Reading guide

Defending The Well of Loneliness

Editor Charlotte Knight takes us behind the scenes  to explore the  controversial publication of Radclyffe Hall's landmark lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness


On 19 August 1928, a month after its publication, James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, wrote an article calling for the immediate ban of The Well of Loneliness.

"In order to prevent the contamination and corruption of English fiction it is the duty of the critic to make it impossible for any other novelist to repeat this outrage. I say deliberately that this novel is not fit to be sold by any bookseller or to be borrowed from any library."

Douglas was of the view that homosexual practices, propa­gated by a book like The Well, had the power to corrupt young people, and society.

"I am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today. They flaunt themselves in public places with increasing effrontery and more insolently provocative bravado. The decadent apostles of the most hideous and loathsome vices no longer conceal their degeneracy and their degradation… This pestilence is devastating the younger generation. It is wrecking young lives. It is defiling young souls.

"It is no use to say that the novel possesses ‘fine qualities’, or that its author is an ‘accomplished’ artist. It is no defence to say that the author is sincere, or that she is frank, or that there is delicacy in her art."

It was a deliberate call for censorship but it was also an act of sensationalist journalism – a tactic for which the paper was infamous:

"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.


"What, then, is to be done? The book must at once be withdrawn. I hope the author and the publishers will realise that they have made a grave mistake, and will without delay do all in their power to repair it."

During the week following the publication of the Sunday Express article, Cape sent a copy of The Well to the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks. The reply he received from the Home Secretary demanded the book’s withdrawal from circulation, considering it ‘gravely detrimental to the public interest’. Joynson-Hicks was well-known for his conservative views and threatened Cape with criminal proceedings if he did not withdraw the book voluntarily. After an announcement appeared in The Times, Cape secretly licensed the rights to Pegasus Press, an English language publisher in France. As a result of the publicity, the book sold rapidly but the reappearance of The Well in British bookshops soon came to the attention of the Home Office. Shipments of the book were seized and detained at Dover.

 

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

Many notable figures in the literary world were appalled that prior to a formal trial, a book could be censored in this way, especially resulting from an act of stunt journalism. E. M. Forster and Leonard Woolf (director of the Hogarth Press and husband to Virginia Woolf) drafted a letter of protest against the suppression of The Well. Support was offered by H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Arnold Bennett, Vera Brittain and Ethel Smyth. However, the letter was never published, since Radclyffe Hall herself was unhappy with the wording. On 30 Aug 1928, Virginia Woolf described what happened in a letter to Vita Sackville-West:

"For many days I have been so disjected [sic] by society that writing has only been a dream—something another woman did once. What has caused this irruption I scarcely know—largely your friend Radclyffe Hall (she is now docked of her Miss owing to her proclivities) they banned her book; and so Leonard and Morgan Forster began to get up a protest, and soon we were telephoning and interviewing and collecting signatures—not yours for your proclivities are too well known. In the midst of this, Morgan goes to see Radclyffe in her tower in Kensington, with her Love [Lady Troubridge]: and Radclyffe scolds him like a fishwife, and says that she wont [sic] have any letter written about her book unless it mentions the fact that it is a work of artistic merit—even genius. And no one has read her book; or can read it: and now we have to explain this to all the great signed names—Arnold Bennett and so on. So our ardour in the cause of freedom of speech gradually cools, and instead of offering to reprint the masterpiece, we are already beginning to wish it unwritten."

Vita Sackville-West’s reply the following day expressed the mood among many liberals of the time:

"I feel very violently about The Well of Loneliness. Not on account of what you call my proclivities; not because I think it is a good book; but really on principle… Because, you see, even if the W. of L. had been a good book, – even if it had been a great book, a real masterpiece, – the result would have been the same. And that is intolerable. I really have no words to say how indignant I am. Is Leonard really going to get up a protest? or is it all fizzling out?"

In addition to doubts about the book’s artistic merit, The Well presented a complex problem to the Bloomsbury set. Radclyffe Hall’s very public declaration of her sexuality and her right to express herself artistically brought inconvenient publicity to the private world of Bloomsbury where homosexual ‘proclivities’ were embraced, as Woolf mentions in a letter to her nephew, Quentin Bell:

"At this moment our thoughts centre upon Sapphism—we have to uphold the morality of that Well of all that’s stagnant and lukewarm and neither one thing or the other; The Well of Loneliness. I’m just off to a tea party to discuss our evidence. Leonard and Nessa say I mustn’t go into the box, because I should cast a shadow over Bloomsbury. Forgetting where I was I should speak the truth. All London, they say is agog with this. Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins."

The trial took place on 16 November 1928. In the end, Woolf did not have to take the stand, as the literary merit of the book was deemed irrelevant to the judgement on its obscenity. Chief magistrate, Sir Charles Biron, ordered its destruction. Today The Well of Loneliness is widely regarded as an important, brave and ground-breaking work of lesbian fiction. Despite its controversial first publication and subsequent ban in Britain, it was not forgotten and has gone on to sell consistently in large quantities throughout the decades and around the world. It has been translated into 14 languages. In France and America, accusations of obscenity did not result in prosecutions and so the book enjoyed an English language readership abroad. Despite its unavailability in Britain, The Well’s lasting legacy to British culture was to make lesbianism more widely recognised as a cultural concept. As a result it remains a landmark work of lesbian literature.