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History's "Abrupt Revenges": Censoring War's Perversions in The Well of Loneliness and Sleeveless Errand

From: Journal of Modern Literature
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2003
pp. 145-159 | 10.1353/jml.2004.0019

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Journal of Modern Literature 26.2 (2003) 145-159



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History's "Abrupt Revenges":

Censoring War's Perversions in The Well of Loneliness and Sleeveless Errand

SUNY Stony Brook

On February 21, 1929, Norah James, the advertising and publicity manager at Jonathan Cape's publishing house, was on her way to work when she passed a news placard that proclaimed "Woman's Novel Seized." James did not stop to buy a copy of the paper, but she would later discover that it was her first novel, Sleeveless Errand, selling papers that day. The night before, plain-clothes policemen had seized all copies of the book after Eric Partridge, the novel's publisher, unwillingly provided them with a list of "every bookseller to whom the book had been delivered."1 Thus did Norah James and her novel about the effects of wartime morality find their way onto the front pages and subsequently into the history of British censorship.

James's experience neatly replicated that of Radclyffe Hall, whose novel, The Well of Loneliness, had been found guilty of obscene libel the previous year. James knew Hall and her ill-fated book quite well; James had read the manuscript of The Well of Loneliness at Cape's request and found it a "fine and sincere piece of work." She later attended the Bow Street trial that led to the novel's suppression. Between the time of The Well's publication and eventual suppression, James saw "quite a lot" of Hall, and the two became friendly. Hall even gave James "a handsome cheque" when the latter was ill and "hard up."2

Despite the casual friendship of the two authors, and despite the eventual fate of their books, The Well of Loneliness and Sleeveless Errand could not be more different. The first pleads for understanding for "inverts"; the second condemns the promiscuous heterosexual behavior of the novel's protagonist and her set. The Well's protagonist prays for God's mercy and deliverance; Sleeveless Errand's protagonist uses "God" and "Christ" as curse words. Stephen Gordon, Hall's [End Page 145] main character, struggles to live honorably and to accomplish literary feats for the sake of her own future and the future of her fellow inverts; Paula Cranford, James's main character, lives a life of bars and cafes until she decides to kill herself.

Despite these important differences, these novels were prosecuted because they share two features that discomforted governmental and judicial readers: both novels contain female characters who alter their sexual behavior as a direct result of working for the war effort, and both texts indicate that young, unmarried women were particularly vulnerable to wartime and postwar transformations. The relative freedom that war work offers these protagonists enables them to engage in homosexual or promiscuous activity that would otherwise be prevented by the policing actions of family and local communities. World War I allowed unprecedented numbers of women to engage in non-domestic labor; The Well of Loneliness and Sleeveless Errand were read as dangerous indicators that the freedom this labor earned influenced young women's sexuality.

These texts offended because they implied for women, as for men, sexual behaviors might be altered by war work. While most officials regarded sexual "deviance" during wartime as a necessary evil, they acknowledged that the majority of the public did not hold this view and that the perception of wartime sexual perversion could undermine national morale. In a January 1918 letter to the War Minister, Lord Derby, Lord Salisbury clearly articulated this threat:

Everything depends now upon keeping the people keen about the war but if the notion . . . is allowed to spread that instead of being in a sacred cause the war is a vehicle of vice and demoralization there will arise an uneasiness among the soundest of the people . . . that the war is under a curse. It is impossible to exaggerate the danger of such a sentiment.3

Keeping the public "keen about the war" required policing sexual behavior and, as much as practicable...