Banned and on Trial: Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall (1880 – 1943) was a British author best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Well of Loneliness. It is often described, not sufficiently, as the story of young woman’s coming to terms with her lesbian identity.

More to the point, it’s about a person born into a female body making sense of her maleness. It was certainly ahead of its time in expressing the concept of gender dysphoria without the vocabulary of the present.

Hall described herself as a “congenital invert,” a term that came from early 20th-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing and refers to a type of inborn gender reversal where women could be born with a masculine soul and vice versa — in contemporary terms, what is referred to as transgender.

The book’s main character is Stephen Gordon, whose father fittingly gave her a male name. Radclyffe Hall  touchingly, often achingly, weaves the story of this fictional alter ego using the limited descriptive language available at the time.

At the time The Well of Loneliness was published, the story of same-sex love was a topic rarely written about outside of scientific textbooks.


“Corrupting influence” on the young

The book caused a furor when first published in England in 1928. The Well of Loneliness addressed its themes in a subtle and completely non-graphic manner, yet shortly after its publication, copies of the book were seized and accused of violating the Obscene Publications Act of 1857:

“The test for 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.”

In the post-World War I era, any depictions of women that were outside the maternal model were considered a corrupting influence on the young.

The Well of Loneliness was indeed judged a corrupting influence, as the book’s protagonist, a wealthy young woman named Stephen Gordon, falls in love with another young woman. Stephen also wishes to be accepted as male among her contemporaries.

The campaign against the book was led by the editor of the Sunday Express, who wrote, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.”

The book’s publisher was forced to endure an obscenity trial. The prosecution won, with the British court agreeing that it was obscene, as it defended “unnatural practices between women.”

The book remained banned in England until 1959! Radclyffe Hall died in 1943, not living to see the day that the ban was finally lifted. 

It has often been argued that The Well of Loneliness, with its occasionally overwrought prose, is not a great piece of literature. Still, it is eminently readable and emotionally resonant. It’s considered a Gay and Lesbian classic, and gentle though it may seem today, was quite revolutionary in its time.


Radclyffe Hall’s Book Held Obscene

Here’s one of the original articles from 1928, covering the outcome of the obscenity judgement:

London, November, 1928 (UP): Sir Charles Byron, Bow Street Magistrate, yesterday adjudged obscene Miss Radclyffe Hall’s book The Well of Loneliness, which has been the object of much discussion and litigation since its publication last summer. The judgment was given on a summons to show cause why seized copies of the book should not be destroyed.

Sir Charles ordered the destruction of the seized copies and placed the costs of the litigation on the defendants. The book had been banned by a home office order and subsequently copies published in France and sent to England were seized by the authorities.

Somewhat surprisingly, The Well of Loneliness fared better in the United States. Some months after its publication and seizure in Britain, an American Publisher, Covici and Freide, published it.

Almost immediately the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought it to court on the basis of the 1873 Comstock Laws, which aimed its legal glare at literature they deemed obscene and lewd.

The court’s decision hinged on the publishers’ attorneys argument that lesbianism in and of itself was not obscene, which followed that the book could not be considered so, either. The case was dismissed.

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trials of radclyffe hall

Quotes by Radclyffe Hall
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Backlash against the banning

Despite the decision from officials on high to ban the book, cheered on by a small coterie of literary critics, there was a robust outcry against the banning of The Well of Loneliness. The following editorial was a response to a diatribe in a competing newspaper, the Sunday Express, which accused the book of “killing souls.”

From the Daily Herald (London, England, Aug 20, 1928):

Will stunt journalism be allowed to cripple and degrade English literature? The question is raised by an article in a Sunday newspaper clamoring for the suppression of a novel, The Well of Loneliness, by Miss Radclyffe Hall and published by Messrs. Jonathan Cape, Ltd.

This book tell the story of an unusual woman. It is a restrained and serious psychological study. It is written “with understanding and frankness, with sympathy and feeling,” says The Nation. It is sincere, courageous, high-minded, and often beautifully expressed,” says The Times Literary Supplement.

But the stunt journalist, writing for a Sunday newspaper which revels in the revelations of murderers and in the views and confessions of the unfortunate persons made notorious by the terrible ordeal of trial for murder, can see here an opportunity for sensation-mongering.

No sensible man or woman can believe that a novelist of high repute would issue through a publishing firm, also of high repute, a book which is “not fit be sold by any bookseller or to be borrowed from any library.” We quote her the journalist who has assumed the role of censor of English fiction.

In this book there is nothing pornographic. The evil-minded will seek in vain in these pages any stimulant to sexual excitement … but Miss Radclyffe Hall has entirely ignored the crude and violent figures of sexual melodrama. She has given to English literature a profound and moving study of a profound and moving problem.

To cry for the suppression of this book is to label oneself as prurient. The greatest of all English journalists, Daniel Defoe, wrote Moll Flanders. This is not a book for children, but even our stunt journalists would hardly clamor for its suppression.

Must Swift and Smollett and Sterne be banned by the publishers and the libraries because they often wrote of vices and perversities of mankind? Shall our Shakespeare be cut by stunt journalists and our Bible bowdlerized?

The stunt journalist quotes Mr. Havelock Ellis, who says, in a prefatory commentary on The Well of Loneliness: “Apart from its fine qualities as a novel, it possesses a notable psychological and sociological significance.”

That is a judgment which all fair-minded people will prefer to the wild and foolish remark of the Sunday writer that he “would rather give a healthy boy a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” And to talk about this book as “killing souls” is shameful thing.

Mr. Havelock Ellis is one of the greatest living sociologists and ranks with the masters of modern literature. His verdict, I repeat, is more likely to carry weight with thoughtful people than the vaporings of the editor of the Sunday Express.


Ruled not obscene by three judges in the U.S.

Following is the coverage of the case in one American newspaper:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April, 1929: The Well of Loneliness, much discussed Novel of Miss Radclyffe Hall, English writer, was held not obscene today … in Special Sessions.

In holding the book not obscene, the Justices dismissed charges of violation of Section 1141 of the Penal Law against Covici-Freide, Inc., American publishers of the book. The Court said:

“The book in question deals with a delicate social problem, which in itself cannot be said to be in violation of the law unless it is written in such a manner as to make it obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, and tends to deprave and corrupt minds open to immoral influences.

This is a criminal prosecution and as judges of the fact and the law we are not called upon nor is it within our province to recommend or advise against the reading of any book, nor is it within our province to pass an opinion as to the merits or demerits thereof, but only as to whether same is in violation of law.

“The people must establish that the defendants are guilty of a violation of Section 1141 beyond a reasonable doubt. After a careful reading of the entire book we conclude that the book in question is not in violation of the law and each of the defendants is acquitted.”

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