Radclyffe Hall was one of a group of feminist writers, including May Sinclair, Rebecca West, Vera Brittain and Violet Hunt, who were among PEN’s earliest members. She was a pivotal novelist of the twentieth century, breaking cultural taboos in her championing of queer and lesbian perspectives and stories.
Known to her loved ones as John, Hall was famous for her tailored masculine suits and her love of beautiful women. Hall’s barrier-breaking book The Well of Loneliness was revolutionary in its portrayal of lesbian and queer communities, lives and friendships and was banned as obscene in Britain in 1928.
Whilst Hall had been a member of PEN for many years, whenThe Well of Loneliness was put on trial in London in 1928, PEN members including Storm Jameson rushed to her aid, both on paper and in person as potential witnesses at the trial. The trial, meanwhile, spurred E.M. Forster to join English PEN a month later.
Hall said, ‘I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world.’
The book, published by Jonathan Cape, was condemned by James Douglas, the Editor of the Daily Express as ‘not fit to be sold by any bookseller of to be borrowed from any public library.
Famously, he declared that, ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.’
Douglas’s article prompted the British authorities to intervene, citing what they saw as the obscenity of Hall’s compassionate portrayal of what was referred to at the time as ‘sexual inversion’.
The novel tells the story of Stephen, a writer growing up queer in a hostile society and building their identity. Stephen – like Hall – wears men’s clothes and pursues passionate love affairs with women. The novel was seen as problematic because it portrayed life from Stephen’s perspective in a highly sympathetic and compelling story, which sought to represent a non-sensationalised queer experience. The novel is at once joyous in its depictions of queer and homosexual love and harrowing in its articulation of Stephen’s feelings of alienation and despair at society’s treatment of her and her friends. Despite the obscenity charge, the novel contains no explicit descriptions of sex.
The trial – prompted by Douglas’s pleas to the highly conservative Home Secretary – took place on the 9 November 1928.
The judge ruled that writers could not testify as experts and Hall’s friends and supporters from PEN were forced to sit in silence as the book was banned.
Woolf wrote afterwards: ‘Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.’
The Well of Loneliness ended up becoming a global bestseller – it has been translated into 14 languages. In France and America, accusations of obscenity did not result in censorship.
The trial and the treatment of Hall’s novel awoke writers to the ways in which censorship could be used to suppress minority voices and cultures, illustrating the link between freedom of expression and rights to sexual freedom.