Defending The Well of Loneliness

November 9: RadclyffeHall’s The Well of Loneliness,regarded as a classic of lesbian literature, went on trial in England on thisday in 1928. Johnathan Cape had published the book at the end of July, to mixedreviews and no immediate outcry. Three weeks later, the editor of the Sunday Express caused a sales rush when hedescribed the novel as “unutterable putrefaction” and”contagion,” saying that he “would rather give a healthy boy ora healthy girl a phial of prussic acid.” Without being asked (or tellingthe author), the nervous editors at Jonathan Cape decided they’d better sendthe book to the Home Office for examination; the authorities then began aseries of raids and seizures, resulting in a call to trial. Outraged by thesedevelopments, Hall openly pledged to smash “the conspiracy ofsilence” on the lesbian issue, and to defeat censorship “on behalf ofEnglish literature.”

Among those who rallied to her support was Virginia Woolf,though she was moved to do so by principle rather than art: “The dullnessof the book is such that any indecency may lurk there—one simply can’t keepone’s eyes on the page.” That’s from a letter to Ottoline Morrell; thefollowing is from a playful letter of August 30, 1928 to Vita Sackville-West,which begins with Woolf complaining that she hasn’t been able to concentrate onher own work:

What has caused this irruption I scarcely know—largely yourfriend Radclyffe Hall (she is now docked of her Miss owing to her proclivities)they banned her book and so Leonard [Woolf] and Morgan [E. M.] Foster began toget up a protest, and soon we were telephoning and interviewing and collectingsignatures—not yours for yourproclivities are too well known….

Despite her regrets over the book’s merits, Woolf was amongthose who agreed to speak at the trial. “Most of our friends are trying toevade the witness box,” she wrote her nephew, Quentin Bell, “forreasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of afather, or a cousin who is about to have twins.” In the end, the presidingjudge declined to hear any distinguished opinions on what he saw as astraightforward legal matter, and banned the book outright.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.