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The censorship of lesbian fiction: From The Well of Loneliness to Tipping the Velvet

From Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, lesbian fiction has received varying levels of censorship. Greg Buzwell looks the critical reception to works of literature that dared to explore gender roles and sexuality.

1928 was a vintage year for the exploration of gender roles and sexuality in British fiction. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D H Lawrence’s sexually explicit tale about the love affair between a married upper-class woman and a working-class man was privately printed in Italy that year. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness brought lesbianism into the public eye, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando presented readers with a gender-bending tale of love through the ages. Each of the novels met a different fate at the hands of the censors and self-appointed moral guardians of society. Lady Chatterley’s Lover did not appear in an unexpurgated form in the UK until 1960 at which point it was immediately prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. The book’s publishers, Penguin, were found not guilty – a verdict that in retrospect marks the beginning of the more sexually liberated attitudes of the 1960s. Radclyffe Hall’s novel, which was the subject of a court case in 1928, did not fare so well. A comparison between the fate of Hall’s book and Woolf’s novel Orlando, which escaped censure almost entirely, offers an insight into what the male-dominated legal, political and journalistic professions at the time deemed permissible, and the methods by which women writers could attempt to circumvent their restrictions. The reception of both books was a feminist concern, raising questions about state interference in a woman’s choice over whom she loved.

Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness

Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, who from her mid-20s liked to be known as John, was born in 1880. Throughout her life she enjoyed relationships with women, although in the language of the day she regarded herself as a ‘congenital invert’ – a term which was in common usage at the time among sexologists such as Havelock Ellis – rather than as a lesbian.

Photograph of Radclyffe Hall

Portrait of Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall, pictured here, regarded herself as a ‘congenital invert’ – rather than as a lesbian.

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Indeed, although The Well of Loneliness is often referred to as ‘the bible of lesbianism’ neither the word ‘lesbian’ nor the word ‘homosexual’ appear within its pages.

The novel describes the childhood, upbringing and sexual awakening of a young woman called Stephen Gordon (named thus by her father who, unwilling to countenance a child of his being anything other than a son, gave her the name he had already chosen). As she grows up, Stephen develops a love of riding and fencing; she displays courage as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of France and she is physically strong and intelligent. Stephen is also attracted to women. These qualities, which early 19th-century society deemed so admirable in a man, result in at best unease and distrust, and at worst outright revulsion when displayed in a woman. Although Stephen does find love with a woman, the ambulance driver Mary Llewellyn, the affair ends unhappily.

Throughout the book Hall, via her central character, pleads for tolerance, acceptance and understanding of a lifestyle at odds with society’s insistence on heterosexual orthodoxy. Following the ideas of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, Hall regarded female homosexuality as born, not made. Tellingly, Hall gave her central character the name Stephen – the name of the first Christian martyr – as an indicator that Stephen was simply and unavoidably following her congenital God-given nature and being persecuted as a result. Hall’s book uses none of the sensational graphic language found in Lawrence’s novel. The line which concludes chapter 38 – ‘Stephen bent down and kissed Mary’s hands very humbly, for now she could find no words any more … and that night they were not divided’ – is as racy as the novel gets.[1]

All the same, as events would show that one line was enough to unleash a storm of protest.

The Well of Loneliness' obscenity trial

Some newspapers and journals, such as The Times Literary Supplement and Time and Tide, reviewed the novel favourably when it first appeared, but then, on 19 August, the editor of the Sunday Express, James Douglas, damned it as ‘unutterable putrefaction’, adding the now notorious comment ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body but moral poison kills the soul’.[2] Douglas’s view was that homosexual practices, propagated by a book such as The Well of Loneliness, had the power to corrupt.

The book’s publishers, Jonathan Cape, sent a copy to the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, in the hope of enlisting his support. Unfortunately, the Home Secretary’s views were similar to those voiced in the Sunday Express. Criminal proceedings were threatened if the book was not voluntarily withdrawn. Cape, somewhat naively, attempted to circumvent this by withdrawing copies already in circulation but licensing the rights to Pegasus Books, a French publisher which published English-language books. Inevitably, no sooner were imported copies seen once again in British bookshops than a trial became unavoidable.

Letter from Radclyffe Hall to Lytton Strachey. December 18th 1928

Letter from Radclyffe Hall to Strachey, dated December 1928

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Held by© The Estate of Radclyffe Hall. All rights reserved.

The defence enlisted support from several notable authors, including Virginia Woolf, E M Forster, Lytton Strachey and Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West, all of whom were prepared to testify in the book’s defence – not so much on the grounds of the novel’s literary merit as that of deep concerns over any form of government censorship. If the government could ban a book about lesbianism, could it also ban books on other subjects it found problematic, such as birth control, abortion or pacifism? In the event, the presiding magistrate, Sir Charles Biron, failed to call upon any of them, and on 16 November he condemned the book for failing to censure the life of ‘filthy sin’ and ‘horrible tendencies’. The book was declared obscene and all copies ordered to be destroyed.

Other responses to The Well of Loneliness

One immediate written response to the trial was a pamphlet titled The Sink of Solitude. This publication was critical of both sides, with Hall portrayed in the illustrations by Beresford Egan as ‘St Stephen’, martyred on the cross of her own piety and intransigence, and with the smug Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks, embellished with a tail, looking on. Hall’s book, which to modern eyes can seem unduly pessimistic and apologetic with its depictions of Stephen’s suffering, at least had openness and a plea for tolerance on its side. Arguably, The Sink of Solitude, with its use of religious imagery and the cavorting naked figure of Sappho leaping across the page, contained more that might be regarded as obscene than Hall’s novel. Hall died in 1943, some 11 years before The Well of Loneliness was republished in the UK.

Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness

Front cover for The Well of Loneliness

'This edition cannot be bought in England or U.S.A.

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Other responses to The Well of Loneliness

One immediate written response to the trial was a pamphlet titled The Sink of Solitude. This publication was critical of both sides, with Hall portrayed in the illustrations by Beresford Egan as ‘St Stephen’, martyred on the cross of her own piety and intransigence, and with the smug Home Secretary, Joynson-Hicks, embellished with a tail, looking on. Hall’s book, which to modern eyes can seem unduly pessimistic and apologetic with its depictions of Stephen’s suffering, at least had openness and a plea for tolerance on its side. Arguably, The Sink of Solitude, with its use of religious imagery and the cavorting naked figure of Sappho leaping across the page, contained more that might be regarded as obscene than Hall’s novel. Hall died in 1943, some 11 years before The Well of Loneliness was republished in the UK.

The Sink of Solitude

Preface for The Sink of Solitude

The Sink of Solitude - a satire of Radclyffe Hall’s controversial novel The Well of Loneliness – was the debut work of writer, artist and illustrator, Beresford Egan.

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All the same, from the very fact of its existence the book has been a source of comfort and inspiration for many lesbian women who gained inspiration and courage to live their lives on their own terms.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando

Unlike The Well of Loneliness, Virginia Woolf’s ambiguous and androgynous treatment of sexuality Orlando, published on 11 October 1928, was reviewed entirely in terms of its wit and charm. Woolf’s novel is an extended love letter to Vita Sackville-West, taking incidents from Vita’s life and aspects of her personality and weaving them into a fantastical narrative. For anyone with the perception to read between the lines, the book is a celebration of love in all its forms – by the end of the novel Orlando has enjoyed the love of men and women equally.

The conceit of having Orlando change sex halfway through the novel served to make same-sex love more acceptable to audiences at the time, and helped the book escape condemnation in the press. Woolf regarded everyone as, to some degree, vacillating from one sex to another during their life, with only conventions around clothing maintaining the rigid distinctions between male and female. Both Orlando and A Room of One’s Own – which Woolf published the following year – attempt to set women free from their history of repression and limitation. The bonds of gender, patriarchy and even death – Orlando is the only one of Woolf’s major novels in which nobody dies – are all loosened within its flights of imagination.

First edition of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, 1928

Page 126 from the first edition of Virginia Woolf's Orlando

'He stretched himself. He rose. He stood upright in complete nakedness before us, and while the trumpets pealed Truth! Truth! Truth! we have no choice left but confess - he was a woman.'

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By being so playful, and so fantastical, the book escaped the outcry that had befallen The Well of Loneliness, partly perhaps because it was too clever and subtle for those in authority to see it for what it really was. Not everybody was happy, however. Vita Sackville-West’s mother, Victoria, was appalled when she read it. She pasted a picture of Woolf onto the flyleaf of her copy and wrote alongside: ‘The awful face of a mad woman whose successful mad desire is to separate people who care for each other. I loathe this woman for having changed my Vita and taken her away from me’. She also wrote to J L Garvin, the editor of The Observer, quoting the phrase ‘Love is slipping off one’s petticoats’ from Orlando and commenting ‘All that is so coarse and will be so shocking to the middle classes…’[3] Garvin was, unsurprisingly, unmoved.

Contemporary attitudes towards lesbian literature

1928 then, marked a turning point. Taken together, The Well of Loneliness and Orlando, one directly almost as social commentary and the other as a cleverly disguised playful fantasy, brought lesbianism into the public eye. There was no chance of returning the genie to the bottle. Today, while there are still prejudices to face, the portrayal of a lesbian lifestyle has entered the literary mainstream. Jeanette Winterson’s debut novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) was heralded as marking the arrival of a major talent. Seventy years after the publication of The Well of Loneliness, Sarah Water’s novel Tipping the Velvet (1998), set in the 1890s, gave a voice to the Victorian women who followed their hearts and joyfully sailed in the face of heterosexual orthodoxy. Hall’s book met with hostility and a court case; Jeanette Winterson’s and Sarah Water’s novels deservedly won literary prizes.

Footnotes

[1] Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness. (London: Penguin, 2015), p. 343

[2] Sunday Express, 19 August 1928

[3] Quoted in Victoria Glendinning, Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West. (London: Penguin, 1984), p. 206

 

Banner image courtesy of NOTAVANDAL via Unsplash.

  • Greg Buzwell
  • Greg Buzwell is Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library. He has co-curated three major exhibitions for the Library – Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination; Shakespeare in Ten Acts and Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty. His research focuses primarily on the Gothic literature of the Victorian fin de siècle. He has also edited and introduced collections of supernatural tales by authors including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edgar Allan Poe and Walter de la Mare.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.