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Despised and Rejected

by Rose Allatini
Persephone book no:

125 126 127

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263167

The wonderfully titled Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini is everything we would like a Persephone book to be. It is by a forgotten writer who deserves to be revived, as well as having a number of strong themes: opposition to war, acceptance of homosexuality, tolerance of others, awareness that ‘it is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple, one must be woman-manly or man-womanly’ (Virginia Woolf's A Room of One’s Own). It is also a very well-written novel, and a page-turner.

The book begins deceptively as light social comedy (one reason it is not better known): in July 1914 a family gathers at a holiday hotel in Devon. There is a dominant father and a socially ambitious mother who adores her son Dennis. When he arrives it is at once clear to the reader why he does not fit in with his smugly conventional family. Then, with the outbreak of war, the tone of the book changes: it focuses on Dennis’s refusal to fight, indeed on his abhorrence of violence; his falling in love with Alan; and his close friendship with Antoinette, who has not realised she is lesbian but is unabashed when she does. Dennis, however, is in agony about being ‘a musical man’ (slang for being gay): ‘Abnormal – perverted – against nature – he could hear the epithets that would be hurled against him. But what had nature been about, in giving him the soul of a woman in the body of a man?’ Although both AC Benson's Memoirs of Arthur Hamilton (1886) and Rose Macauley's The Lee Shore (1912) have a claim to being among Britain's first gay novels, Despised and Rejected is the first where surely very few readers could fail to get the message.

Running through all this is the background of the war. At first everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Then there were the horrors of 1915. And then conscription started. Month by month one sees what happens to Dennis and the other COs (conscientious objectors) he knows. Rose Allatini had written three romantic novels when she wrote Despised and Rejected in 1918. It was published by Charles Daniel entirely because of its pacifist stance (CWD, as he was always known, had already spent two months in prison because of an anti-war pamphlet). The book appeared on May 22nd 1918, had a polite review in the TLS on June 5th (‘a well-written novel – evidently the work of a woman – on the subjects of pacifism and of abnormality in the affections’) and sold 800 copies over the summer.

But then, in September of the same year, the remaining 200 copies were seized and destroyed. The two-day trial that followed was a foregone conclusion, the report in The Times on October 11th (on this page) declaring that the book was ‘likely to prejudice the recruiting, training, and discipline of persons in his Majesty’s forces.’ The judge, Sir Charles Wakefield, said that the question of whether the book was obscene was not before him, but he described it as ‘morally unhealthy and most pernicious’. But it is worth remembering that the book was banned for pacifism, rather than obscenity. 

Despised and Rejected was very much ahead of its time in its depiction of gay love and desire, in Antoinette’s ‘crushes’ and slow acceptance that she won’t be able to be in love with a man, in its honest attitude to the war. And it is a book that longs for Britain and Europe to be united. Dennis sees that ‘the roads and railways that had been made throughout Europe to connect one country with another had been torn up to form frontiers and sever the connection.’ He wishes that ‘the barriers of racial hatred and racial envy be swept away; art and civilisation arise once more in place of murder and barbarity.’ Despised and Rejected is brave; and it is balanced, generous, sane and civilised.

For more on Despised and Rejected, have a look at the Persephone Perspective.


The endpapers are taken from 'Lines of Crescents', a printed silk designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for William Foxton, London 1918 © V&A Images

Picture Caption

A facsimile of The Times from October 1918 in which the trial was reported.
The first 1000 copies of Despised & Rejected came wrapped in a copy of this page.

Read What Readers Say

ynott59 via Instagram

I found the struggles of the two main characters to come to terms with their sexuality sensitively portrayed and compelling. I sense the author was drawing on deep wells of personal pain, and gay experience is described openly without remorse to euphemism and allusion - rare indeed for this time.

theweimarrepublic via Instagram

‘Despised and Rejected’ is commonly referred to as a landmark in gay literature, but for me its strong pacifist stance was the overriding theme… An excellent read, both as a story and as a fascinating insight into life in this troubled time.

areadershome via Instagram

I read ‘Despised and Rejected’ for my book club, and I really wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did - it is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story about pacifism, being gay in the early 1900s, and duty. After we had our discussion for this book, I had an instant urge to re-read it…

Categories: Gay and Lesbian History Love Story Men (books about) Politics Sex WWI

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