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"I Made Up My Mind to Get It": The American Trial of The Well of Loneliness, New York City, 1928-29

From: Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 10, Number 2, April 2001
pp. 250-286 | 10.1353/sex.2001.0042

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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 250-286

From December 1928 to April 1929, New York City attorneys, courts, and the public pondered "sex matters," "a delicate social problem," and "one woman's fight for social adjustment despite abnormality." When writers for the New York Times used these descriptions to convey the lesbian theme of Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness, they were participating in a scandal in which normative values about "sexual explicitness" and the causes of sexual identity and gender were being contested. The scandal forced publishing houses, vice societies, attorneys, and the courts to articulate the manner in which a lesbian novel could -- and could not -- corrupt.

The debate surrounding The Well of Loneliness stands in stark contrast to the debate over lesbian representation in the play The Captive. During the furor over The Captive between 1926 and 1927, New York courts ruled that lesbian and deviant female heterosexual representation onstage was unacceptable. The New York legislature capitalized on judicial opinion and amended the obscenity statute to prohibit plays with "sex degeneracy" and "sex perversion." Although the scandal over The Captive had quieted after April 1927, the publication of The Well in December 1928 reignited the debate over lesbian representation. The trial of The Well resulted in a verdict different from the one handed down in the earlier case. The publishers of the novel, Covici-Friede, were charged with printing obscenity, but both the New York courts and the U.S. Customs Service held that The Well of Loneliness, a novel with a lesbian theme, was not obscene and could be printed and distributed.

In order to defend The Well, attorney Morris Ernst utilized a strategy in which he pitted two representations of "lesbians" and "lesbian desire" against each other. The Well could not be obscene, he reasoned, because Mademoiselle de Maupin, a "truly obscene" book that contained explicit lesbian sexuality, circulated without restriction or censure. Ernst argued further, and the judges affirmed, that The Well should be cleared of all charges because the text lacked sexual explicitness, not because lesbianism itself was not an obscene subject.

In 1928, at the age of forty-seven, Radclyffe Hall wrote The Well of Loneliness because she wanted to be the first person who would "smash the conspiracy of silence" about sexual inversion. Hall was a product of the British upper class, a prize-winning author, and a self-identified "invert" who wore "mannish" clothes and liked to be called "John." Hall incorporated many of these characteristics into her protagonist Stephen Gordon. In the first of five long sections, Hall describes the idyllic life at Gordon's ancestral home, Morton, which was inhabited by Sir Philip; his Irish wife, Anna; and their young daughter, Stephen. Stephen is described as a "narrow-hipped, wide shouldered little tadpole of a baby," who is proficient at "masculine" endeavors such as riding horses astride, hunting, fencing, and analytical thinking. While Stephen and her father have a close relationship, the relationship between mother and daughter is strained because Anna senses something odd about Stephen. Stephen's oddness is made clear when she develops her first crush -- and the object of her desire is the servant woman, Collins. In her late adolescence, Stephen develops an intense friendship with Martin Hallam, a young Canadian. Martin falls in love with her, but when he proposes marriage, Stephen's revulsion at the prospect forces her to ask Sir Philip whether there is something "strange" about her. Sir Philip does not answer, but his private ruminations disclose to the reader that Stephen possesses an "abnormal" condition, a condition that Sir Philip has discovered in sexology books. The first section ends with Sir Philip's death, before he reveals the secret.

The second section chronicles Stephen's full embrace of a "masculine" style of dress and her desire for women. She pursues a relationship with Angela Crossby, a married American woman and former actress. But Angela's interest in Stephen is not genuine: she is titillated by Stephen's attention, but she will not face society's disapproval. Angela eventually betrays Stephen to Anna. When a distraught Stephen is forced to face her mother and admit...



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