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Keynote Lecture: "Wilde's Long Shadow: Scandal, Censorship, and The Well of Loneliness”

Keynote by Prof. Dr. Stephan Karschay at 9:45 on Thursday, November 9, 2023.

This keynote lecture will discuss the scandal surrounding Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a novel of lesbian emancipation that was banned under Victorian obscenity legislation when it was published in 1928. If we accept literary scandals as privileged entry points to the analysis of social taboos and transgressions, then it is tempting to read the case of Hall’s novel as indicative of a general hostility in 1920s British culture towards same-sex relationships and queer writers. Yet this judgment is complicated by the novel’s initially favourable reception. The agents involved in the production of this scandal and the fitful dynamics of publication, reception and censorship demonstrate some of the complexities involved in the analysis of scandal in the fields of literary and cultural studies. The legal proceedings against Hall’s novel were prompted by a scandalmongering review in the Sunday Express by the paper’s editor James Douglas. The pathologizing language used by Douglas in his editorial also raised the specter of ‘decadence’ (embodied by that scandal incarnate, Oscar Wilde) to kick the machinery of the law into action. Douglas deployed a naïve form of symptomatic reading that allowed him to conflate the novel’s heroine Stephen Gordon and its author Radclyffe Hall in a manner reminiscent of the reception of Wilde’s own novel The Picture of Dorian Gray thirty-eight years earlier. Finally, this lecture will take up Douglas’s accusations and read The Well of Loneliness in decadent terms. Literary decadence can thus be seen as a paradoxical reference point in the context of this scandal: The censors invoked it to vilify Hall and her novel by association with Oscar Wilde, yet The Well itself turns decadence into a site of queer resistance against the forces of ostracism in society, making The Well of Loneliness a key text in the cultural history of scandal. 

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Ansgar Nünning
Prof. Dr. Stephan Karschay
Professor in the Institut für englische Philologie (Freie Universität Berlin)
Stephan Karschay is a professor in the Department of English Philology at the Freie Universität Berlin. Previously he worked on English Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Passau and the University of Hamburg. He published widely on 19th-century literature including his 2015 monograph Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle (Palgrave Macmillan) and “Doyle and the Criminal Body” in The Cambridge Companion to Sherlock Holmes (Cambridge University Press, 2019). His main research interests are the relationship between literature and science in the nineteenth century, the Gothic in literature and film, and the cultural representation of scandal.