Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1998

The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, by Diana Souhami

reviewed by Jean Raison

Diana Souhami’s big biography of Radclyffe Hall, coming only a year after Sally Cline’s even bigger one (reviewed in G&LH Autumn 1997), may seem hardly necessary, but it does actually add something to our knowledge of this remarkable woman. Where Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John was excessively academic, The Trials of Radclyffe Hall is excessively journalistic, but as well as writing in a lively style Souhami has done plenty of serious research into primary sources in both private and public collections in many parts of the world. As a result, although the main outlines of the story still aren’t altered, she gives several more details about various episodes.

Perhaps the most interesting new information relates to the banning of The Well of Loneliness in 1928. The seventieth anniversary of that ludicrous event was marked by the release of many relevant official papers in the Public Record Office, but some were withheld on account of “public interest” and even “national security”. It was only at the last moment that the author was allowed to inspect them and was therefore enabled to document more fully the extent of the conspiracy by the authorities to suppress the book.

She already had evidence that the Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions and his deputy, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, and the Chairman of the London Sessions, with the support of the Prime Minister and the rest of the Government, deliberately and surreptitiously perverted the legal system to prevent the author and publishers and distributors getting a fair hearing in the courts. She then got evidence that the Home Secretary also manipulated the Post Office and the Customs to prevent circulation of the book despite the opposition of the Chairman of the Board of Customs, who argued that it was a serious and decent book and added that if it were banned “it will be difficult to know where our censorship is to stop” – and then used the police to harass the publishers and distributors, and that the Director of Public Prosecutions planned to take further legal action against them. Moreover, she also demonstrates that the post-war Labour Government and its civil servants similarly closed ranks in opposition to a proposed new edition of the book in 1946. (She doesn’t mention that it was nevertheless finally published in 1949.)

She shows how many reputable writers and editors and publishers either failed to oppose the ban or actually supported it, and how ineptly the legal defence of the book was conducted at the trial. By contrast she gives a long account of the American trial in 1929, in which the more intelligent publishers and lawyers and the more enlightened judges and politicians secured an acquittal (not an appeal against conviction, as I previously thought). And she repeats the constant lesson of such cases, that the campaigns against the book enormously increased its circulation, even if it couldn’t be openly published in Britain for more than twenty years.

The book contains interesting references to some religious aspects of the case. Although Radclyffe Hall was a Roman Catholic (and a spiritualist) and defended homosexuality on the grounds that it was a God-given congenital condition, when James Douglas began the campaign against the book in the Sunday Express he too used religious as well as moral arguments: “This terrible doctrine may commend itself to certain schools of pseudo-scientific thought, but it cannot be reconciled with the Christian religion or with the Christian doctrine of free-will. Therefore, it must be fought to the bitter end by the Christian Churches. This is the radical difference between paganism and Christianity. If Christianity does not destroy this doctrine, then this doctrine will destroy it, together with the civilisation it has built on the ruins of paganism. These moral derelicts are not cursed from their birth. Their downfall is caused by their own act and their own will. They are damned because they choose to be damned, not because they are doomed from the beginning.”

This was the context in which he made his famous (or infamous) remark: “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel” because “poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul”.

When William Joynson-Hicks during the case described his principle of censorship as Home Secretary, in a speech to a religious audience, he said that it “must be determined by the question as to whether what is written or spoken makes one of the least of these little ones offend”. Souhami rightly compares this with the principle stated by Mr Podsnap in Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend: “The question about everything was, would it bring a blush to the cheek of the young person?” – but wrongly misses the allusion to Jesus’s condemnation in the Synoptic Gospels of “whoso shall offend one of these little ones”. After the case, when Radclyffe Hall became the object of much vicious mockery, she often compared herself with Jesus, but she was particularly offended by a blasphemous cartoon which showed her nailed to a cross!

Souhami shows yet again how hypocritical Radclyffe Hall was, in both private and public life, and how unpleasantly she behaved most of the time, even to those she loved or who loved her. Yet she pays tribute not only to her hard work as a writer and her great strength of character, but also to her constant courage in standing openly against what she rather anachronistically calls the “homophobia” of her age – and our age, too, in view of recent proceedings in both houses of Parliament and pronouncements by religious and political commentators.

Liberators unfortunately do tend to be imperfect representatives of their causes, and it is certainly very hard to feel any affection for Radclyffe Hall, however much admiration we may have for her. But despite everything we must pay tribute to the person who probably did more than anyone else in this country for the cause of lesbian liberation, and Diana Souhami gives the liveliest account of both the bad and the good aspects of her extraordinary career.

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Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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