Ministers wanted to put lesbian author on trial

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Indy Politics

Stanley Baldwin's government made secret preparations for an obscenity trial in which the author of a lesbian novel would have been forced to defend herself against the charge that she was corrupting the young.

Stanley Baldwin's government made secret preparations for an obscenity trial in which the author of a lesbian novel would have been forced to defend herself against the charge that she was corrupting the young.

Papers just released after being retained by the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for more than 75 years suggest that the Home Secretary wanted Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness, put in prison.

The documents are among the last to be made public under the so-called "30-year rule", which has allowed the Government to refuse to release documents for decades because publication might embarrass individuals who are still alive. The rule has, in effect, disappeared under changes to the freedom of information legislation which came into force yesterday.

The government's legal officers were also anxious to have her novel banned, fearing it would deprave the minds of young readers.

The exchange of memos, kept secret since 1928, shows that they were confident an obscenity trial would result in a conviction because they did not think any jury would accept Hall's view that lesbians were a misunderstood and persecuted minority.

William Joynson-Hicks, Baldwin's Home Secretary, inquired whether she could be prosecuted for obscene libel. He had no doubt that "its sale was undesirable", and he and his colleagues embarked on a concerted campaign to ban it.

He said: "After a long, private conference with the Lord Chancellor we came to the conclusion that the book is both obscene and indecent, and I wrote a letter to the publishers asking for its withdrawal. If they decline, proceed at once."

The publisher, Jonathan Cape, sent the DPP a copy of a "reply of the authoress", in which she described her "inverts" as "an oppressed and misunderstood section of the social body". She was "proud and happy to have taken up her pen in defence of the persecuted". The DPP's comment was: "I cannot help thinking that she would have some difficulty in establishing this proposition before a jury."

Soon afterwards the DPP was about to report "the matter satisfactorily concluded" after the publishers appeared to have buckled under government pressure. But in October, the Post Office - under Home Office warrant - intercepted "certain packets" addressed to Cape's London office from an address in Paris.

They discovered that the type had been smuggled to France, where an English edition was being published. Customs officers at Dover seized, as "contraband", 300 copies destined for a publisher in Great Russell Street fronting for Cape.

On 9 November, a Bow Street magistrate ordered all copies of the work to be destroyed. Jonathan Cape finally published the book in 1949, six years after Hall's death.

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