We’re in the process of moving our Reserve Stock from one location to another so we’ve been evaluating titles, checking our shelves for duplicates and looking for items in poor condition. During this process, we’ve come across a 1949 copy of ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall, a novel featuring lesbian characters that was banned for a while in Britain in the 1920s and 30s. With this being LGBT+ History Month, it seemed an appropriate time to delve into the history of this book – both the novel itself and the history of the Warwickshire copy.
The History of ‘The Well of Loneliness’
Written in 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s novel tells the story of Stephen Gordon, an upper-class English woman who, while serving as an ambulance driver in World War 1, meets Mary Llewellyn. The novel follows their relationship and since its publication, it has become one of the most well known lesbian novels published in Britain. It was not without scandal when it was published, however.
Featuring a character with “sexual inversion” (a term used at the time Hall was writing), it was met with opposition and a campaign by James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express in favour of its censoring. Douglas became a vocal opponent of the novel and in November 1928, a trial began in the British courts.
An account of the campaign and the trial can be found here and the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Riot Girls‘ recently aired a dramatisation of the story which, if you have an hour to spare, is an interesting listen. Similarly, a search of the National Archives website reveals a fascinating letter sent regarding the novel and while researching this post, I also came across a blog from The British Newspaper Archive that illustrated contemporary reactions to the proceedings and in particular, Hall’s protests against the negative portrayal of her work.
When the verdict of the trial was revealed, the book was deemed to be “obscene”, copies were to be destroyed and removed from library shelves and its future publication in Britain was banned. This verdict, despite being appealed, remained in place even after Hall’s death in 1943, though her papers reveal there was public support for the novel from readers in Britain. In America, the novel similarly faced opposition. It was challenged through the courts although the resulting trial was dismissed in April 1929 (this New York Public Library blog presents a succinct overview of the novel’s history in the US).
Following Hall’s death, renewed interest in her novels led to The Falcon Press issuing a reprinted edition of ‘The Well of Loneliness’ in 1949 and although we can’t establish exactly when Warwickshire Libraries purchased a copy, this was the edition that made its way onto our shelves and would eventually be added to our Reserve Stock.
The Warwickshire Libraries’ Copy
As you can see above, our copy has been well-loved. Let’s be honest, it’s been so well loved that it’s now falling apart – its spine is loose, the binding is falling apart and I don’t think any book should be quite this shape. However, all these signs show how much the book has continued to be a working part of Warwickshire Libraries’ stock over the years.
Also interesting to point out is the label attached to the inside cover – note the 14 day loan period!
‘The Well of Loneliness’ as a title has never been out of print since its re-emergence in 1949 and by the look of things, we got our copy at some point in the early 1950s. Although a more recent date label has been stuck rather unhelpfully over the original date label and so the first issues of our copy aren’t discernible, it is possible to see that by 1957, the Warwickshire Libraries copy was getting regular use. Due dates for April 1957, June, July and August are all visible. Similarly, in 1958, it issued 3 times (if I hold the label up to the light I can just about see the dates) and in 1959, from June until September, it issued 4 times.
We’ve no way of knowing if these issues were to the same person or to different people but all were during a time when “homosexual” acts between men were illegal in Britain (women were absent from legal wordings). It wouldn’t be until 1967 with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act that laws started to change. As one of a limited number of library items that featured lesbianism, it is quite possible that this copy was borrowed by people exploring their LGBT+ identity.
It continued to be borrowed throughout the early 1960s, averaging twice a year until 1966. Then there’s a big gap on the date label until November 1970. I wonder why? Could we have got another copy which issued instead? There’s another gap between 1971 and the first date on the newer label – 1988. This is interesting to note as Section 28 of the Local Government Act was passed in this year. Libraries faced uncertainty about what LGBT+ material they could stock and the legislation remained in place until its repeal in November 2003 (it had been repealed in Scotland in June 2001).
Throughout this period, our copy of ‘The Well of Loneliness continued to issue though there was a gap between loans in 1989 and the next jumps to 1995. It had its final loan in 1999 and since then has been retired to our Reserve Stock as other copies have been purchased and taken their place on our shelves. If you’d like to read ‘The Well of Loneliness’, search our catalogue as there are currently two paperback versions available in our libraries so, with any luck, the copy you get will be in better health than this one.
For other LGBT+ titles, you can search our catalogue or read last year’s blog of recommended reads. You’ll also find LGBT+ titles on BorrowBox and if you’re looking for more about LGBT+ history, our eResources including Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford Reference collection can be a useful starting point. Likewise, the Dictionary of National Biography and Who’s Who and Who Was Who are worth a look. You can find links to all these resources on our ‘Information and Learning‘ page (you’ll need your library card number to log on to some of the resources if you’re using them from home).