismiss Douglas’s comments, but his hopes proved unfounded. Joynson-Hicks was an evangelical Christian and supporter of social purity campaigns. He immediately consulted with Sir George Stephenson, deputy Director of Public Prosecutions and with the Lord Chancellor, over the possibility of taking action against the book. Within two days of receiving Cape’s copy of the novel, the Home Secretary wrote to the publisher advising that he found the book “inherently obscene” and requesting him to withdraw it from publication or risk legal action. Jonathan Cape publicly complied, writing a letter to The Times advising that he had ceased publication, but privately made arrangements for moulds of the typeset to be taken to an English-language publisher in Paris, Pegasus Press, for publication there. By the end of September, the Pegasus editions of The Well of Loneliness were ready to be shipped to English booksellers, but on 4 October customs officers at Dover seized a consignment of 250 copies, after a tip-off from the Daily Express. The shipment was released by customs on 18 October and delivered to the book’s distributor, Leopold Hill. The following day Chief Inspector John Prothero of the Metropolitan Police led a raid on Hill’s offices, executing a search warrant issued by the Bow Street Magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. The books were seized and further copies and papers were confiscated in a subsequent raid on the offices of Jonathan Cape. Both Hill and Cape were issued with a summons to appear before Bow Street Court on 9 November and justify why the books should not be destroyed as obscene.

The one-day trial attracted considerable public attention and, on the morning of 9 November, Bow Street Court was quickly crowded. Presenting the case for the prosecution, Eustace Fulton, accompanied by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Archibald Bodkin, called C.I. John Prothero to testify regarding the circumstances of the police raid and to confirm his personal belief that the book was obscene. Fulton then addressed the court, arguing that “a person who chose an obscene theme could not but write an obscene book”. Norman Birkett KC, acting for Jonathan Cape, opened the defence, arguing that the legal action was based on a misinterpretation of the Obscene Publications Act, which had never been intended to be used against works of literature, such as The Well of Loneliness. Harold Rubinstein, the defence solicitor, had collected forty expert witnesses including Laurence Housman, Naomi Mitchison and Norman Haire, and Birkett attempted to call these to testify that they did not regard the novel as obscene. However, when Birkett asked his first witness, Desmond MacCarthy, editor of Life and Letters, whether he considered the book obscene, Biron ruled the question inadmissible and refused to allow further witnesses to be called. Such witnesses, he argued, might testify to the novel’s literary merit, but this was irrelevant to the question of obscenity. Unable to present his prepared defence, Birkett went on to suggest that the subject matter of the book was not, in fact, sexual inversion and that Stephen Gordon’s relationships with women in the novel were romantic and intellectual, but not sexual. However, after a challenge by Radclyffe Hall during the court’s recess for lunch, Birkett was forced to retract this assertion and to conclude by suggesting that the novel dealt with inversion, but not perversion. Birkett was followed by J. B. Melville, defence counsel for Leopold Hill, who argued that the novel’s theme was dealt with in a “reverend spirit … which is not calculated to excite libidinous thoughts” (Souhami, 201-212).

Sir Chartres Biron delivered his judgement on 16 November. He began by offering a definition of obscenity, in which he relied upon the test laid down by Chief Justice Cockburn in the case of R. v. Hicklin:

I think the test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.

Relying upon this definition, Biron dismissed the defence of literary merit as irrelevant, arguing that “the mere fact that a book is well written can be no answer to these proceedings, because otherwise we should be in this preposterous position, that because it is well written the most obscene book would be free from such proceedings”. For Sir Chartres Biron, the subject of the book was not in question: “These unnatural offences between women which are the subject of this book involve acts which between men would be a criminal offence, and involve acts of the most horrible, unnatural and disgusting obscenity”. Therefore, the only issue at stake was whether or not these acts were defended or presented as admirable in The Well of Loneliness. Following a detailed textual analysis, in which he noted that the novel presented sexual inverts as “attractive” and not “blameworthy” and took particular exception to “a very singular hysterical passage in which God is introduced”, Biron determined that the novel was obscene and ordered it to be destroyed, awarding costs of 20 guineas from each defendant. An appeal in the London Sessions Court on 14th December, heard by 12 magistrates who had not been supplied with copies of the book, upheld Biron’s judgement (Doan and Prosser, 39-49).

The trial of The Well of Loneliness had a significant impact on public notions of lesbianism in Britain, bringing the issue to the attention of many people who were not aware of it and crystallizing the range of discourses which had previously circulated on the subject. Widespread discussion of the book both during the Express campaign and in the publicity surrounding the trial, meant that female same-sex desire was publicly discussed on an unprecedented scale. Amongst the educated elite of London society, the subject was hotly debated throughout the second half of 1928, prompting Virginia Woolf to write: “At this moment our thoughts centre upon Sapphism … All London, they say is agog with this” (Woolf, 555). In the media discussion which followed the Douglas article, Radclyffe Hall herself increasingly came to be identified with her book, so that her personal image became fused with public understandings of lesbianism. The 19 August Sunday Express article had included a photograph of the novelist with short hair, a tailored outfit and a cigarette in hand and ten days later, Eve: The Lady’s Pictorial ran a sketch of Radclyffe Hall with short hair and a shirt, commenting on her “severely tailor-made style of outfit” and habit of wearing a monocle. Subsequent media discussion increasingly connected the topic of the novel and its mannish heroine with Radclyffe Hall and the masculine tailored look, with the result that lesbianism and the masculine look gradually began to converge in the public mind.

The Well of Loneliness was not the first or the only novel to discuss desire between women in this period. Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, published in September 1928, was a satire on society lesbians, while Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which won the Prix Femina in 1928, was written as an expression of her love for Vita Sackville-West. Although these novels escaped criticism through their satirical and modernist representations of same-sex desire, the attack on The Well of Loneliness had a longer-term impact on literary representations of female relationships. Rosemary Auchmuty has noted that depictions of female friendships in schoolgirl stories shifted in the aftermath of the Well of Loneliness trial (Auchmuty, 135-6). Earlier descriptions of girls who lived in twos as a “recognised couple” gave way in the late 1920s and early 1930s to an increasing emphasis on heterosexual romance and marriage, suggesting that it was no longer possible to portray committed relationships between women without suggesting the possibility of lesbianism.

The Well of Loneliness itself continued to be printed in France and in the US, where a similar attempt to ban the book failed. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s copies of the novel were smuggled into Britain and in 1949 the novel was quietly re-released in the UK.

Works Cited

Auchmuty, Rosemary. ““You”re A Dyke, Angela!” Elsie J. Oxenham and the rise and fall of the schoolgirl story.” Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History 1840-1985. Ed. Lesbian History Group. London: The Women’s Press, 1989. 119-140.
Bristow, Joseph. Sexuality. London: Routledge, 1997.
Doan, Laura. Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Doan, Laura and Jay Prosser eds. Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Douglas, James. “A Book That Must Be Suppressed.” The Sunday Express 19 August 1928.
King, Richard. Tatler 15 August 1928.
O’Rourke, Rebecca Reflecting on The Well of Loneliness. London: Routledge, 1989.
Souhami, Diana. The Trials of Radclyffe Hall. London: Virago, 1999.
Woolf, Leonard. Nation & Athenaeum 4 August 1928.
Woolf, Virginia. Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann Vol. 3, 1923-28. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Wylie, I. A. R. Sunday Times 5 August 1928.

Citation: Jennings, Rebecca. "Obscenity Trial of The Well of Loneliness". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 02 June 2008 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=1776, accessed 29 November 2021.]

1776 Obscenity Trial of The Well of Loneliness 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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