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Senate House Library

Profit, Prosecution and Queer Publishing


Written by
Sarah Pyke, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

Explore the history of queer publishing and the life and work of Jonathan Cutbill, Gay Liberation Pioneer, as highlighted in the Holden Lecture 2020

In the green of a Shropshire orchard, just a few days before the 2020 Charles Holden Lecture at Senate House Library, a memorial stone was laid for one of the UK’s foremost queer bibliophiles and activists. “Pioneer of gay liberation” Jonathan Cutbill, who died in May 2019, began collecting LGBTQ+ books in earnest in the 1970s while working in museums, first in Cambridge, and later in London. With Ernest Hole and Peter Dorey, Cutbill went on to found Bloomsbury’s Gay’s the Word bookshop - the UK’s first, and for many years only lesbian and gay bookshop - stocking its second-hand and antiquarian section with his finds. During the 1980s, Cutbill continued to acquire not only rare books, but contemporary literature, physique magazines, pamphlets and a complete run of Gay News. “For over 20 years he bought a copy of every LGBT book that the bookshop stocked,” current shop manager Jim MacSweeney told The Bookseller in 2019.

Memorial plaque for Jonathan Cutbill

Queer Between The Covers

When HM Customs and Excise raided Gay’s the Word in April 1984, seizing thousands of pounds worth of books, Cutbill was one of nine directors and employees who faced imprisonment. They were accused of importing and selling indecent or obscene literature - despite the fact that several of these works were held by libraries, including Senate House Library, and freely available to all. Christine de Pizan, Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Tennessee Williams, even Jean-Paul Sartre were some of the authors that the state suddenly deemed unsuitable for a book-buying public. The customs officers responsible for ‘Operation Tiger’, as it came to be known, “were ignorant of books, UK publishing and gays,” Cutbill later wrote. “The issue was really political.” After a long, hard-fought campaign, urged on by Cutbill, charges were eventually dropped.

QBTC GTW Archive

This episode in queer history was highlighted in Senate House Library’s 2018 exhibition Queer Between The Covers. At the beginning of 2020 came the exciting news that Cutbill’s entire, carefully catalogued and cross-referenced personal library - some 30,000 works dating from 1760 to the 2010s – had moved to its new home at Senate House Library, now one of the largest and richest collections of queer literature in the UK.

This year’s Holden Lecture, given by Dr Justin Bengry, Director of Goldsmiths’ Centre for Queer History, and organised by the Friends of Senate House Library, took the Cutbill collection as source and inspiration, pulling out just some of its volumes to examine more closely the mechanisms of queer publishing in the early part of the twentieth century. ‘Operation Tiger’ illustrates an uneasy relation between publishing, bookselling, and state censorship persisting into the 1980s. “I was always aware that we might eventually have serious customs problems”, Cutbill later admitted. But the highwire balancing act between the threat of prosecution and the promise of profit was a familiar, risky negotiation for authors, editors, publishers and booksellers in the preceding decades, too.

Papers from Cutbill's home library

A Phial of Prussic Acid

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