One thing which is particularly fascinating and beautiful about books is their historical context, and the lives they take on following publication.
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, is one of those books where in order to truly appreciate what it has meant to a lot of people, it cannot be studied from a literary perspective alone.
The Well of Loneliness was published in 1928 by Jonathan Cape. It was Hall’s fifth novel, and the product of a long-held ambition to attempt to explain lesbianism to a heterosexual audience.
The sombre narrative which traces protagonists Stephen Gordon’s realisation that she is a lesbian – or ‘invert’, and her struggles living in-between social conventions, was banned in Britain under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and underwent a trial in America.
At Hall’s death in 1943, the book was selling a thousand copies per year, yet it still remained unpublished in Britain. In 1949, Una Troubridge – Hall’s long term partner, found a publisher prepared to print it, and although the law remained unchanged this time it did not lead to official obstruction.
There were prior novels which touched on lesbian themes, however The Well of Loneliness continues to be considered the first because of the wide-scale controversy it was met with.
Novels published in the same year such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Elizabeth Bowden’s comedy The Hotel, all had themes alluding to lesbianism – however these novels were never banned as they ensured that lesbianism was either condemned or satirised.
Michael Baker, Hall’s biographer, believes that it was by making Stephen virtuous that caused moral censure. Additionally, outside of the book’s content, Hall’s known identity as an open ‘invert’ and her masculine appearance, is another vital factor in fully comprehending why The Well was the target of legislative restraint whereas other novel with similar themes and emerging during the same period were not.
The public criticism The Well received was another central factor in its eventual suppression. On August 19th – two weeks after publication, an article written by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, appeared which classified the novel as a ‘gloating study in the mental and physical corruption of the flesh’ .
Titled ‘A Book that should be Suppressed’ it pleaded to the Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks, to ‘set the law in motion’ on the grounds that this kind of ‘moral poison kills the soul’. In response, Cape wrote to the Home Secretary, without Hall’s knowledge, and offered to withdraw the novel from sale if he judged it to be obscene. Joynson-Hicks responded with a letter to Cape demanding suppression and to cease sale of the book as it was ‘inherently obscene…supports a deprived practise’ and thus ‘gravely detrimental to public interest’.
Douglas’s condemnation not only sparked Cape’s actions, it led to the first printing rapidly selling out, and with one library in London receiving six hundred enquiries in a single day. A correspondent to Time and Tide noted that the ‘nauseous details, discussions and suggestion’ which were filling the daily newspapers had a far more harmful affect than the written book itself because it gave ‘certain facts’ attention ‘which ordinarily would never have come to their notice’.
Allegations of obscenity towards The Well led a wider debate on literary censorship. Both America and Britain held a vague, almost absent, legal definition of what classified a text as obscene.
When The Well’s New York publisher Donald Friede was charged in February 1929 with violating Section 1141 of the Penal Code by selling an obscene book, his prime defence was who could determine the dangerous social consequences of one book rather than another? Hall expressed a similar stance in an interview with the Daily Herald, asserting that it was an ‘insult to the public intelligence’ the belief that ‘literary food must be pre-digested by a government office before consumption’.
Its link to controversy turned it into a bestseller, and it was advertised in America once it had won its obscenity trial as ‘the most controversial book of the century. Suppressed in England and vindicated by an American court’.
The level of publicity it gained also sparked open communication within the public sphere to the existence of homosexuality – what was generally (as a Sunday Chronicle article classified it in an article on The Well) an unspoken ‘secret canker of modern life’. In 1921, for example, attempts to create legislation against lesbianism were denied by Lord Desart on the grounds that it would ‘tell the world there was such an offense’.
The hundreds of letters Hall received which expressed gratitude for ‘having broken the silence’ and personal stories, underscores that the novels existence (as a sympathetic account of lesbianism during this period) alone is symbolically significant. In these letters, Hall writes, individuals expressed a feeling of ‘added humiliation and burden’ which came with the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding lesbianism.
In later decades, the style of writing was considered by some readers to be quite antiquated. However The Well’s historical context and Hall’s bravery, means a respect exists for this book beyond a literary perspective.
(It is worth reading by the way, I really liked it. All books age a little)