Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, a candid, semi-autobiographical novel about coming to terms with a lesbian identity, brought to the forefront the question of whether or not the frank portrayal of lesbianism in a book was grounds for charges of obscenity. First published July 1928 in England by Jonathan Cape, The Well was soon seized and criminalized for violating the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which stated "The test for obscenity is this—whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall."
Radclyffe HallDespite a lack of overtly sexually explicit language in the book, the lesbian themes of Hall's book were very quickly conceived of as a corrupting threat to the social order. The plot concerns the coming-of-age of Stephen Gordon, an aristocrat and born "invert," as homosexuals were referred to at the time. The novel posits the obsolescence of domesticity alongside Stephen's declaration of and desire to be accepted as a male among her peers and lovers.
Hall's novel, having emerged during the post-WWI era, was particularly unpalatable to some, as non-maternal visions of women were seen as unpatriotic, and not doing their part in rebuilding the population. The judges of the obscenity trial in London for The Well of Loneliness refused to admit expert testimony from the defense as to the literary value of the book, despite endorsements from esteemed authors such as E.M. Forster, and Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The book remained banned in England until 1959, when the Obscene Publications Act was amended to differentiate controversial works of art and literature with social merit.
American firm Covici and Friede took on the risky act of publishing the book in the United States just months after The Well of Loneliness was banned in England. It immediately raised the ire of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who invoked the 1873 Comstock Law, a piece of legislation designed at rooting out lewd and obscene literature. Covici and Friede publishers were defended by lawyer Morris Ernst, who argued that lesbianism in and of itself was neither obscene nor illegal, and therefore the book should not be declared so either. The New York courts agreed, and in April 1929 the case was dismissed.
Radclyffe Hall wanted to be the first author to smash the wall of silence about sexual inversion, and the publicity surrounding the obscenity trials ultimately helped bolster her reputation as a groundbreaking author who challenged the silence surrounding freedom of choice in sexual identity.