The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Well of Loneliness: prussic acid for the soul

Posted on: August 3, 2007

It’s not very difficult to discern which books Elisabeth Ladenson ranks over others in Dirt for Art’s Sake. At the beginning of a chapter on Ulysses I became impatient at the frequent comparisons to In Search of Lost Time in the former’s favour. She does not think much of The Well of Loneliness either. Unlike the other books covered, Hall’s novel is included solely because of the successful obscenity charges against her work; only Lady Chatterley’s Lover literary merit is brought into question and for the same reason, its polemical tone, but it gets off lightly. Adam’s Breed was awarded two of “the most prestigious literary awards in England” — not that that’s a guarantee of quality — but its merits (or lack thereof) are never mentioned. Any reader introduced to Radclyffe Hall through this book would not be piqued to read the novel as anything except a historical curiosity.

That is a pity. The prose is, as described by Diana in Souhami in an introduction to the Weidenfeld & Nicolson edition, “lofty and old fashioned”, and at times sinks into melodrama, but the story makes it forgiveable. I can’t imagine it being written any differently, to be frank, because it is a very conservative work. It is evocative of a patrician British lifestyle and world view that makes the incongruity of its subject matter, homosexuality and societal mores, fascinating rather than repellent. Granted, Hall went so out of her way to have her sexual orientation fit into society as it was then that it not only makes the obscenity charges look particularly ridiculous but gives it an odd position as a classic of gay literature (which Ladenson presents as something of a gutter or at least not nearly as respectable as a “real” classic.)

Sir Philip and Lady Anna Gordon hoped for a boy but got a girl instead. In a prescient moment they decide to name her Stephen, as originally intended. She grows up into an affectionate, wilful child not unlike Anne Shirley of the famous L.M. Montgomery books. Both have the creative imagination of budding writers, a deep love for nature and reverence for God. Both are quite charming. The difference is that Stephen liked to play at soldiers, had a distinct boyish figure from birth, hated anything girly, and formed earnest crushes on pretty female servants. Stephen is the primary attraction of the novel as Anne was in her series. Stephen’s harsher circumstances, the disdain of her mother, the social rejection in her area and abroad makes her a more tragic figure; one who often brings it on herself in ways both understandable and extremely perplexing.

Like the Anne books The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, is as chaste as any church text. James Douglas, the famous journalist who pointed out the “leprous and scabrous horrors” of Ulysses, returned to present his unique point of view. He deemed the novel such an “intolerable outrage” that “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.” Ladenson asserts that Douglas had worn out all his sewer and garbage comparisons that he had nowhere left to go but to support murder. It’s certainly a line one cannot beat, isn’t it? Unfortunately his rantings were effective. The publisher Jonathan Cape voluntarily submitted it to the Home Office for review while selling as many thousand copies as it could and was eventually charged for obscenity. The book was banned in England for twenty years and prevented works that did not make homosexuals out to be any number of vile things from being published.

What makes Hall’s novel stand out among other obscenity charged novels, except Lolita by Nabokov, was that it was “dirty” only for its subject matter. Hall employs no expletives or depicts any sexual or scatological scenes. Another argument against it was that the themes explored in the novel, sexual orientation and gender identity, its causes and effects, were better suited to scientific texts. The implication there was that while vulnerable women and children read novels, science was the educated man’s realm and there he could intellectually wrestle with these vexing questions and leave the match unharmed. At all costs one must protect the “general reader”. Ironically not only was the first edition of The Well of Loneliness published with a (heavily edited) preface by a then well-known sexologist, Havelock Ellis, but 30 years earlier the British government suppressed his own text on the matter Sexual Inversion, the first volume of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex. I guess the lethal power of addressing homosexuality was too potent even for Oxbridge men!

Douglas helpfully explained why this was so. In his article condemning the novel he included men and boys as woeful victims of the outrageous text. Memories of the Oscar Wilde trials of over a decade ago were easily recalled. Douglas darkly stated that “Literature has not yet recovered from the harm done to it by the Oscar Wilde scandal. It should keep its house in order.” Even though Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray did not garner any obscenity charges, Marquess of Queensberry’s lawyer repeatedly mentioned it throughout the trial. Wilde was then convicted under the Labouchere Amendment, an 1885 law that extended justice’s reach into the bedroom instead of limiting it to public displays of “gross indecency” between men. Therefore any fictional narrative depicting similar behaviour was guilty of inciting readers to commit a crime, in addition to obscenity, and threw suspicion on the writer’s character. Was she doing the hanky panky too?

Many prominent writers and other public figures defended the novel, in writing and in offers of testimony for the trial even though most if not all of them in general were doubtful about its literary merits, even the archbishop of York. ( That posed a problem as aesthetic merit was something to take into consideration, although the prosecutors usually claimed that the quality and danger of a book were directly proportional.) E.M. Forster organised supporters and the Bloomsbury group threw its strength behind the cause even though Leonard Woolf claimed that it failed “completely as a work of art” and Virginia Woolf found it unreadable. (Ladenson is good enough to note that Woolf often had caustic assessments of her rivals, including Joyce and Mansfield.) Hall, on her part, wasn’t pleased with the patronising attitude of the Bloomsbury group; she did not think much of their lifestyle or their literary affectations, as she saw it.

The most notable thing about the trial, besides the fact that it was doomed from the start for defending “unnatural practises between women”, was that, while the writers and critics wanted to defend the book on aesthetic merits, as art, the judge was having none of it.

The book may be a very fine piece of literature and yet be obscene. Art and obscenity are not disassociated. This may be a work of art. I agree that it has considerable merits, but that does not prevent it from being obscene and I shall therefore not admit…expert evidence.

As Ladenson notes, art would not be a major point of consideration until thirty years later. The revision of the Obscene Publications Act is what led to the “infamous” Lady Chatterley trial.


5 Responses to "The Well of Loneliness: prussic acid for the soul"

Very interesting stuff here — thanks for the history, and how I’m intrigued by the Hall novel.

Thanks, Dorothy! I thought others might find it interesting. I plan to do one more on the Lawrence novel, and then leave the other chapters for others to discover. šŸ™‚

And I’m pleased you’re at least intrigued by Hall — I can see why an academic like Ladenson would not appreciate the novel, I suppose, but it was a bit disheartening to read her beat up on it all the time.

[…] Hall. I own a copy of her book Adam’s Breed, and Imani has written so intriguingly about The Well of Loneliness, I may just give it a […]

I read this a few years ago and really, really liked it. Its interesting to hear the background information on the book, and to see what kind of an uproar it created.

Yay, always nice to find another Hall fan as so few read her books. šŸ™‚ Thanks for commenting.

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