Sunday January 2, 2005
A lesbian novel was banned after official medical advice that it would encourage female homosexuality and lead to 'a social and national disaster'.
In 1928 Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, which got no more racy than 'she kissed her full on the lips like a lover', led to an obscenity trial which considered the implications of the national shortage of men and 'two women in bed making beasts of themselves'.
Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, his Chancellor, Winston Churchill, and Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks went to great lengths to suppress the book.
Hall, a flamboyant lesbian, wrote The Well of Loneliness to 'put my pen at the service of some of the most misunderstood people in the world'. She attended the trial in November 1928 dressed in a leather driving coat and Spanish riding hat. Sir Chartres Biron, the chief magistrate at Bow Street, ruled that the novel was an 'obscene libel' and all copies should be destroyed. Its publisher, Jonathan Cape, launched an appeal which proved abortive.
Documents show how Sir Archibald Bodkin, Director of Public Prosecutions, feared that the publisher would mobilise eminent writers to defend the book. He wrote to several doctors asking for a clinical analysis of what he called 'homo-sexualists'. In a letter to one of them, Sir Farquhar Buzzard, he explained: 'I want to be able to call some gentleman of undoubted knowledge, experience and position who could inform the court of the results to those unfortunate women (as I deem them) who have proclivities towards lesbianism, or those wicked women (as I deem them) who voluntarily indulge in these practices - results destructive morally, physically and even perhaps mentally.'
To Dr J.A. Hadfield of Harley Street, he wrote that a large amount of curiosity had been excited among women, 'and I am afraid in many cases curiosity may lead to imitation and indulgence in practices which are believed to be somewhat extensive having regard to the very large excess in numbers of women over men.'
Bodkin got the testimony he wanted from Sir William Henry Willcox, consulting medical adviser to the Home Office and physician at St Mary's Hospital in London. '[Lesbianism] is well known to have a debasing effect on those practising it, which is mental, moral and physical in character,' he said. 'It leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and in some cases to suicide in addicts to this vice. It is a vice which, if widespread, becomes a danger to the well-being of a nation ...'Publication of the book, he said, would risk its being read 'by a large number of innocent persons, who might out of pure curiosity be led to discuss openly and possibly practise the form of vice described'. The book was finally released in Britain in 1949, after Hall's death.
Useful links - UK
Peter Tatchell's site
Lesbian and Gay Employment Rights Organisation
Useful links - international
National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
International Gay and Lesbian Association