On November 9, 1928 Bow Street Magistrates Court was crowded. DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been successfully prosecuted for obscenity in the same courtroom 13 years earlier. Now it was the turn of The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.
The perceived obscenity in Hall’s book was its subject matter: it presents lesbianism – inversion was Hall’s preferred term – as both normal and natural. In almost every other respect it is a conventional novel of bourgeois life, albeit one shot through with a profoundly Catholic sense of piety and suffering.
The book had been published at the end of July. Reviews were widespread and good; scant attention was paid to the aspect of its narrative which would prove most controversial. This is hardly surprising. The Well of Loneliness is many things, but sensationalist it is not. Hall’s previous novel, Adam’s Breed, had sold well; bookshops and libraries alike had no compunction about stocking her latest.
But on 19 August, James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express, changed all that with an incendiary editorial which mixed spluttering hyperbole and apoplectic morality to powerful effect: “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book,” is the line most quoted.
The novel’s publisher, Jonathan Cape, reacted quickly and sent a copy of the book to the home secretary, together with a selection of reviews, asking for judgement on its alleged obscenity.
This was, arguably, not the wisest move: the home secretary of the time was William Joynson-Hicks – nicknamed Jix – a self-regarding and zealous protestant with a predeliction for censorship which had led him to try to suppress a translation of The Decameron, among other things.
Jix demanded the book be withdrawn. Cape acquiesced. Douglas was ecstatic.
But Cape also leased the book’s plates to the Pegasus Press in Paris, which meant copies could still be brought into Britain. Jix again moved against it, but here he met a problem: Sir Francis Floud, as chairman of the board of Customs & Excise responsible with seizing obscene materials being imported, had actually read the book. Not only did Floud find nothing obscene, he admired what he read. He wrote: “If the subject is one that can permissably be treated at all in a novel, it is difficult to see how it could be treated with more restraint. If… the subject is to be regarded as inadmissable, it will be difficult to know where our censorship is to stop.”
So prosecution was brought against the publishers – both British and French – at the magistrates’ court, the risk of a jury disagreeing with the prosecution being thought too high. The magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron was taking no risks at all. The defence had some 40 expert witnesses in court, among them Virginia Woolf and EM Forster, ready to testify. Privately, neither Woolf nor Forster were great admirers of the book – “The dullness of the book is such that any indecency may lurk there,” Woolf wrote to a friend. “One simply can’t keep one’s eye on the page” – but it was a question of principle. Biron allowed just one defence witness to speak, and that briefly. Expert opinion was just opinion, and opinions were irrelevant unless they were Biron’s own, in which case they were the law.
Biron ordered all copies of the book to be seized and burnt. It would be printed again in Britain for 20 years.
This piece first appeared in the November 2020 issue of History Today.
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Image: portrait of Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932. ©National Portrait Gallery and used under a Creative Commons license.