February 19, 2018

Defending the First Lesbian Novel

On this day in 1928 Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, regarded by most as the first lesbian novel, was judged by the British courts to be obscene. Johnathan Cape had published the book at the end of July, to mixed reviews and no immediate outcry. Three weeks later, the editor of the Sunday Express wrote that he "would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel" of "unutterable putrefaction" and "contagion," causing a sales rush and a scurry in all directions. Without being asked, or telling Radclyffe Hall, her nervous publisher sent the book to the Home Office for examination; the authorities then began a series of raids and seizures, resulting in a call to trial; the author responded by renewing her vows to smash "the conspiracy of silence" on the lesbian issue, and to defeat censorship "on behalf of English literature."

English literature was not sure where it stood. First among the famous to step forward were E. M. Forster and the Woolfs, who proposed getting up a petition of protest. Although delighted with the idea, Radclyffe Hall was highly offended at the draft letter, which offered full support on legal grounds but expressed "no opinion on either the merits or the decency of the book." This was because many agreed with Cyril Connolly, whose review found the novel "long, tedious, and absolutely humourless," the middle section full of "mechanical writing" which offered the reader "a few pleas for kindness to animals, halos for inverts, and a special paradise for trees." According to Virginia Woolf's report of it to Vita Sackville-West -- their relationship was ongoing here, and Orlando was just published -- the meeting between Hall and Forster to discuss this issue made things worse: "Radclyffe scolds him like a fishwife, and says that she won't have any letter written about her book unless it mentions the fact that it is a work of artistic merit-even genius." In the end, no writers' petition was circulated, and when many of those who might have signed it were approached to testify at the trial they found reasons not to. John Galsworthy, president of PEN, was too busy, and not sure if the issue was one of literary freedom; Evelyn Waugh had not read the book and did not like court; Harley Granville-Barker did not regard "sexual perversion a fit subject for art"; Shaw said he was too immoral to be a good witness, and thought the current definition of obscenity stupid but so general as to be unbeatable. (After the trial he made good on this criticism, and led the lobby for a redefinition.)

Among the forty who agreed to speak at the trial was Virginia Woolf, despite her regrets about the case involving such a poor book. "All London, they say, is agog with this," she wrote her nephew, Quentin Bell. "Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins." In the end, none did speak, the presiding judge not being interested in any distinguished opinions on what he saw as a straightforward legal matter, and banned the book outright.

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