Defending The Well of Loneliness

November 9: Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, regarded as a classic of lesbian literature, went on trial in England on this day in 1928. 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 caused a sales rush when he described the novel as "unutterable putrefaction" and "contagion," saying that he "would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid." Without being asked (or telling the author), the nervous editors at Jonathan Cape decided they'd better send the book to the Home Office for examination; the authorities then began a series of raids and seizures, resulting in a call to trial. Outraged by these developments, Hall openly pledged to smash "the conspiracy of silence" on the lesbian issue, and to defeat censorship "on behalf of English literature."


Among those who rallied to her support was Virginia Woolf, though she was moved to do so by principle rather than art: "The dullness of the book is such that any indecency may lurk there—one simply can't keep one's eyes on the page." That's from a letter to Ottoline Morrell; the following is from a playful letter of August 30, 1928 to Vita Sackville-West, which begins with Woolf complaining that she hasn't been able to concentrate on her own work:

What has caused this irruption I scarcely know—largely your friend Radclyffe Hall (she is now docked of her Miss owing to her proclivities) they banned her book and so Leonard [Woolf] and Morgan [E. M.] Foster began to get up a protest, and soon we were telephoning and interviewing and collecting signatures—not yours for your proclivities are too well known….

Despite her regrets over the book's merits, Woolf was among those who agreed to speak at the trial. "Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box," she wrote her nephew, Quentin Bell, "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, the presiding judge declined to hear any distinguished opinions on what he saw as a straightforward legal matter, and banned the book outright.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

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