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Duration 00:16:42

Unfolding the court case that banned a 1920s lesbian novel

In 1928 Radclyffe Hall wrote ‘The Well of Loneliness’, a novel that featured female characters in same-sex relationships. Shortly after it was published, the Sunday Express called for the book to be suppressed and urged the Home Office to censor it. Despite attempts by writers including Vera Brittain, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to defend the novel as a book of literary, sociological and psychological significance, it was banned later that year.

In this podcast, we look at files from the obscenity trial to find out why a lesbian novel that lacked any lewd imagery or language was classed as obscene. Hear what the novel meant to sexologists such as Henry Havelock Ellis; which side of the trial Rudyard Kipling offered to stand on; and the alternate plot lines that the magistrate believed would spare a novel with gay characters from censorship.


Hello, I’m Carianne Whitworth, an editor at The National Archives, and today I’m in the reading rooms to look at a court case about a banned book called The Well of Loneliness.

The Well of Loneliness was a novel about a gay, upper-class English woman called Stephen Gordon, which sought to explore thinking around same-sex relationships between women. It was written by Radclyffe Hall and published by Jonathan Cape in 1928.

It was a significant moment because up until this point, publications on homosexuality had largely been medical textbooks, not fiction. And the literature that was available about same-sex relations had mostly focussed on men, and this is because homosexual acts between men were illegal, whereas they weren’t for women. But of course, while gay women were not prosecuted as men were, they were not exempt from the oppression and societal prejudice that men endured. And so The Well of Loneliness was a platform that brought same-sex love between women to people’s attention in a way that it hadn’t before.

The sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis addressed this in the introduction to Radclyffe Hall’s book, said that The Well of Loneliness “apart from being a fine novel, possessed a notable psychological and sociological significance.” And Havelock Ellis’s own book Sexual Inversion, which was co-authored with John Addington Symonds in 1896, was one of the first scientific books to not treat homosexuality as a pathological condition. It argued that same-sex desire – or ‘inversion’ as it was termed then – was an innate disposition similar in most aspects to heterosexuality. And so as a novel, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ gave shape to those ideas in the form of likeable, relatable, tangible characters. And so it was a book that, as its publishers argued “should not be lost to those who may be willing and able to understand and appreciate it.”

And there were many people who weren’t able to understand and appreciate it – and I was reminded of this recently after seeing a letter in the Tate’s archive, written by the photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer to her friend, the painter Edward Burra, in which she wrote: “my dear I have been ordered out of the house, since The Well of Loneliness was found accidentally left lying on the piano”.

The book hadn’t yet been banned when Barbara Ker-Seymer wrote that letter in September 1928, but the book was already quite well known to the public. In August, the editor of the Sunday Express published an article in which he had denounced The Well of Loneliness a “book that must be suppressed” and he had called for the Home Secretary to prevent the publication of any further copies. The editor had argued that the book was “the defence and justification” of what he regarded to be “an intolerable outrage – the first outrage of the kind in the annals of English fiction… Literature as well as morality is in peril!”

However elsewhere in the national press, writers jumped in to defend the novel. The Lady’s Pictorial published an article which argued: “There is absolutely nothing in it to offend anyone; except, those whom I will call the human ostriches – the man or woman who is ready and willing to condemn everything they do not understand and to bury their heads in the sand.”

And in response to the accusation that The Well of Loneliness was obscene, The Daily Herald pointed out that: “there is nothing pornographic (in this book)…The lustful sheikhs and cavemen and vamps of popular fiction may continue their sadistic course unchecked in those pornographic novels which are sold by the million, but Miss Radclyffe Hall has entirely ignored these crude and violent figures of sexual melodrama. She has given to English literature a profound and moving study”.

Despite these vouches of support, the publishers communicated with the Home Office who responded advising that the publication should be withdrawn from circulation. And they promptly did so. However, shortly afterwards, the publishers transferred the type used to print the book to Paris, where it was printed under the imprint Pegasus Press, and so when a batch of books from Paris addressed to Jonathan Cape were found to contain exact facsimiles of the novel, a court case was then brought against the publishers under the Obscene Publications Act.

So here I have in front of me the yellowing pages of an almost 90 year old document. Within this file is the magistrate’s verdict, in which he explains how he arrived at the conclusion that The Well of Loneliness was an obscene book, despite it getting, as a journalist once observed, “no more racy than ‘she kissed her full on the lips like a lover’”

So how exactly was a book that featured female characters in same-sex relationships considered obscene if it wasn’t illegal, also as both the newspapers and magistrate himself had pointed out, there is nothing lewd or pornographic, nor any evidence of any “gross or filthy language” in the novel? What exactly is obscenity in this context?

So in the files here in front of me the magistrate explains how he compared both dictionary and legal definitions of obscenity to help him with this case. Here he argues that the test of obscenity was dependent on “whether the tendency of the matter charged… 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”.

So obscenity was, in this regard or in this particular case, the intent to influence. If a book that defended same sex relations between women was permitted, I guess what might this have meant for novels that defend same-sex relations between men – at a time when that was illegal still, and continued to be illegal until it was partially decriminalised almost forty years later in 1967?

So in this document, some of the arguments put forth by the defence and the prosecution are really revealing in terms of ideas about homosexuality and censorship in this particular period.

Many notable authors offered to give evidence in favour of the book – novelists such as Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, which in turn prompted the publishers, Jonathan Cape, to argue in the case that the book was critically acclaimed and worthy therefore of attention.

However the magistrate responded to this saying that the opinions of literary figures were inadmissible. And that quality of literature had no bearing on whether or not a book could be prosecuted for being obscene. In fact, he argued: “It is quite obvious to anybody of intelligence that the better an obscene book is written, the greater the public to whom the book is likely to appeal. The more palatable the poison the more insidious”.

The magistrate felt there were alternate means of presenting novels about homosexuality, ways of presenting the topic that would have avoided obscenity accusations. And this is what he says about it:

“I can imagine a book written dealing with this subject presenting the whole matter as a tragedy, the tragedy being that there may be people so afflicted who try their best to fight against this vice… I can imagine a book dealing with the subject on those terms, presenting these women as the prisoners of circumstances which, however much they fight against them, they are unable to resist… but does the book do it” he asked.

And he continues: “I am told here by the defence that the book is presented as a tragedy… not the tragedy which I have just indicated at all… but the tragedy presented here is that people who indulge in these vices are not tolerated by decent people; they are not received in society and they are ostracised.”

“There is not a single word from beginning to end of this book which suggests that anyone with these tendencies is in the least blameworthy or that they should in any way resist them. Everybody, all the characters in this book, who indulge in these vices are presented to us as attractive people and put forward for our admiration; and those who object to these vices are sneered at in the book as prejudiced, foolish and cruel”

So, according to the magistrate, The Well of Loneliness did two things that could be interpreted as an attempt to ‘corrupt’ minds. The first is that it contained characters who weren’t ashamed of or did not attempt to resist same-sex relations. And the second point is that those who did object or disagree, they were portrayed in a negative light. So this shows how a book could be considered ‘obscene’ not necessarily for pedaling lewd or crass imagery or language, but for challenging assumed ideas about what was natural or not natural, or moral or immoral.

The proposition that plots about same-sex love could avoid censorship if presented as tragedy wasn’t restricted to just fiction either. Until 1968 all plays for public production had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. While some directors found ways to avoid censorship, there were as a result few positive representations of gay lives on stage during this time.

According to the historian Steve Nicholson, up until 1957 the Lord Chamberlain’s Office had “never passed a play about Lesbianism and … very, very rarely one in which homosexuality is mentioned.” The performances that were permitted usually contained plots that involved blackmail, trickery or deceit: one of the first depictions of same-sex relations on a British stage was in a play called The Blackmailers in 1894, which about a male couple who blackmail a former mistress.

So while the magistrate failed to be persuaded by the defence that The Well of Loneliness was in fact a tragedy – as a book about intolerance and ostracised people – he made a point of stating that the defence’s speech on the “distinction between ‘inverts’ and ‘perverts’ was ‘intriguing’. Though he doesn’t explain what the defence defined as perversion, he does address the idea of ‘inversion’. This is what he said:

“As I understood, ‘invert’ is a term used to describe women are therefore or thereby born with an inclination in a certain direction which makes them averse to relationships with and intellectual sympathy with the male sex; it is an accident of birth for which they are not responsible… therefore, they should be deserving of sympathy…: and it is said that appeal to this sympathy is the purpose of this book.”

So in response to the proposition that ‘The Well of Loneliness’ is obscene – or that the aim of the book is “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to immoral influences” – we’re presented with the argument that there are two types of character – those who chose, who are presumably what the defence means by perverts, and those whose tendencies – as the magistrate describes them – are innate. And if The Well of Loneliness is about an innate way of being, how could it be accused of deliberately attempting to ‘corrupt’ or ‘deprave’?

Here are some of the examples set out by the magistrate to explain his case for the book being obscene.

The magistrate started with what he called the Angela case. He explained that the heroine of the book, Stephen, had an intrigue with a married woman called Angela, and when her mother found out, she objected to the daughter’s conduct and stated she cannot have her under the same roof – a fate not too dissimilar from that of Barbara Ker-Seymer. When the mother announced this, Stephen stated that she can’t let it pass unchallenged, that it’s a terrible slur upon her love.

Stephen goes on to say: “It made me feel terribly strong… and gentle, it was good, good, good’ And the magistrate says: “Good is repeated 3 times”, he concludes, “with the last good emphasised in order that one may make no mistake about what is meant in this book”. So that was the Angela incident.

“Then we come to the incident that has been named as the Mary incident”, wrote the magistrate. “This takes place at the Front where, according to the writer of this book, a number of women of position and admirable character, who were engaged in driving ambulances in the course of the First World War, were addicted to this vice.”

And the transcript reveals that at this point in his speech, Miss Radclyffe Hall interjected the magistrate to protest. He asked her to remain silent.

So the magistrate paraphrases: “While driving a car on the Front, Stephen comes into contact with a woman called Mary and they strike up a relationship.”

“So what are the results of these horrible practices?” asked the magistrate, and he quotes from the book: “not that they were a tragedy, but, on the contrary, that they no longer felt desolate hungry outcasts; unloved and unwanted, despised of the world. They were lovers who walked in the vineyard of life, plucking the warm sweet fruits of that vineyard. Love had lifted them up as wings of fire, had made them courageous, invincible, and enduring… The earth seemed to come alive in response to the touch of their healthful and eager bodies – nothing could be lacking to those who loved.”

The judge concluded that the book ended with “a very singular hysterical passage in which God is introduced.” And the magistrate interprets this “as a plea for existence in which the invert is to be recognised and tolerated, and not treated with condemnation, which they are at present, by all decent people.”

“This being the tenor of this book,” he says “I have no hesitation whatever in saying that that it would tend to corrupt those into whose hands it should fall, and the publication of this book is an offence against public decency, an obscene libel, and I shall order it to be destroyed.”

After the verdict was announced, an order went out for the books to be destroyed. Files held here in the archives document the goose chase the solicitors had to take in order to retrieve the copies they sent out to potential witnesses. And these are really great. In one letter, one of the witnesses, the writer Naomi Mitchison replied to say that she had sent her copy to another witness, and in her letter concluded the note with “I am, Yours in Sisterly affection, Naomi Mitchison’, before adding a postscript in which she suggested that the officials “invite the proposed female witnesses to a dance around the final bonfire”. And the recipient of the letter writes an internal memo saying, “The lady’s desire no doubt was to appear to be humorous… Others might regard her letter as simply silly”.

The files also contain notes on the writers who were asked by the Home Secretary to give evidence against the book, including Sir James Barrie and Rudyard Kipling amongst others. All except Kipling declined to so. However an article published in the Daily Herald on 22 November 1928 lists the following eminent men and women who defended the book – not in the case, but offered to – and this included Vera Brittain, T.S. Eliot, EM Forster and Virginia Woolf.

These writers felt the same way about this book that the solicitors did. And we have a letter in this file addressed to Lillian Barker, by the solicitors, in which they write: “The question arises, if this prosecution succeeds. What literary artist in England will be safe?”

So the book wasn’t published again in the UK in Radclyffe Hall’s lifetime , although publishers in America did purchase the rights and publish it there.

So to return to the Sunday Express editor’s argument about an “outrage in the annals of English fiction”, what was the real outrage? That writers were challenging new thinking about sexuality, morality, and understanding, or that literature could only avoid censorship by reiterating plots that involved shame or blackmail, that didn’t explore and encourage new thinking about subjects such as sexuality?