The Lynching of Radclyffe Hall

Radclyffe Hall may be the least remembered of all the Western writers, poets and playwrights whose life and works were pilloried and forced to endure protracted legal battles in the last couple of centuries. Every person with an interest in the arts knows about Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg. But Radclyffe Hall? My own guilty confession is that I didn't even come across her name until Ginsberg mentioned her in a BBC interview in 1995 or '96. 

Why is she lower on the literary radar when her book 'The Well of Loneliness' caused a scandal and was prosecuted, and ultimately banned, under the Obscene Publications Act? One answer leaps to mind. Any man whose novel was condemned by the Home Secretary, now or historically, as 'gravely detrimental to the public interest', would be celebrated for all time. Radclyffe Hall was a woman, though, and a lesbian. Or, as she liked to call herself, an 'invert'. The book, which I haven't read, seems to have been a plea for these inverts, presenting them as suffering outcasts who deserve tolerance and understanding rather than the condemnation of the upright heterosexual world.

Can't argue with that, you might think, sitting here in the somewhat brighter light of 2018. But 90 years ago lesbianism, while not strictly against the law like male homosexuality, was seen as vile and corrupt, a degenerate practice that went against nature and would certainly lead astray any impressionable young woman who was exposed to it. So when Radclyffe Hall, already a successful novelist with a public profile, wrote a book on the subject, the moral guardians of the age went into overdrive, using tactics that wouldn't have been out of place in Soviet Russia to suppress it.

Hall had intellectual opinion on her side, but only in the sense that the academic and creative heavyweights of her day generally supported her right to publish. According to Diana Souhami's biography 'The Trials of Radclyffe Hall', Leonard Woolf didn't like the book, Cyril Connolly thought it 'brave' but humourless and boring, and Virginia Woolf thought the campaign to defend it a distraction, and wished it had never been written.

Woolf would defend 'The Well of Loneliness' in court, however, which H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle both avoided even promising to do by announcing that they had left the country. John Galsworthy, who amusingly was the President of the PEN Club, said he was too busy to go to court and that anyway, literary freedom of expression was not at risk from the Government's attempt to ban Radclyffe Hall's book. The only notable author of the time who agreed to appear for the prosecution, supporting thereby the view that its content was obscene and all copies in existence should be burned, was Rudyard Kipling, creator of Mowgli and Baloo. Kipling also wrote 'The White Man's Burden', one of the most racist poems I've ever fouled ten minutes of my day with, so perhaps there should be no surprise.

At the trial, despite the presence of Woolf, E.M. Forster and 'almost every author of repute', in Sheila Kaye-Smith's words, the case was lost. Sir Chartres Biron, the judge, responding to a reasonable request by the defence to call expert testimony, made the outrageous declaration, 'I am here to decide whether this book is obscene or not.' And perhaps to no one's great surprise, after an appeal that was also lost, 'The Well of Loneliness' was 'consigned to the King's furnace.'

The extracts I've read from Hall's book have more in common stylistically with the writers of a previous age than the experiments and innovations of her contemporaries; by all accounts extremely conservative (quite an irony), only a few years later she developed a virulent anti-Semitism and a naïve infatuation with Mussolini. She was, however -- not that such things are excusable -- molested as a child, and forced to live in a world that regarded her natural sexual orientation as perverted and sinful. That would do great damage to most of us. Being different, or feeling different (sometimes not the same thing), in a society that favours conformity is a well of loneliness that drops very deep into the ground.

Do you remember a time when you sat down and decided whether you were going to fancy boys or girls? No, me neither. What worries me, when I read about Radclyffe Hall, or I consider what happened to Oscar Wilde, is that the tides of political reaction sweeping across the world may take us back to the days when people could be brutalised by the state, as they were, for loving in a fashion proscribed by the authors of a 2000 year old book. Which is the more offensive anyway, a novel that celebrates the diversity of love, or a spirit manual that calls it an abomination when the participants in the exchange can't populate an already over-populated world with more children?