In offering a brief moment of visibility to relationships between “sexual inverts”, the Well trial would have a legal and cultural impact extending for decades. The notion of pseudo-inversion proved particularly dangerous. While Hall had hoped that the innate nature of congenital inversion would make it a cause for sympathy, courts judging lesbian women saw themselves as protecting pseudo-lesbians who might choose heterosexual relationships if not corrupted. These notions of corruption fed into such diverse legal areas as the sentencing of women in the criminal courts and custody debates in the family courts.
In November 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was found to be criminally obscene: liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’ those likely to read it. What makes the case significant is that the ‘obscenity’ of the book resided in its subject-matter, lesbianism. For the Chief Magistrate, its harm lay not in graphic sexual depictions of ‘sexual inversion’ (there were none), but in its plea for tolerance of ‘inverts’.
This was not the first mention of lesbianism in the legal context, although overt discussion was a rare and recent phenomenon. However, the 1928 trial marked a high point of legal and social visibility, with discussion extending beyond the courtroom into daily newspapers. The specific version of lesbian relationships described in the book, with its reliance on sexological discourses, would thus colour public perceptions within and beyond the legal system for much of the twentieth century.
The Well was not published in paperback in Britain until the 1950s. By the 1970s, it was both recognized as a milestone and criticised for the way in which it treated the subject. It has been described as ‘the lesbian novel, a title familiar to most readers of fiction, either a bible or a horror story for any lesbian who reads at all.’ (Jane Rule ‘Radclyffe Hall’ (1975), reproduced in Doan and Prosser, Palatable Poison, pp 77-88 at p 78).
The full version of this landmark is written by Caroline Derry.
The Guardian News and Media Ltd., ‘Lesbian Novel Was ‘Danger to Nation’ ‘ https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/jan/02/books.gayrights
Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Obscene Publications Act’ https://www.britannica.com/event/Obscene-Publications-Act