This year marks the 90th anniversary of a significant, early 20th century legal ruling that said “The Well of Loneliness” — the first lesbian novel published in the United States — was not obscene.
Written in 1928 by out lesbian British author Radclyffe Hall, “The Well of Lonelines” also is the first lesbian novel published in England.
‘The Well of Loneliness’
The book follows Stephen Gordon, a woman born into British aristocracy. A “sexual invert,” a term used by English sexologists to describe homosexuality, Gordon has relationships with older wealthy women and longs to be accepted by her friends and lovers. Gordon falls in love with an ambulance driver during World War I, but social isolation and rejection prevent them from finding happiness.
The only sexual references in “The Well of Loneliness” are a couple of phrases: “she kissed her full on the lips, as a lover” and “and that night, they were not divided.”
Only a few months after “The Well of Loneliness” was banned in England in mid 1928, the American company Covici and Friede published the book in the United States. The publication was immediately met with opposition.
The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice argued the novel violated the 1873 Comstock Law, legislation designed to root out lewd and obscene literature.
Victory in court
The American publishers’ attorney, Morris Ernst, argued in a New York court that lesbianism in and of itself was neither obscene nor illegal, and, therefore, the book shouldn’t be declared obscene.
In April 1929, a New York agreed and dismissed the case. That same year, Covici-Friede published a special limited “Victory Edition” of the book, a two-volume copy, printed with Ernst’s summary of the trial and with Hall’s autograph. Only 225 copies were published.
Earlier this year, one of those rare copies was seen on the popular PBS television series “Antiques Roadshow.”
The traveling show brings appraisers to different portions of the country to examine and assign a value to items brought to them by guests.
During the show’s visit to the Hotel Coronado in May 2018, which was broadcast April 1, a guest brought in the book, which he said had been given to him by his late sister. The “Victory Edition” was numbered 43 out of 225.
Historic lesbian book
“Antiques Roadshow” appraiser Catherine Williamson said “The Well of Loneliness” is “a landmark book in gay and lesbian modern literature of the 20th century” that would likely sell for between $1,000 and $1,500 at auction.
Banned in England
“The Well of Loneliness” made waves among British society for its depiction of a lesbian relationship. At that time, homosexuality was illegal in England and considered immoral.
James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, lead a campaign against the book. He wrote an article calling for the immediate ban of the book. He wrote in part:
“I am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors which exist among us today. They flaunt themselves in public places with increasing effrontery and more insolently provocative bravado…This pestilence is devastating the younger generation. It is wrecking young lives. It is defiling young souls.”
“I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.”
Art imitates life
Gordon’s life in “The Well of Loneliness” mirrors the life of Hall, the book’s author.
Hall was born into a wealthy British family. As an adult, she became involved with married women eventually forming a long-term relationship with Mabel Batten, a 51-year-old married woman with a daughter and grandchildren. Batten who gave Hall the nickname “John,” which Hall used the rest of her life. Hall eventually left Batten for Batten’s cousin, Una Troubridge.
Hall died in 1943 at age 63 from colon cancer.