Hall Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was the first novel in English that dealt openly with a self-realized lesbian identity. The book, published in Paris to avoid British censors, was banned and then tried for obscenity in England and tried in the United States but found to be legal as written. Hall’s work set the stage for the writing and publishing of lesbian-themed novels.

Summary of Event

Noted author and literary prize winner Radclyffe Hall published her novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928, marking a milestone in the history of lesbian literature. The Well of Loneliness was the first novel in English to openly and realistically address lesbian sexuality, which Hall called “sexual inversion” in the novel, the accepted term used also by sexologists of the time. In the book, Hall sympathetically chronicles protagonist Stephen Gordon’s realization that she is lesbian, a self-awareness Gordon developed during childhood and then confronted and accepted as an adult. [kw]Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness (1928) [kw]Publishes The Well of Loneliness, Hall (1928) [kw]Well of Loneliness, Hall Publishes The (1928) Well of Loneliness, The (Hall) Literature;lesbian Censorship;of lesbian literature[lesbian literature] Obscenity;and censorship[censorship] Lesbian sexuality;in early novels[novels] Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books] [c]Literature;1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness[0290] [c]Publications;1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness[0290] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1928: Hall Publishes The Well of Loneliness[0290] Hall, Radclyffe Biron, Chartres Ernst, Morris

Radclyffe Hall, 1926.

Although received by many critics in the English press as a novel of literary merit and a tactfully treated work on a controversial subject, the novel was brought to the English court on a charge of obscenity. Hall and her publisher Jonathan Cape were defendants in the case. Despite a letter of support by an impressive list of literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and T. S. Elliot, the chief judge for the case, Chartres Biron, found the book obscene and ordered its destruction. The judge declared that the work was especially subversive and obscene, a declaration likely made because the book was an earnest account of lesbian sexuality and the characters were depicted in an attractive and sympathetic light. The book’s publisher, Jonathan Cape, had The Well of Loneliness printed in Paris (and printed in English) by Pegasus Press, and it had been smuggled into Great Britain from Paris by the intelligentsia.

In 1928, Jonathan Cape sold the American rights to The Well of Loneliness to the American publisher Covici Friede. Understanding the book’s legal reception in England, Covici Friede knew that it would be charged with obscenity in the United States as well, so the publisher hired a lawyer, Morris Ernst, who was opposed to censorship. Ernst had a successful record of defending several controversial books.

The title page of The Well of Loneliness (1928).

(Blue Ribbon Books)

Sales in the United States of The Well of Loneliness were tremendous, even though the price of the book, $5.00, was high for the time. A number of critics in the United States, as they had in England, gave the work positive reviews, and a distinguished list of persons of letters, including Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, signed their names in support of the novel.

The U.S. trial in 1929 proceeded differently from its English counterpart, primarily because of Ernst’s defense strategy. Ernst had read the work of sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis (a supporter of Hall) and defended the novel’s subject matter—lesbian sexuality—as a scientific phenomenon. He also decided to construct his case in relation to other literary works that depicted lesbian sexuality and had been cleared of obscenity in other legal cases.

Ernst also argued that The Well of Loneliness possessed dignity, social value, and significance because it shed light on a sensitive subject in a serious way. Ernst argued that there were no indecent scenes, nor “dirty” words, in the novel. He argued that Hall wrote with a large amount of restraint and was less explicit than other novelists who depicted lesbian sexuality, novelists whose works had been, in turn, acquitted of obscenity.

The lower court found The Well of Loneliness obscene, but the Court of Special Sessions in New York City cleared it of obscenity charges by finding that it dealt with a delicate social “problem” in a way that was not in violation of the law. That is, the book was not obscene as written. The publisher was thus able to reprint and circulate the novel without legal sanction.


The obscenity trials in England and the United States against The Well of Loneliness had subsequent social and cultural consequences. The controversy surrounding the bans and trials turned the novel into an underground best seller in the United States and in France. Though it was banned in England, demand for the novel continued as well. Also, the book has been read by many as either a “bible” for lesbians or as a horror story, a story of shame and capitulation. The Well of Loneliness and its trial of vindication in the United States also paved the way for the writing, publishing, and circulating of lesbian literature in the United States. Well of Loneliness, The (Hall) Literature;lesbian Censorship;of lesbian literature[lesbian literature] Obscenity;and censorship[censorship] Lesbian sexuality;in early novels[novels] Publishing;and lesbian books[lesbian books]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brittain, Vera. Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity? New York: A. S. Barnes, 1968.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cline, Sally. Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John. New York: Overlook Press, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doan, Laura, and Jay Prosser, eds. Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on “The Well of Loneliness.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. Introduction by Diana Souhami. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Souhami, Diana. The Trials of Radclyffe Hall. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Leslie A. “’I Made Up My Mind to Get It’: The American Trial of The Well of Loneliness, New York City, 1928-1929.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 2 (2001): 250-286.

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1903: Stein Writes Q.E.D.

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1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

February, 1927: Wales Padlock Law Censors Risque Theater

1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin

1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature

1956: Foster Publishes Sex Variant Women in Literature

1973: Brown Publishes Rubyfruit Jungle

1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images

1981: Faderman Publishes Surpassing the Love of Men

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