LGBT History Month Poster: The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall, Wikimedia Commons

A novel, The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyff (John) Hall, was first published by Jonathan Cape in an initially short print run in 1928.  Its protagonist is a female lesbian character, Stephen Gordon, and the plot follows her intimate encounters and relationships, which present the lesbian characters’ “inversion” – a contemporary term that Hall appropriated in her writing – as biologically-driven, and depict a complex picture of what life for lesbian women in interwar Britain could be like, setting experiences of personal, intimate happiness alongside wider social ostracism and rejection.

The context in which the novel appeared is important to consider. Published during a period in which the British parliament debated introducing legislation to outlaw sexual relationships between women, the novel was seized upon by the then editor of the Sunday Express, James Douglas, as “an intolerable outrage”.  The controversy manufactured by Douglas led to an obscenity trial in November 1928, in which magistrate Sir Chartres Biron upheld the Hinkley test to rule that the book had the potential to ‘deprave and corrupt’ and ordered the book destroyed. The Well of Loneliness was of course not the only book depicting homosexual love and relationships to be put on trial around this time; what was novel in this case was that the book was judged obscene and suppressed not for any particular explicit content but for “the subject itself” and for the fact, according to magistrate Biron, that it was well written and thus constituted a ”palatable poison”. The Well of Loneliness was not published in Britain again until 1949; in 1974 it was serialised as a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime.

Source: Joseph Bristow, “Homosexual writing on trial: from Fanny Hill to Gay News’ in Hugh Stevens ed. The Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing (Cambridge: CUP, 2010) 17-33.

Further reading:

Deborah Cohler, Citizen, Invert, Queer: lesbianism and war in early twentieth-century Britain (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism. The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001)

Laura Doan, Disturbing Practices:  history, sexuality and women’s experiences of modern war (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women since 1600 (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007).

Lesley Hall, ‘”Sentimental follies” or ‘Instruments of Tremendous Uplift’? Reconsidering women’s same-sex relationships in interwar Britain’ in Women’s History Review vol. 25.1, 2016.

Alison Oram, Her Husband Was A Woman! Women gender-crossing in modern British popular culture (London: Routledge, 2007)

Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: women who loved women (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004)

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With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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