When we think of banned books in interwar Britain, it’s likely that two examples spring to mind: D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) and Radclyffe Halls’ The Well of Loneliness (1928). Lawrence’s book, however, was not actually banned in Britain at the time of its publication. Rather, the book’s frank treatment of extramarital sex meant that Lawrence was not able to find a commercial publisher for it. Instead the book was printed in limited runs for private subscribers; and later, a censored, abridged version of the novel was circulated more widely. Chatterley’s reputation as ‘banned’ actually stems from the 1960 obscenity trial that was started when Penguin decided to print the full, unabridged version of the novel for the mass market. Penguin won the landmark case from the government and the book has been available in its full form ever since.
The Well of Loneliness did get banned, but not until after it was released on the market. The book was published in July 1928; an obscenity trial was convened in November of the same year. The book’s description of lesbian (sexual) relationships was judged obscene and likely to corrupt readers’ minds; it was subsequently withdrawn from the British market but remained available through copies printed in Paris. The novel was re-printed in 1949 without incurring a further trial and it has been in print ever since.
There was, however, a third book at the end of the 1920s which fell victim to an obscenity trial. Unlike the two more famous examples cited above, Norah C James’s novel Sleeveless Errand was suppressed before it was even properly published. The book was printed and distributed to reviewers and bookshops in February 1929. The reviewer of the Morning Post was so alarmed by the novel’s contents, that he alerted the Home Office, who promptly moved to confiscate all distributed copies. The police went as far as visiting reviewers who had received a copy of the book, at home, and demand they hand their copies over. This decisive action meant that not a single copy of the book remained in circulation in Britain when a magistrate officially confirmed its status as ‘obscene’ in March 1929.
Like The Well of Loneliness, Sleeveless Errand was subsequently published in English through a French publishing house; but it has never been re-published by an British press. The copy in the British Library is one of the ‘French’ copies, the preface of which draws parallels with Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, which had been published in 1926 and was not considered obscene despite dealing with similar themes as Sleeveless Errand.
For all the noise around the novel’s supposed obscenity, what exactly is it about its contents that was considered so objectionable? Sleeveless Errand follows Paula and Bill, two young Londoners, over the period of around 36 hours. At the start of the novel, Paula is dumped by her lover Philip. They are not married, but have clearly had regular sex, which the novel does not condemn. After the break-up, Paula goes to a Lyons Corner House where she contemplates suicide. Bill happens to be put on the same table as her; he’s just walked in to his wife and his best friend in bed together, so he is also feeling very depressed.
The pair meet each other in their mutual low moods and Paula takes Bill to some of her regular night haunts, where they meet a group of Paula’s friends who drink and swear liberally. Eventually, Bill stays the night in Paula’s flat and they tell each other about their childhoods. The next morning Paula settles a will and the couple hire a car, with the plan to drive off a cliff near Brighton. On the way south they run into various other delays, which lead them to postpone the suicide until the next morning.
At night in their hotel, Paula gives Bill a firm talking-to and tells him he should go back to his wife and make amends; in Paula’s view, Bill’s wife’s infidelity is not an insurmountable hurdle as he still loves her. Bill agrees to go back and patch up his marriage. The novel ends with Paula driving up to the intended cliff-top and very calmly and deliberately driving the car off the cliff at sunrise.
Newspaper articles reporting on the magistrate court hearing that banned Sleeveless Errand drew attention to the novel’s language: ‘Specifically, the prosecution protested that the book took the name of God or Christ in vain over 60 times, as in the line, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink.”’ Ostensibly then, it is the novel’s language that led to its suppression. One may also consider the liberal discussions about sex, including Paula’s explicit affair at the novel’s opening and her views on monogamy: “It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world because a woman has intercourse with a man who’s not her husband.”
Additionally, descriptions of the activities Paula and her friends get up to in nightclubs are decidedly seedy: “By now, nearly all the couples were sitting about the room embracing. Rathbone was what Hudson called “dry cleaning” a large good-looking girl whose name was Letty. She was the Haunt whore.” According to Christine Grandy, heroes in interwar fiction “were distinguished by their fulfilment of the independent male breadwinner role, while the deviancy of the villain’s character lay in his inability or unwillingness to work for his wealth.” None of the characters in Sleeveless Errand come anywhere near this hero template; Paula and her friends all appear to be independently wealthy and happy to drink their days away, and Bill has decided to abandon his breadwinner duties.
But Sleeveless Errand goes one step further. Not only do none of the characters conform to the pervasive discourse present in interwar fiction that presented contributing members of society as ‘good’; it argues that the post-War generation is fundamentally unable to contribute to society and that suicide is the moral choice. Throughout the novel, Paula repeatedly refers to the condition of her generation, those who came of age immediately after the end of the First World War.
[M]y generation of women is rotten to the core. Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless.
This is the horror at the core of Sleeveless Errand. Rather than celebrating the end of the war and the upward mobility allowed by modernity, white-collar jobs, suburbs and automobiles, instead it maintains that the war has ruined the mental health of the young women. Those women, who are pivotal to the continuation of British culture by settling into their roles as wives and mothers, are ‘rotten’ and unable to fulfil their duties to society. Instead, Paula uses that symbol of modernity and progress, the automobile, to engage in the most subversive act of all. It is the rational, considered approach to suicide, which Paula commits to calmly and unwaveringly, that emblematizes the book’s dangerous potential. At a time when suicide was usually recorded as occurring ‘while of unsound mind’, Sleeveless Errand dares to raise the possibility that the act can be a well-thought out, even responsible, choice. Allowing women to entertain that possibility could have affected the foundations of interwar British society beyond repair. Seen in that light, the Home Office’s swift and decisive oppression of the work becomes understandable.
 Christopher Hilliard, ‘“Is It a Book That You Would Even Wish Your Wife or Your Servants to Read?” Obscenity Law and the Politics of Reading in Modern England’, American Historical Review 118:3 (2013), 653-678, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/118.3.653
 Bill Harrison, ‘Censors, critics, and the suppression of Norah James’s Sleeveless Errand.’ Atenea, 3:1-2 (2013) 23-41 (25)
 Ibid., 26
 Norah C James, Sleeveless Errand (Paris: Henry Babon & Jack Kahane, 1929), p. 54
 Ibid., p. 66
 Christine Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: class, gender, and nation in popular film and fiction in interwar Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), p. 3
 James, Sleeveless Errand, pp. 204-5