On December 15, 1928, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall hit US bookstores. American newspapers didn’t quite know what to make of the lesbian novel, then banned in England, or of its monocled author.
The Morning Post lauded the writer as one of England’s foremost literary women while finding her appearance rather startling.
“Miss Hall has been an ardent defender of the rights of abnormal women. She was amongst the first to adopt the masculine dinner jacket for evening wear and is customarily seen in society with a shining blonde bob and gleaming monocle.”
Besides her physical appearance, Radclyffe Hall went out of her to ensure no American mistook her story of ‘congenital inverts’ for the dispassionate observations of an outsider.
“Having known many in my social life and having made it my business to know a larger number than was otherwise necessary to make a close study…”
However, the editor of Mississippi’s Greenwood Commonwealth never got the memo.
“Mrs Radclyffe Hall, author of a novel recently suppressed in England, pays the United States a doubtful compliment in coming to arrange for its publication here.”
Radclyffe Hall wasn’t Mrs Anyone. She dropped her birthname long before and usually went by John. By 1928, she and Una Troubridge had already lived together for over a decade.
The Well of Loneliness
American critics generally applauded The Well of Loneliness as sensitively written and devoid of any ‘coarseness’. The book quickly leapt into the bestseller lists, selling 20,000 copies at $5 each.
But one man didn’t like it.
John F. Summer, mocked by the Daily News as the ‘intrepid nemesis of naughtiness’, ran the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The state legislature granted the Society powers of search, seizure and arrest. And as the recipient of 50% of any fines imposed, Summer had good reason to see indecency everywhere he looked.
In 1927, he had Mae West’s play Sex closed on Broadway, and Mae locked in the slammer for ten days. In early 1929, he came for The Well of Loneliness, seizing 800 copies from the publisher and threatening booksellers with legal action if they continued to stock the book. Most ignored him but capitalised on the publicity by adding a dollar to the retail price.
Judges later found the book was not obscene, and the confiscated copies were returned to the publishers.
Newspapers across the US mocked Summer. Instead of stopping sales of the book, he increased them.
Radclyffe Hall continued to write. She also practised what she preached in The Well of Loneliness.
“You’re neither unnatural, nor abominable, nor mad. You’re as much a part of what people call nature as anyone else; only you’re unexplained as yet — you’ve not got your niche in creation. But someday that will come, and meanwhile, don’t shrink from yourself, but face yourself calmly and bravely.”
Read More: December 14 <— On this day —> December 16
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