Palatable Poison: Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness, and Lesbian Sex and Love on Trial

by thethreepennyguignol

“If you come to me, Mary, the world will abhor you, will persecute you…I cannot protect you; Mary, the world has deprived me of my right to protect; I am utterly helpless. I can only love you.”

– Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness

In the early part of the 20th century in the United Kingdom, lesbianism and the state had come to an uneasy compromise. After the new criminalisation of male homosexual activity in 1885, an amendment was briefly considered in 1921 to allow authorities to prosecute women involved in same-sex relationships; however, fears of spreading the word of lesbianism kept lawmakers from making it official. One consulting Earl said of the matter of making lesbianism illegal: “it would be made public to thousands of people that there was this offence; that there was such a horror”. Better then, it was agreed, to pretend it didn’t exist, and hopefully keep the women of Great Britain in the dark about girl-on-girl action.

Despite this, women who loved women, as they always have, existed in Britain at the time. Doctor Louisa Martindale, the first female GP in 1906 and later a pioneer of cervical cancer treatment, lived with her long-term partner Ismay FitzGerald for most of her life; Toupie Lowther, a lesbian fencer, won the Croix de Guerre for her service to the French army running an all-female ambulance corps during World War One. Transgender woman Irene Clyde published Beatrice the Sixteenth in 1909, exploring post-gender societies and depicting lesbian marriage in a positive light. While legislators and lawmakers attempted to ignore the reality of women loving other women, their art and work continued to impact the culture and society around them.

Amongst them was Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall, who also went by John in later life. Born in 1880 to a philandering father and a previously-widowed mother, Hall believed herself to be a sexual invert – a commonly-used explanation for homosexuality at the time, which attributed same-sex attraction to the congenital inversion of “normal” gendered traits (basically, the belief that male inverts were naturally feminine and attracted to men, and female inverts were naturally masculine and attracted to women). After pursuing a number of women in her early twenties, most of whom moved on to marriages with men, she fell in love with accomplished singer and composer Mabel Batten, more than twenty years her senior, and they moved in together, marking Hall’s first majorly significant involvement with another woman. Batten introduced the then-aimless Hall to artistic circles full of other lesbian women, which began Hall’s focus on writing as a career. She published five poetry books between 1906-1915, after immersing herself in an education of the literary arts.

Over the course of their relationship, in 1915, Hall met Batten’s cousin, Una Troubdrige, a sculptor and translator, and they began a relationship which would last the rest of Hall’s life. Hall began publishing novels in the early 1920s, starting with the grim The Unlit Lamp, a treatise on a woman suffocated by her overbearing mother, but it wasn’t until 1926 that Hall broke through into exceptional literary success. Her book, Adam’s Breed, about a waiter disgusted by the trappings of modern life, sold exceptionally well – on it’s fourth reprint three weeks after publication – as well as scooping several major literary awards. Hall was cemented as part of Britain’s new modern literature scene – and there was one topic in particular she felt compelled to explore in her next book.

The Well of Loneliness was, for Radclyffe Hall, a necessary book; she wished to “smash the conspiracy of silence” about sexual inversion, though she was aware of the damaging nature a book about explicit lesbianism would have on her career. After seeking the approval of her partner, she proceeded to write the novel, and, after several rejections, found a publisher in London publisher Johnathan Cape, agreeing only to publish it if not a word was changed. With some reticence due to the subject matter, Cape agreed, and the book was released in July 1928, under a plain black cover and priced highly in the hopes of keeping away tawdry attention-seekers.

The book follows the story of Stephen Gordon, a woman born to wealthy parents in the latter stages of the Victorian era, and her life as a “sexual invert”. Depicting a number of relationships with other women, The Well of Loneliness became a prototype for the kind of lesbian pulp fiction which would become more significant in the following few decades; it also drew on the contemporaneous lesbian culture Radclyffe Hall had been so immersed in, including depictions of lesbian women working in an ambulance corps during World War I, a reference to Toupie Lowther.

The first run of the book was reasonably well-received, with a few complimenting the boldness of the subject matter, though criticizing what was seen as Hall’s dour writing style. Cyril Connolly, writing for The New Statesman, described it as “a brave book to have written, but let us hope it will pave the way for someone to write it better”. In fact, it might have come and gone without much more commentary, until James Douglas discovered it.

Douglas, then the editor of the Sunday Express, was part of a movement in the early part of the 20th century in Britain to re-instill what he saw as essential Christian values into society; writing effusively against the “Flapper Vote” (the case for women under the age of 30 to gain suffrage) and the depiction of homosexuality in novels, the Sunday Express newspapers became a powerful force for both conservatism and the Conservative party in the UK at the time.

In late August, a few weeks after The Well of Loneliness was released, Douglas wrote a diatribe against it in the Sunday Express, in which he likened allowing the continued circulation of the book to feeding children poison; “Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul”. Douglas unequivocally believed works like Hall’s were directly in competition with his brand of Christianity, and that the argument Hall made for sexual inversion as natural was an affront. He demanded that the publishers withdraw the book, and asked for the then-Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hix, to ban it for obscenity. Despite his criticisms of the book as dangerous to the very fabric of society, he was relatively complimentary about it’s style: ““the adroitness and cleverness of the book,” he claimed, “intensifies its moral danger.”

Johnathan Cape, at the behest of Douglas, brought the book to the Joynson-Nix – a man known for his repressive moral outlook, who even the Bishop of Durham described as a “dour fanatic”. A General Election approached, and a strong statement on a controversial novel would give a boost to the Conservative party’s poll numbers. Within two days, Nix read the 800-page novel, and told Cape he would begin criminal proceedings if the book was not immediately removed from circulation and destroyed. However, the scandalous campaign run by the Sunday Express meant the book was already on its third printing, and Cape was reluctant to give up rights to the novel – he agreed to Nix’s demands, but secretly had an associate make a papier mache mold of the printing blocks for the book and transport them to a publisher in Paris to continue production.

But soon, copies of the books being transported from France were intercepted, and Cape was summoned to court for an obscenity trial that began in November in 1928. The case was brought to magistrate’s court, as authorities feared a jury would not find the book obscene enough to achieve the ban they sought. In fact, the chairman of the Board of Customs at the time described it as “difficult to see how it [the subject of lesbianism] could be treated with more restraint”. Authors such as Virginia Woolf (who privately disliked the novel, though admired the stance it took on lesbian relationships) attended the trial, which was overseen by Sir Chartes Biron.

Radclyffe Hall was initially infuriated by the attempts of Johnathan Cape’s defence to protect the book; Norman Birkett, Cape’s barrister, claimed that the book contained no actual reference to lesbian sex, suggesting instead that the relationships depicted therein were purely “intellectual” in their intimacy. Hall, who had previously bemoaned the non-existence of lesbians in the eyes of the law, refused to allow this defence to go forward, warning Birkett she would take the stand herself and tell the unabridged truth about her intentions in writing the book.

Changing approach, Birkett and the rest of the team working for Cape argued instead that the book was of great enough literary merit to warrant continued publication, attempting to frame the book as a tract intended to warn the innocent reader of the dangers of lesbianism and “sex inversion”. However, Biron pushed back against this with regards to the depiction of gay love within in the book – “the actual physical acts of these women indulging in the most unnatural of vices…is described as giving these women extraordinary rest, contentment, and pleasure”. Lesbian sex, in The Well of Loneliness, was too good to risk letting women know about it.

After a few days, Biron came to his conclusion: the book was obscene, all copies of it were to be destroyed, and the court costs covered by the defendants. “The very fact that this book is well-written,” he declared, “can be no answer to this procedure…the more palatable the poison, the more insidious”.

But the trial itself had served as a cultural awakening in Britain to a lesbian subculture which had gone mostly ignored in the mainstream until that moment. Newspaper articles appeared across the country, discussing the lesbian relationships depicted in the book, as well as images of Radclyffe Hall. As many women at the time did, Hall dressed in relatively androgynous clothing by today’s standards, in monocles, short hair, and collars and ties, and her traditionally-masculine presentation along with the high profile of her case helped solidify the image of the lesbian as a woman adopting male fashion and styling. In another obscenity case in the 1930s, JF Henderson of the Home Office referred to the case as resulting “in infinitely greater publicity about lesbianism than if there had been no prosecution.”

Newspapers reported copies of the book being fed into the furnace at Scotland Yard, and Radclyffe Hall became a figure of mockery in the literary community for the abolishment of The Well of Loneliness; a poem mocking her and the trial, entitled The Sink of Sadness, was published by Hermes Press: “”Stop up the well!” is Jimmy’s urgent call/inset a picture of Miss Radclyffe Hall”, with a preface insulting “pathetic post-war lesbians”. Hall became depressed following the trial, frustrated that her book was unable to reach British audiences, but that coverage mocking and deriding it could. A similar obscenity trial took place in America, where the book was not banned, but in the UK, it remained prohibited.

The case was appealed, but, with no copies of the book available to consider due to the obscenity ban, it was only deliberated on for five minutes before Biron’s decision was upheld. Hall only wrote one more book after The Well of Loneliness, entitled The Master of the House and released in 1932, some of it dealing with what she saw as a blasphemous depiction of her in criticism of her previous novel (The Sink of Sadness had included a satirical image of Hall nailed to a cross, which the devout Christian Hall was devastated by). It came and went quickly, as the publishers who released it went bankrupt and copies of the books were seized to pay back their debts. Interest in the novel soon dropped off, and it fell out of popular culture.

Radclyffe Hall lived in the UK for the rest of her life, though her opinion of England was irrevocably damaged by the treatment of her book. She passed away in 1943, fifteen years after the initial release and scandal surrounding The Well of Loneliness, with her book still banned and her reputation irrevocably damaged.

Three years after Hall’s death, her partner, Una Toubridge, reached out to the Home Office in an appeal to the new Labour government to allow her to publish the book as part of a collection of Radclyffe Hall’s work, but was turned down, with any attempts at publishing the book threatened with prosecution on the grounds of obscenity. It wasn’t until 1949, when Falcon Press purchased the rights to the book, that the book came back into print, and has remained so ever since, even becoming part of the popular BBC radio series Book at Bedtime. Through the 1960s, the seminal work was selling around 100,00 copies per year, and was adapted several times for the stage.

Contemporary criticism on The Well of Loneliness has been mixed, with some arguing it’s depiction of femme-presenting lesbians and bisexual woman are more negative than positive, but it’s place as an invaluable part of British lesbian history. Radclyffe Hall’s work was hidden from the public because she dared to depict lesbianism and gay love as not an affliction to be cured, but a love to be celebrated. Though attempts to supress her may have succeeded in her lifetime, The Well of Loneliness has, rightly, risen to a place of deep recognition in the lesbian literary canon – and even attempts to destroy it only served to uplift its message further.

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Fashioning Sapphism : the origins of a modern English lesbian culture by Laura L Doan

The trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami

British Newspaper Archive

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