Lesbianism, History, and Censorship: 'The Well of Loneliness' and the Suppressed Randiness of Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando.'

By Parkes, Adam | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Lesbianism, History, and Censorship: 'The Well of Loneliness' and the Suppressed Randiness of Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando.'


Parkes, Adam, Twentieth Century Literature


At Bow Street Magistrates Court on 16 November 1928, Sir Chartres Biron ordered the destruction of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a polemical novel pleading for social tolerance for lesbianism. It is tempting to think that Hall got into trouble simply for raising the issue of lesbianism, since female "sexual inversion" (as it was then known) was not legally recognized in early twentieth-century Britain. A proposal to extend to women the 1885 Labouchere Amendment, which outlawed "acts of gross indecency" between men, ran aground in the House of Commons in 1921 because, Samuel Hynes speculates, "men found it [lesbianism] too gross to deal with" (375). However, at least two other novels published in the autumn of 1928, Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women and, more important, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, clearly broached the same subject, yet escaped official censure. In Hall's case the aggravating factor seems to have been not the subject but the treatment. Whereas Woolf's fictional biography, like Mackenzie's satire, sets out to make readers laugh, The Well of Loneliness pleads the cause of sexual inversion by taking up an aggressively polemical stance.

A summary of Judge Biron's ruling in The Times (17 November) suggests that Hall provoked the British authorities into legal action by preaching an unacceptable sexual doctrine in an earnest tone that sought to deny the possibility of either laughter or moral censure. Conceding that Well "had some literary merit," and that such a book "might even have a strong moral influence," Biron declared:

But in the present case there was not one word that suggested that anyone with the horrible tendencies described was in the least degree blameworthy. All the characters were presented as attractive people and put forward with admiration. What was even more serious was that certain acts were described in the most alluring terms.

In order to advocate sympathy and tolerance for lesbians, Hall had made sure that her lesbian heroine, Stephen Gordon, appeared above reproach. Ironically, as Hall's biographer Michael Baker has noted, it was by making Stephen virtuous that Hall provoked moral censure (220). If those virtues had been nonexistent, or at least laughable, as in Extraordinary Women, The Well of Loneliness would have passed muster as having, if not a "strong" moral influence, at least not a bad one.

The question of the relation between obscenity and literature raised by Judge Biron prompted some musings in the diary of Virginia Woolf, who attended Bow Street on 9 November, the first day of the Hall trial: "What is obscenity? What is literature? What is the difference between the subject and the treatment?" (Diary 3:207). Like many other literati, including E. M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West, Woolf went to the trial prepared to take the witness stand and speak against the obscenity charges. She was not quite as committed to the cause of Radclyffe Hall as some recent critics have suggested, however.(1) Like many of her Bloomsbury friends, Woolf seriously doubted Hall's qualifications as an artist, finding her work too polemical. Bloomsbury's reservations ran so deep that eight days before the trial Woolf wrote: "Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; 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" (Letters 3: 555). Woolf was relieved to be saved the task of defending Hall's novel in court by the magistrate's decision that only he, and not the defense's array of "expert witnesses," could rule whether or not Well was obscene: "In what cases is evidence allowable? This last, to my relief, was decided against us: we could not be called as experts in obscenity, only in art" (Diary 3: 207). When, as she put it, "the bloody woman's trial" went to appeal on 14 December, Woolf did not attend (Letters 3: 563).

Woolf's objections to Well were not limited to an ostensibly aesthetic sphere; they also highlight crucial differences among women in questions of sexual politics, questions which are ultimately inextricable from aesthetic ones. …

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