Lecture 3

Anthology Texts:

[Perma, 1951]

History of the Ban:

Three publishers praised The Well but turned it down. Then Hall's agent sent the manuscript to Jonathan Cape, who, though cautious about publishing a controversial book, saw the potential for a commercial success. Cape tested the waters with a small print run of 1500 copies, priced at 15 shillings — about twice the cost of an average novel — to make it less attractive to sensation-seekers. ... The Well appeared on July 27, in a black cover with a discreet plain jacket. Cape sent review copies only to newspapers and magazines he thought would handle the subject matter non-sensationally.

Early reviews were mixed. Some critics found the novel too preachy; some, including Leonard Woolf, thought it was poorly structured; some complained of sloppiness in style. Others, however, praised both its sincerity and its artistry, and some expressed sympathy with Hall's moral argument. In the three weeks after the book appeared in bookstores, no reviewer called for its suppression or suggested that it should not have been published. A review in T.P.'s & Cassell's Weekly foresaw no difficulties for The Well: "One cannot say what effect this book will have on the public attitude of silence or derision, but every reader will agree with Mr. Havelock Ellis in the preface, that 'the poignant situations are set forth with a complete absence of offense.'"

James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, did not agree. Douglas was a dedicated moralist, an exponent of muscular Christianity, which sought to reinvigorate the church by promoting physical health and manliness. His colorfully worded editorials on subjects such as "the flapper vote" (that is, the extension of suffrage to women under 30) and "modern sex novelists" helped the Express family of papers prosper in the cutthroat circulation wars of the late 1920s. These leader articles shared the pages of the Sunday Express with gossip, murderers' confessions, and features about the love affairs of great men and women of the past.

[T]he adroitness and cleverness of the book intensifies its moral danger. It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity. It even suggests that their self-made debasement is unavoidable, because they cannot save themselves.

—James Douglas, "A Book That Must Be Suppressed", Sunday Express, 19 August 1928

Douglas's campaign against The Well of Loneliness began on Saturday, August 18, with poster and billboard advertising and a teaser in the Daily Express promising to expose "A Book That Should Be Suppressed". In his editorial the next day, Douglas wrote that "sexual inversion and perversion" had already become too visible and that the publication of The Well brought home the need for society to "cleans[e] itself from the leprosy of these lepers". For Douglas the sexological view of homosexuality was pseudoscience, incompatible with the Christian doctrine of free will; instead, he argued, homosexuals were damned by their own choice — which meant that others could be corrupted by "their propaganda". Above all, children must be protected: "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." He called on the publishers to withdraw the book and the Home Secretary to take action if they did not.

In what Hall described as an act of "imbecility coupled with momentary panic", Jonathan Cape sent a copy of The Well to the Home Secretary for his opinion, offering to withdraw the book if it would be in the public interest to do so. The Home Secretary was William Joynson-Hicks, a Conservative known for his crackdowns on alcohol, nightclubs, and gambling, as well as for his opposition to a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer. He took only two days to reply that The Well was "gravely detrimental to the public interest"; if Cape did not withdraw it voluntarily, criminal proceedings would be brought.

Cape announced that he had stopped publication, but he secretly leased the rights to Pegasus Press, an English language publisher in France. His partner Wren Howard took papier-mâché molds of the type to Paris, and by September 28, Pegasus Press was shipping its edition to the London bookseller Leopold Hill, who acted as distributor. With publicity increasing demand, sales were brisk, but the reappearance of The Well on bookstore shelves soon came to the attention of the Home Office. On October 3 Joynson-Hicks issued a warrant for shipments of the book to be seized.

One consignment of 250 copies was stopped at the port of Dover. Then the Chairman of the Board of Customs balked. He had read The Well and considered it a fine book, not at all obscene; he wanted no part of suppressing it. On October 19 he released the seized copies for delivery to Leopold Hill's premises, where the Metropolitan Police were waiting with a search warrant. Hill and Cape were summoned to appear at Bow Street Magistrates' Court to show cause why the book should not be destroyed.

... Cape's solicitor Harold Rubinstein sent out 160 letters to potential witnesses. Many were reluctant to appear in court; according to Virginia Woolf, "they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins". About 40 turned up on the day of the trial, including Woolf herself, Forster, and such diverse figures as biologist Julian Huxley, Laurence Housman of the British Sexological Society, Robert Cust JP of the London Morality Council, Charles Ricketts of the Royal Academy of Art, and Rabbi Joseph Frederick Stern of the East London Synagogue. None were allowed to offer their views of the novel. Under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, Chief Magistrate Sir Chartres Biron could and did decide whether the book was obscene without hearing any testimony on the question. "I don't think people are entitled to express an opinion upon a matter which is the decision of the court", he said. Since Hall herself was not on trial, she did not have the right to her own counsel, and Cape's barrister Norman Birkett had persuaded her not to take the stand herself.

Birkett arrived in court two hours late. In his defense, he tried to claim that the relationships between women in The Well of Loneliness were purely Platonic in nature. Biron replied, "I have read the book." Hall had urged Birkett before the trial not to "sell the inverts in our defense". She took advantage of a lunch recess to tell him that if he continued to maintain her book had no lesbian content she would stand up in court and tell the magistrate the truth before anyone could stop her. Birkett was forced to retract. He argued instead that the book was tasteful and possessed a high degree of literary merit. James Melville, appearing for Leopold Hill, took a similar line: the book was "written in a reverend spirit", not to inspire libidinous thoughts but to examine a social question. The theme itself should not be forbidden, and the book's treatment of its theme was unexceptionable.

In his judgment Biron applied the Hicklin test of obscenity: a work was obscene if it tended to "deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences". He held that the book's literary merit was irrelevant because a well-written obscene book was even more harmful than a poorly written one. The topic in itself was not necessarily unacceptable; a book that depicted the "moral and physical degradation which indulgence in those vices must necessary involve" might be allowed, but no reasonable person could say that a plea for the recognition and toleration of inverts was not obscene. He ordered the book destroyed, with the defendants to pay court costs.

... Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. had planned to publish The Well of Loneliness in the United States at the same time as Cape in the United Kingdom. But after Cape moved up the publication date, Knopf found itself in the position of publishing a book that had already been withdrawn in its home country. They refused, telling Hall that nothing they could do would keep the book from being treated as pornography.

Cape sold the US rights to the recently formed publishing house of Pascal Covici and Donald Friede. Friede had heard gossip about The Well at a party at Theodore Dreiser's house and immediately decided to acquire it. He had previously sold a copy of Dreiser's An American Tragedy to a Boston police officer in order to create a censorship test case, which he had lost; he was awaiting an appeal, which he would also lose. He took out a $10,000 bank loan to outbid another publisher that had offered a $7,500 advance, and enlisted Morris Ernst, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, to defend the book against legal challenges. Friede invited John Saxton Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to buy a copy directly from him, to ensure that he, not a bookseller, would be the one prosecuted. He also travelled to Boston to give a copy to the Watch and Ward Society, hoping both to further challenge censorship of literature and to generate more publicity; he was disappointed when they told him they saw nothing wrong with the book.

In New York, Sumner and several police detectives seized 865 copies of The Well from the publisher's offices, and Friede was charged with selling an obscene publication. But Covici and Friede had already moved the printing plates out of New York in order to continue publishing the book. By the time the case came to trial, it had already been reprinted six times. Despite its price of $5 — twice the cost of an average novel — it would sell over 100,000 copies in its first year.

In the US, as in the UK, the Hicklin test of obscenity applied, but New York case law had established that books should be judged by their effects on adults rather than on children and that literary merit was relevant. Ernst obtained statements from authors including Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, H. L. Mencken, Upton Sinclair, Ellen Glasgow, and John Dos Passos. To make sure these supporters did not go unheard, he incorporated their opinions into his brief. His argument relied on a comparison with Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier, which had been cleared of obscenity in the 1922 case Halsey v. New York. Mademoiselle de Maupin described a lesbian relationship in more explicit terms than The Well did. According to Ernst, The Well had greater social value because it was more serious in tone and made a case against misunderstanding and intolerance.

In an opinion issued on 19 February 1929, Magistrate Hyman Bushel declined to take the book's literary qualities into account and said The Well was "calculated to deprave and corrupt minds open to its immoral influences". Under New York law, however, Bushel was not a trier of fact; he could only remand the case to the New York Court of Special Sessions for judgment. On 19 April, that court issued a three-paragraph decision stating that The Well's theme — a "delicate social problem" — did not violate the law unless written in such a way as to make it obscene. After "a careful reading of the entire book", they cleared it of all charges.

Covici-Friede then imported a copy of the Pegasus Press edition from France as a further test case and to solidify the book's U.S. copyright. Customs barred the book from entering the country, which might also have prevented it from being shipped from state to state. The United States Customs Court, however, ruled that the book did not contain "one word, phrase, sentence or paragraph which could be truthfully pointed out as offensive to modesty".

The Pegasus Press edition of the book remained available in France, and some copies made their way into the UK. In a "Letter from Paris" in The New Yorker, Janet Flanner reported that it sold most heavily at the news vendor's cart that served passengers travelling to London on La Fleche D'Or.

In 1946, three years after Hall's death, Troubridge wanted to include The Well in a Collected Memorial Edition of Hall's works. Peter Davies of the Windmill Press wrote to the Home Office's legal advisor to ask whether the post-war Labour administration would allow the book to be republished. Unknown to Troubridge, however, he added a postscript saying "I am not really anxious to do The Well of Loneliness and am rather relieved than otherwise by any lack of enthusiasm I may encounter in official circles." Home Secretary James Chuter Ede told Troubridge that any publisher reprinting the book would risk prosecution. In 1949, however, Falcon Press brought out an edition with no legal challenge. The Well has been in print continuously ever since and has been translated into at least 14 languages. In the 1960s it was still selling 100,000 copies a year in the United States alone. Looking back on the controversy in 1972, Flanner remarked on how unlikely it seemed that a "rather innocent" book like The Well could have created such a scandal. In 1974, it was read to the British public on BBC Radio 4's A Book at Bedtime.


We are to visualize the English novelists not as floating down the stream [of time] ... but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British museum reading room, all writing their novels simultaneously …
– E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927)

Extracts from Aristotle’s Poetics:

The plot … is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character comes second.

Plots … must have length but must be easily taken in by the memory.

A plot does not have unity … simply because it deals with a single hero. Many and indeed innumerable things happen to an individual, some of which do not go to make up any unity …

The plot … must represent a single piece of action and the whole of it; and the component incidents must be so arranged that if one of them be transposed or removed, the unity of the whole is dislocated and destroyed. For if the presence or absence of a thing makes no visible difference, then it is not an integral part of the whole.

Aristotle’s Poetics - Terminology:

Imitation [mimesis] is “an instinct implanted in man from childhood … through imitation [he] learns his earliest lessons …”

"Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity."

Reversal [peripeteia] is “a change of the situation into the opposite …”

Recognition [anagnorisis] is “a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing either friendship or hatred in those who are destined for good fortune or ill.”

Purgation [catharsis] is “giving relief to overcharged feeling …”

Extracts from Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Philosophy of Composition":
It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation ...

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. … I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or … the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?”

Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone – whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone – afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.

[Radclyffe Hall and friends]

Workshop 3:
The Second Sex

We'll begin with the book report on The Well of Loneliness, then move on to do the class exercise in pairs or small groups.

Exercise 3:
Spot the Lesbian Sex-Scene

[You too can be a Lesbian]

"Although its only sex scene consists of the words 'and that night, they were not divided' [313], a British court judged it obscene because it defended 'unnatural practices between women'."

Is this true? See if you can find any other scenes which could be interpreted as implying action between the lines.

[Gustave Courbet: Le Sommeil (1866)]

Next week:

Group 3: Book report on Lady Chatterley's Lover due.

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