Censorship: A double-edged sword?

Reviewing The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall


Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is often overlooked when considering the twentieth century’s most notorious obscenity trials. Published contemporaneously with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928, Hall’s novel is regarded by most as the first lesbian novel; a pioneering inquiry into gender and sexual identity as well as an eminent manifesto for equality.

Written at great personal and political risk, the plot centres on the instantly likeable Stephen, named as such by her father who had wanted a son. A social outcast, Stephen’s masculinity and virile nature contrast her conventional aristocratic upbringing. Realising she is attracted to women, Stephen’s narrative follows her search for fulfilment and requited love, stretching from the battlefields of WWI to the streets of 1920s Paris.

Hall, who was a lesbian herself, sought to put her pen ‘at the service of some of the most misunderstood people in the world’. However, the book’s subject matter was met with hostility, most notably by Sunday Express editor, James Douglas. His campaign against the book began with a teaser in the Daily Express, pledging to expose ‘A Book That Should Be Suppressed’. The upshot of such furore was an obscenity trial, inevitably culminating in the book’s blanket ban until 1954 following Hall’s death in 1949.

Whilst arguably overshadowed by the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover six years after the novel’s publication, the significance of The Well of Loneliness cannot be overstated. By giving a voice to the ‘outsiders’ of the early twentieth century, the book undoubtedly cemented its place in a pioneering body of culture, refusing to condemn whilst demanding equal treatment. Perhaps it is apt that the novel’s battle for publication mirrors its protagonist’s struggle for acceptance into the folds of society.

Censorship defines the literary by outlawing that which is not allowed to be, yet as a seminal work of gay literature, by banning The Well of Loneliness, attention was drawn to the very subject it was intended to suppress.

Censorship’s role in literature


Censorship is often used as a political weapon, as seen in the cases of the Nazi book burnings and Animal Farm, which was banned by the USSR for its criticism of Stalin’s communistic regime. Books have also been banned for religious reasons, such as Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses which led to the Ayatollah of Iran issuing a fatwa encouraging the murder of Rushdie. However, a more common reason for literature being censored is a societal disgust at depictions of human sexuality: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and Lolita are just a few examples of novels which initially horrified readers. Even more recently, in an age that we often view as liberal, novels have challenged the censor on the grounds of sexuality: Burgess’ Junk, published in 1996 depicts teenagers doing drugs and having casual sex, was viewed as hugely controversial.

But even though censorship restrains freedom of expression, it can sometimes be seen to inadvertently give literature its power: would Lolita be so moving and powerful if the titular character had been over the age of consent, or would Tropic of Cancer be so widely read if not for its explicit descriptions of sexuality? Furthermore, a censoring body can encourage literature to hide its true meaning, allowing only certain readers to access it. This can be seen in the case of Anouilh’s retelling of Antigone in 1944, which avoided being censored by the Nazis because, on the face of it, Creon appears to be encouraging collaboration. However, for the French members of the audience, Antigone’s rebellion against his regime is a clear symbol of resistance. The fact that the play had been approved by Nazi censors adds to its message of defiance of fascism.

So, though censorship is initially seen as depriving writers of literary expression, the existence of a censoring body can actually be seen to give literature power and depth.

Photograph: Bill Kerr via Flickr

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