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Bloomsbury & Homosexuals

In response to:

The Bloom Is Off from the March 29, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

Like Eleanor Perényi [NYR, March 29] I wish that members of the Bloomsbury circle had written more directly about a subject close to many of their lives, namely homosexuality. But I think she seriously underestimates the difficulty of publishing fiction on this theme in England before the law on obscenity was changed in 1960. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was banned in 1928. Ms. Perényi states “the charge did not involve homosexuality” but merely a “vaguely defined obscenity.” But in pronouncing judgment at the trial Sir Charles Biron declared:

The mere fact that the book deals with unnatural offences between women would not in itself make it an obscene libel. It might even have a strong moral influence. But in the present case there is not one word which suggests that anyone with the horrible tendencies described is in the least degree blameworthy. All the characters are presented as attractive people and put forward with admiration.

In short, Hall’s crime was to write about lesbianism sympathetically. The judge at the appeals trial put the matter quite as directly. He found the book obscene, not because of its language or any explicit sexual details, but because it appeared to condone “unnatural practices.” D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow had been banned in 1916 because it briefly described a lesbian relationship even though it treated it negatively.

More surprisingly the New Statesman, commenting on Biron’s verdict on November 24 blamed Radclyffe Hall for poor judgment in writing the book: “People who desire toleration for pathological abnormalities certainly should not write about them”—without explaining how silence could lead to toleration. Since this was the editorial verdict of one of England’s most enlightened weeklies, I think the campaign in favor of the book Woolf and Forster had earlier conducted in the Nation was an act of courage that should not be devalued.

Nor is it true that England’s anti-homosexual laws were seldom “invoked against members of the ruling class.” Such immunity had existed at certain times and at certain places, for instance in pre-Revolutionary France, but not in the British Isles. In the seventeenth century an earl and a bishop were both executed under the sodomy laws. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries numerous members of the establishment, including peers, politicians and writers like Beckford and Byron, were driven into exile. In the 1950s one important reason for setting up of the Wolfenden Committee was the widespread police activities which had led to the incarceration of a popular young member of the House of Lords and several well-known journalists. Living quarters were ransacked, letters seized, and men tried for offenses committed years earlier. A full account of this very unpleasant era is given in Montgomery Hyde’s The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name. Despite the personal vulnerability of himself and his friends, in a decade when arrests numbered in the hundreds each year, Forster bravely protested these police tactics in the columns of the New Statesman in 1953 in an article on “Society and the Homosexual.”

Louis Crompton

University of Nebraska

Lincoln, Nebraska

Eleanor Perényi replies:

Mr. Crompton perhaps misses my point. I didn’t say that nobody, ever, was prosecuted for homosexuality in Britain. If that had been true, there would have been no need for the Wolfenden reforms. What I did say, and will stand by, was that given the prevalence of the practice in the public schools, the universities, the Foreign Office and other institutions (not to mention the arts), such prosecutions were remarkably rare among the ruling class. I seriously question that arrests ever “numbered in the hundreds” in that sector of society—in which, on the contrary, obvious homosexuals like Guy Burgess and dozens of others one could name went unscathed. I could respond, too, that the threat to Beckford in the eighteenth century was rather of social ostracism than the law; while charges against Byron, had any been brought at the time, were more likely to have involved incest than sodomy. (Nor did Beckford’s self-imposed exile last longer than it took him to grow bored with Portugal and Spain.) That the upper classes were granted something very like immunity is perhaps best illustrated by the Wilde case itself, which Mr. Crompton rather surprisingly doesn’t speak of. It is to be noted that Lord Alfred Douglas, the aristocrat, was never prosecuted for the “crime” that sent his lover to prison.

As for the risks of publishing fiction on the forbidden topic, I don’t think I underestimated them. My argument was that the Bloomsbury writers, like the Nicolsons, were unwilling to run them whatever they were. And while it is undoubtedly true that Radclyffe Hall’s offense was to have treated lesbianism sympathetically, I don’t see that this contradicts my statement that the laws of obscenity didn’t specifically apply to homosexuality. The judge, as quoted by Mr. Crompton, said exactly that. There was therefore no absolute certainty that a book dealing with the subject would automatically be banned. But let us suppose the probable—that it would have been. The question of moral courage still arises. Other writers (Lawrence, Joyce, Gide, and for that matter, Flaubert) chose the risk of having their books haled into court for obscenity, to go into exile, or both. Bloomsbury chose to play it safe. One is entitled to one’s opinion as to which line of conduct was more admirable—or of more value to literature. Mine is obvious.

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