The lesbian protagonist of this novel, Stephen Gordon, fails to find love and understanding. After a series of rejections, her “inversion” is revealed to her mother, who orders her to leave her home. While serving in an all-woman ambulance corps during World War I, Stephen falls in love with Mary Llewellyn. Mary, however, later marries a man who had been Stephen’s childhood friend.
Radclyffe “John” Hall considered herself an active or “congenital invert.” Believing in sexologist Havelock Ellis’ theories that “inverts” were biologically determined, Hall used scientific and medical concepts of inversion in literary discourse to discuss homosexuality outside the realm of morality.
In 1928 British home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks ordered the book banned in Britain. Representing the defense, John Holroyd-Reece of Pegasus Press and Harold Rubinstein invoked the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which allowed books classified as “obscene” to be reconsidered in light of their “public good.” Sir Charteres Biron presided over the trial and refused to allow testimony on the book’s literary or scientific merit. Invoking a narrow definition of obscenity, Biron concluded that a book containing no indecent language might still be considered obscene for its theme or intent. Biron then ordered The Well of Loneliness “burnt as an obscene libel which tended to corrupt those into whose hands it fell.” An appeal of this decision failed.
Meanwhile, in the United States the book was prosecuted under a federal law and acquitted in 1929. Although the book was banned in Great Britain, Pegasus continued to print it in France. In 1949, The Well of Loneliness was rereleased in England by Falcon Press.