When Rose Allatini’s Despised and Rejected was published by CW Daniel in May 1918, it was slammed by James Douglas in The Star as “a literary fungus” for its pacifist themes and accepting portrayal of homosexuality. Five months later, CW Daniel was charged under the Defence of the Realm Act, fined, and the unsold copies were seized and destroyed. Nevertheless, with only two hundred remaining of the original print run of 1000, Allatini’s novel had sold well. A decade on, Douglas turned on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, writing in a vitriolic editorial for the Sunday Express that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel”. At trial, Hall’s publishers, Jonathan Cape, argued that their pricing of the book at fifteen shillings - around twice the expected sum - would ensure The Well stayed out of the hands of younger, more impressionable readers. But the subsequent ban on the book led to a boom in foreign rights: The Well was translated into eleven languages, selling more than a million copies by 1945.
Were publishers simply cashing in on the reading desires of a prurient public? Or bravely risking prosecution by providing LGBTQ+ readers with much-needed representation? And can we identify queer consumers as a specific demographic, at a time when sex between men was yet to be decriminalised, and LGBTQ+ individuals may not have considered themselves constitutive of anything so cohesive as a queer subculture, let alone a market? Justin Bengry’s lecture mined these rich issues, showing how capitalist forces worked to shape, and even strengthen, queer identities in this period.
As Bengry noted, Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex was mocked by the establishment. The British Medical Journal, no less, published a derisive take on a Lewis Carroll poem: “The Urning and the Carpenter / Were sitting hand in hand / They wept because Homogeny / Is generally banned”. But Carpenter’s Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship was so well-known to contemporary booksellers after two editions and several reprints, that they referred to it by a nickname which invoked, and even celebrated its eager readership: it was The Bugger’s Bible.
This year has been tough on so many, libraries, and bookshops included, but as we move into 2021 we can look forward to the gradual reopening of the several institutions that had to close, either fully or partially, due to Covid-19 – Senate House Library and Gay’s the Word bookshop among them. If you’d like to find out more about queer literary and publishing history, and Senate House Library’s rich LGBTQ+ resources, you might be interested in attending the forthcoming session, Researching Queer London, which will take place on Monday 25 January from 2pm to 3pm.
Dr Sarah Pyke
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London