Sapphism in the 1920s

Photo of Radclyffe Hall


Until the late 1920s, lesbianism was an invisible practice in Great Britain. Unlike male homosexuality—criminalized in 1885 by the Labouchère Amendment as an act of “gross indecency”—British law did not address the legality of female homosexuality until well into the twentieth century. Public discussion of Sapphism was confined to medical and legal circles and the intellectual elite; scholar Laura Doan divides the British public in the 1920s into “those who knew, those who knew nothing, and those who wished they didn’t know.” The very word, “lesbian,” like “homosexual,” did not enter the wider lexicon until the later 1920s and 30s; female homosexuals were referred to, when referred to at all, as “Sapphists,” “sexual inverts,” “masculine women,” “homogenic,” or the “intermediate sex.” Certain patterns of behavior or dress that we now popularly associate with lesbianism were not yet codified in the culture; the fashion of the 1920s, which encouraged a masculine style for women’s clothing and appearance, further obfuscated signifiers of sexual orientation. The spirit of the age which allowed lesbians to “pass” unnoticed in society (even in cases where they lived alone together), enabled the invisibility of lesbian identity in Britain.

All this changed with the publication of Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness in July 1928. The book was Hall’s semi-autobiographical story of Stephen Gordon, a lesbian struggling to find a place for herself in modern society. Hall drew on many of the prevailing psychological theories of her era, namely the assessment of the lesbian as a man trapped in a woman’s body—in Hall’s view, a figure to be pitied. The Well of Loneliness follows Stephen Gordon from her childhood, when she first notices that she is different from other girls, to her adulthood, where she attempts a number of doomed relationships with women. The novel makes a plea for the tolerance and understanding of women “beset” with the regrettable condition of homosexuality.

Following its publication, the Sunday Express published a scathing denunciation of the novel. “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel,” wrote the reviewer, James Douglas. “Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.” He demanded the novel be banned “without delay,” and in a manner of weeks the British Department of Public Prosecutions had brought a case against The Well of Loneliness. In November 1928, the magistrate pronounced the book obscene, demanding that all copies be collected and destroyed. 

The highly publicized trial had the same transformative effect on the public’s awareness of lesbianism that Oscar Wilde’s trials had for that of male homosexuality. Within a matter of months, most newspapers in Britain were full of information on female homosexuality that had never been published so widely for the general public. Leonard Woolf’s mother remarked that “until I read this book I did not know that such things went on at all. I do not think they do. I have never heard of such things.” Splashed in all the papers were striking photographs of Radclyffe Hall herself dressed in a tuxedo and wearing a monocle. While drawing on the fashion sensibility of her day, Hall’s visibility inspired other homosexual women and contributed to the burgeoning image of the lesbian in the public mind.

Both Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West detested the prosecution of the novel and were sympathetic to Hall, though Woolf referred to The Well of Loneliness in her diary as a “meritous dull book” that was “so pure, so sweet, so sentimental that none of us can read it.” (Both Virginia and Leonard appeared at the trial to testify as expert witnesses but were dismissed after the judge decided that he himself would decide whether or not the book was obscene.) When Orlando was published in October 1928, sales of Woolf’s novel may have been intensified by the public interest in Hall. Despite the fact, however, that Orlando is based on the Sapphic relationship between Virginia and Vita, the novel was never banned or brought to trial. Sapphism’s disguise in the cloak of fantasy and farce likely spared it from persecution. Hall’s novel, on the other hand, was written in the style of social realism, and, though (like Orlando) not sexually explicit, dealt seriously with the condition of homosexuality in English society.

Virgina and Vita, too, saw their Sapphism as different in kind from Radclyffe Hall’s. Both Virginia and Vita’s homosexuality operated out of stable if eccentric heterosexual marriages. Vita’s sexual exploits, as well as those of her husband Harold Nicolson (also homosexual), cohabited harmoniously with the public face of their marriage; in the 1930s, Harold and Vita even recorded a radio broadcast about marriage for the BBC (all while Vita was having an affair with the female station manager). For her part, Vita Sackville-West viewed her homosexuality as neither tragic nor radical; on the contrary, she was politically conservative and accommodated her lifestyle within a strong sense of English tradition. As for Virginia, she refrained from ever labeling herself a Sapphist or a homosexual in any of her public or private writing, though she flirts elusively with the label in her diaries and letters. Their relationship existed in a period of the twentieth century when the markers of female homosexuality were relatively undefined; their relationship, in turn, thrived on that lack of definition. 


–Drew Dir, Resident Dramaturg