"Unpleasant and ugly both in narration and incident:" the troubled legal history of James Hanley's Boy 

Joseph Pridmore 


James Hanley's 1931 novel Boy is almost unique among 1930s working-class writing for one reason: it is relatively well-known. Of all the books discussed in my thesis, Boy is arguably the only one that an uninitiated reader might have heard of, and would be able to place an author for. Those who do not know that Moon in the River was written by Jim Phelan, or that Laugh at Polonius; or, Yet There is Woman is a novel by Jack Hilton, are still fairly likely to know that James Hanley wrote Boy. Even among readers who have heard of other works by Hanley, Boy is still generally the most widely recognised. But it's not well-known for the perceived quality of its content, as is the case with other works by Hanley such as the Furys Chronicle (1935-1958), which was his largest and most ambitious project, and his acclaimed later books including The Closed Harbour (1952) and A Woman in the Sky (1973). Rather, Boy's fame is because of controversies that have surrounded the novel since the decade of its publication, and which are, for the most part, undeserved.

As most readers will already be aware, Boy was banned as an obscene publication supposedly for its portrayal of homosexuality that was unacceptable by the standards of the thirties. Some may also recall media coverage of the long-awaited and brave 1990 reprint of the book by Andre Deutsch; brave owing to the recentness of the 1988 Local Government Act, with its notorious clause 28 which ruled against "promot[ing] the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."[1] But the actual details of the legal complaint brought against Boy, and the trial that followed, will probably be surprising to many readers. Long-drawn-out scandals are inevitably subject to misreporting and distortion by the media, and the case of Boy, which spans over half a century, has now been so frequently discussed that it becomes hard to find reliable descriptions of it anywhere. The aim of this paper, then, is to give an accurate account of the legal ramifications that have dogged Boy, in the spirit of setting the record straight, and hopefully to dispel a number of myths that have grown up around the novel.

Boy was Mauley's fourth published book. It tells the disturbing tale of Arthur Fearon, a working-class thirteen-year-old from Liverpool who is taken out of school by his violent, abusive father and forced into a hard manual job on a docked ship. The frail Fearon is brought close to physical and emotional collapse by a single day of this, and. disgusted by the behaviour of the boys he works with and tired of the brutal beatings he endures at home, stows away that night on a ship called The Hernian. After several days at sea a crewman finds him hiding in a coal-bunker, half-dead, and he is resuscitated. The sailors treat Fearon like a slave, verbally and physically abuse him, make sexual advances upon his person, and even commit one full rape. But the experiences do not destroy Fearon; he is keen to learn and be accepted, and on the unexpected death of the lookout he is promoted to the rank of ordinary seaman by the captain. He also makes friends among the crew, but when the ship arrives at Alexandria one of them takes Fearon to a brothel where the boy's adolescent sexuality is aroused for the first time in an encounter with a young prostitute. The next evening he sneaks ashore, meets another girl and contracts syphilis. The Hernian leaves port and Fearon's condition steadily worsens, until, racked with the death-agony of his illness, he is smothered in a mercy killing by the drunken captain.

Some readers have assumed that the horrors Boy depicts were experienced first-hand by the author, although there is no evidence for this; indeed, Hanley's son Liam remembers his father laughing at such suggestions and dismissing them as "silly."[2] But the book is not without autobiographical elements: Hanley did embark on his first sea voyage when he was the same age as Fearon, although that ship was bound for the United States rather than the Middle East, and unlike the principal character of Boy Hanley actively wanted to leave school early and looked forward to taking up shipboard work. Some of the events of Fearon's journey, such as the details of his day-to-day duties and the death of a sailor after a few days, resonate closely with the account Hanley gives of his own maiden trip in his autobiography, Broken Water (1937). Furthermore, in the essay 'Oddfish' (published in Don Quixote Drowned, 1953), Hanley recalls that the novel's ending was inspired by a conversation between a group of sailors that he overheard and was horrified by, some years later in his shipboard career:

“Captain L. Surely you have heard of Captain L?"
“Even if I didn't, what about him?”
"Say he did away with one of his crew.”


“Smothered him, they say. Mercy killing, like cancer, you know.”
Boy with cancer?"
“Not exactly, but something he didn't like."
“What then?"
“Logged as drowned. However, sailors sometimes talk."
“They often do."   
“Quite seriously, though, this kid ran amok in the wrong places."
"Was L. drunk?"
"They say he dropped off in Karachi, not been seen since."[3]

Boy was first released in a print run of just 145 copies for sale to private subscribers only, with a further 15 for display purposes, by C. J. Greenwood's now-defunct publishing house Boriswood. Hanley's relationship with these publishers was stormy, and in May 1934 he broke with his contract following a series of disagreements.[4] This seems to have been a wise decision, and the only regrettable part is that Hanley gave Boriswood the rights to Boy in the first place. Because at the heart of the matter, the controversy that was later to surround the novel seems to have originated in these publishers trying to make Hanley's work appear more scurrilous, more explicit and more sordid than it was. The affair bears comparison with the treatment Hanley received at the hands of the American publishing house Black Hawk Press, who did their best to give the impression he was a writer of pulp pornography. Their 1935 pirate edition of A Passion Before Death, Hanley's thoughtful short story of 1930 dealing with imprisonment, capital punishment, desire and gay sexuality, was printed on rough unfinished paper and embellished with John Gram's illustrations of snakes and nude women draped over human skulls, and, inexplicably, one of a naked man lying on a prison cell floor with two nude women standing over him. There is a male prisoner and a cell in A Passion Before Death, but no skulls, or snakes, or indeed any women.

In the treatment Boy received from Boriswood, a similar, albeit more subtle process seems to have been at work. The success of the first printing prompted the publishers to release a trade edition later in 1931, but it was heavily expurgated: words and even whole paragraphs from Hanley's original text were replaced by asterisks on 52 of its 263 pages. Of course, expurgation was common practice in the censorious 1930s for any novel that contained material thought likely to cause offence, and a story privately published at that time was able to bypass unfavourable attention from the law in ways that a trade edition could not expect to. Three other works released by Hanley in the early thirties—A Passion Before Death and The German Prisoner, both 1930, and Resurrexit Dominus, begun at the same time as Boy but not published until 1934—were privately published because they, like Boy, contained strong language and dealt with matters of gender and sexuality in an unconventional way. Boy is Hanley's only book that began as a privately-printed first edition and was later made available to the general public, and under the circumstances it's not unreasonable to suppose that a publisher would have wanted to make changes to its original text.

However, when one examines the exact nature of Boriswood's expurgations, one can't help agreeing with both Frank G. Harrington and Anthony Burgess, who contend that the editing work "made the text seem more candid, or scabrous, than it was."[6] Asterisking-out such words as "bugger" and "shit" is understandable, but other aspects of the novel that might have been thought unacceptable are not articulated by Hanley in a manner that can be excised through this sort of editing. Boy contains no explicit descriptions of male genitals or sexual congress in the style of, say, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). Indeed, Hanley's language during the sex scenes—and there are only three of these—often appears deliberately coy and evasive. When Fearon is raped by The Hernian 's steward in chapter six, the narrative shifts to a description of the raging sea outside while the abuse is taking place, and Hanley resorts to abstract surrealist prose during the Alexandrian sex scenes of chapters ten and twelve. At one point the phrase "the girl had caught hold of something he possessed"[7] is used to avoid a direct reference to the penis, and, even more quaintly, "philosophic centre"[8] is substituted for "vagina" later on. The only effect of replacing such language with lines of asterisks is to make it appear that something much worse was there beforehand than was actually the case. Indeed, given that such harmless sexual euphemisms as "did it” and "piece of tail" are among the censored phrases, and that at one point "he tickled him" is asterisked out, one can perhaps assume that this was Boriswood's intention.

In 1932 an American copy of Boy was released by Alfred A. Knopf, also with changes made to the text of the original limited edition, but this time rewriting the offending parts rather than using asterisks. Four lengthy passages, the most heavily-expurgated in Boriswood's trade edition, are replaced with somewhat lighter and more poetic prose than in the original limited edition, and the other changes consist mostly of Americanising the sailors' slang—"dame" and "feller" are added, for example—and the substitution of milder alternatives for Hanley's original profanities. The word "bugger," is replaced with "bastard" on practically every instance of its use, suggesting perhaps an attempt to downplay the novel's homoerotic overtones, but all the same the American copy seems much closer to Hanley's original vision than the expurgated Boriswood trade edition, if only because it does not give the overwhelming impression that Boy contains dirty secrets that need to be hidden. Knopf s approach seems to me a much more sensible way of preparing a novel like Boy for general availability, and it was released without incident in the States.[9]

The now-famous court case against Boy began in November 1934 and culminated with the trial in March 1935, three years after the book's publication, by which time it had reached its fourth edition. It's important to note, then, that three editions of the novel had already been released, and none of them had attracted any adverse attention. Even the first trade edition had gone unnoticed by the censors; John Fordham may be correct to note that "its thorough expurgation had virtually guaranteed freedom from any unwanted scrutiny,"110 whatever intent may have lain behind Boriswood's editing strategy. The fourth edition, released in May 1934, was unexpurgated, so yes, it was the first such copy to be sold in bookshops. But whatever changes the trade edition and American version made to the original limited edition, the essential plot and content of Boy remain the same in all three. Whichever version one reads is still a novel about shipboard homosexuality, in which a male rape occurs and sailors make sexual advances towards a thirteen-year-old boy on three other occasions. My point in making all this clear is to argue that today's received view, that Boy was banned simply because it contained gay elements, cannot reasonably be taken seriously. There's surely enough here to see that the objections to Hanley's novel that did arise cannot have been based on its content alone.         

If the account given by James Hanley's son Liam is accurate, then this would seem to have been very much the case. Though he doesn't name the parties who brought the 1934 edition of Boy to the attention of the police, he states that they were "a Lancashire taxi driver, who borrowed the book from a library, and his wife who read only the blurb and took it to the police at Bury."[11] This clashes slightly with the account given in the Manchester Guardian, which states that the Bury police learned of Boy "when they heard that the book was being discussed in the clubs in town."[12] But whichever tale is more accurate, one only has to look at a copy of the 1934 edition of Boy to see how swift judgments, like the one made by Liam Hanley's taxi driver's wife, might have been made by those who had not read the novel. With its low price tag, its cover depicting a topless exotic dancer being ogled by crowds of men in a shadowy club, and the extracts from some of the book's most scurrilous reviews that Boiswood had seen fit to print inside, it resembles nothing so much as a cheap pornographic book. Ironically, nothing about the cover suggests that the novel contains any homosexual overtones, despite the fact that the illustration on the front seems to have had much to do with the court case that was to earn Boy its reputation as a controversial gay novel.

The Bury branch of the National Lending Library on Market Street, which had put the book out on loan in the first place, was raided in late November 1934 and all its copies of Boy were confiscated. [13] Boriswood was forced to withdraw sales of the novel as of January 1935, after selling just over 1500 copies during the seven months in which it was available. C, J. Greenwood, along with his fellow Boriswood directors Terence Thornton Bond and John Robert Turner Morris, and also George Franks, proprietor of the library, were ordered to court.[14] They were to be prosecuted under the common law, on a criminal charge of "aiding and abetting [a public library] in the commission of a misdemeanour...that is to say unlawfully to let out on hire.,. obscene libel in the form of a book entitled Boy against the peace of our Lord the King, his crown and dignity."'[15] No mention was made of the writer of the book itself, and as Hanley was also no longer contracted to Boriswood by this time, he was not summonsed.

So at Manchester Assizes on the twentieth of March 1935, the four defendants were brought before a Mr. Justice Parsons. Their plea was guilty; this was under the advisement of their counsel, who pointed out that owing to Boy's treatment of "intimacy between members of the same sex...no Bench in the country would hesitate to designate the said work as 'obscene'” [16] and a Lancashire jury was likely to recommend a prison sentence were they to plead innocent. "The jury will probably consider that it is its duty to vindicate at least the honour of Lancashire,"[17] the defendants were told. However, despite this concern over the novel's homosexual elements, it still seems that its cover, and not its content, was the primary concern. The Manchester Guardian reports that the prosecuting solicitor, Mr. Jessel Ryecroft, "suggested that the cover of the book and extracts from reviews just inside were most suggestive, and that their purpose was to pollute young people's minds."[18] It's interesting too that when library proprietor George Franks' defence attorney, Mr. P. Butlin, attempted to argue that his client's case "was only a technical offence, as unwittingly he had been the agent in distributing the book," he was told that Franks could not be acquitted "because he was responsible for ordering the books, and the cover was some indication of the contents."'[19] Again, it's hard to see how that particular cover can be associated with Boy as a novel with a homoerotic theme.

The Boriswood directors' defence, Mr. J Lustgarten, attempted to vindicate Hanley and his novel by stating that "The author was a novelist of distinction in the view of critics who counted," and that while "the book dealt with unsavoury matter...apart from one or two passages, one could not say that the intention or effect of the book was to spread immorality." He also reminded the jury that Boy had been through three print runs without causing controversy, and stated that "in the view of praise the book had received the defendants were not unjustified in accepting it as a work of literary distinction."[20] But the defence seems to have had little effect on Justice Parsons. He declared that "since the prisoners have pleaded guilty there can be no question of imprisonment,"[21] but proceeded to fine each of the four men £50 and added a further £250 fine to Boriswood as a company [22] For a fledgling publisher in 1935, a total charge of £400 was sufficient to bring about near-bankruptcy. Justice Parsons closed by stating that "It is not for me to discuss the question as to whether there has been an obscene libel or not, but I have my own strong views about it.”

Once it had been decided that Boy was an obscene publication, a predictable upsurge of moral condemnation ensued from high-minded individuals horrified by such a blow to common taste and decency. One reader declared "the book was so bad that he dare not take it home," while another believed "the book ought to be burned."[24] This one had his wish soon afterwards, for on October the Third 1935 a further 99 copies of Boy were seized by police and destroyed, along with twelve of the 500 copies made of The German Prisoner.[25] The novelist Sir Hugh Walpole, who publicly ripped up a copy of Boy in a bookshop, declared "It is so unpleasant and ugly, both in narration and incident, that I wonder the printers did not go on strike while they were printing it."[26]

The literary left of the thirties, though, had their own strong views about the matter. Censorship at the time of the case against Boy was truly out of control; Jack Lindsay remarked decades later that "Those who did not live through the period would find it hard to realize the oppressive atmosphere or to understand the power wielded by windy neurotics." [27] Aside from Lady Chatterley, other books that had recently been banned as obscene publications included The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (in 1928, the same year as Lawrence's work), Norah James’ The Sleeveless Errand (1929), Bessie Cotter by Wallace Smith (1935), and Lawrence's poetry collection Pansies, the manuscripts of which were seized in the mail in 1928 before the book even had a chance to be published. For the writers of Left Review, the case against Boy was symptomatic of "a new phase of 'Jix' censorship:"[28] "Jix" after Sir William Joyson-Hicks, Home Secretary from 1924 to 1929, a devoutly religious man obsessed with defending the morals of Britain, and who was responsible for banning most of the books listed above.

T. E. Lawrence, who had written to Hanley saying "Parts of Boy are very painful, but I think your sanity and wholesomeness stick out of your books a mile high,"[30] said the case against Boy "seems to me monstrous. To say that every publisher is at the discretion of any Police Chief at any time... why, it makes publication almost an impossibility." [31] Lawrence also sympathised with C. J. Greenwood over the fines imposed upon his company, and mentioned to K. W. Marshall of Boriswood that "If you can find out who at Bury initiated the prosecution, and send me his name and address, I will try and get him sent from Paris, by post, a regular supply of some really indecent literature: something that will show him the difference between pornography and works of art."[32] And E. M. Forster, at the International Congress of Writers in Paris, 1935, gave the following speech which Anthony Burgess describes as an "eloquent endorsement of the book and [a] fierce denunciation of official squeamishness:"[33]

Boy was published nearly four years ago and went into no less than four editions before it attracted the wrath of the authorities. It had been discussed, praised, blamed and generally accepted as a serious and painful work, whose moral, if it had one, was definitely on the side of chastity and virtue...One assumed that Boy had, so to speak, passed into our literary heritage, where it would remain for posterity to consider and finally asses. Then, like a bolt from the blue, the publishers were summoned by the Lancashire police, because they had "published a libel."[34]

But in spite of this outcry from respected figures in the literary world, Boy remained banned from 1935 to 1991, with the exception of two reprints by Jack Kahane's Paris-based Obelisk Press (in 1936 and 1946) from which Hanley did not receive a penny in royalties.[35] The effect of such a legal case so early in the career of an up-and-coming author was devastating, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. Hanley's strongly Catholic family were horrified by the incident,'[36] and as John Fordham notes, Hanley himself was outraged by "the publishers' 'sheer greed' in issuing his novel in such a provocative format in the first place, and at their betrayal of professional integrity in their admission of guilt."[37] But the indignity would seem to have severely affected Hanley's professional confidence too. He refused to speak of Boy for years afterwards and turned down all publishers' requests for a reprint: although Horizon came close to securing the rights to a fiftieth anniversary edition around 1981, Hanley backed out at the last minute and there was to be no new release of Boy in his lifetime.[38] In the essay 'Oddfish' quoted earlier he is quite scathing about the novel, calling it "shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings,"[39] and claiming it was a rushed job produced in just ten days. (This is, as Fordham points out, not the case; Boy was in the planning stages at least as early as 1930, one year before its publication.)[40] But the trial of Boy also put a stop to the truly innovative experiments with gender and sexuality that make Hanley's early works such as The German Prisoner and A Passion Before Death so exciting. After 1935 Hanley turned his attention to more archetypal proletarian writing without the daring homoerotic elements that had featured in his output before then. Dull, formulaic love stories like Stoker Bush (1935), reportage books such as Grey Children (1937) and the overlong and over-rated family drama that is The Furys Chronicle are the products of Hanley's insecurity about writing books that might have been received in the same way that the 1934 edition of Boy was.

Here perhaps we see just how much wrong can come of the sort of paranoid literary censoriousness that characterised the 1930s. Boy is, as Ken Worpole puts it, "a truly disturbing novel;"[41] it is, in the words of Edward Stokes, "horrifying and dreadful... sordid and horrible,"[42] and it is, to quote Frank G. Harrington, "a gruesome story of the fate of an inarticulate victim."[43] But because the law could see no purpose to the horrors it portrayed other than to lead the country into moral ruin, the creative development of a writer who may have had much more to say on this subject was abruptly curtailed and altered. It's only with hindsight now that we can see that Hanley's works of the early thirties were the best he ever produced. This is not to downplay the quality of his writing produced after the trial some of which is excellent. It's merely to illustrate that, had it not been for the intolerant spirit of the time in which he worked, the writing of James Hanley might have taken a very different course, and Boy would be recognised not for the reasons it is today, but for its inherent quality as a bold and powerful work of 1930s English literature.



1. Details 1988 Local Government Act courtesy of http://www.hmso.gov.org.

2. Liam Hanley "Foreword”., in James Hanley, Boy, 1931; rpt. Bury St. Edmunds: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1990, p. xv. 4

3 James Hanley, Don Quixote Drowned, London: Macdonald, 1953, pp. 50-1.

4. John Fordham, James Hanley, Modernism and the Working Class, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002, p. 145.

5. I am greatly indebted in this discussion to Mr. Arthur Uphill of the Bertram Rota Staff, who in the early 1970s compiled a tabulation of all the textual differences between the first three editions of Boy. Photocopies of his work are available on request from Bertram Rota at their Co vent Garden address.

6. Anthony Burgess, 'Introduction', in Hanley, 1990, p. ix.

7 James Hanley, 1990, p. 138. ;

8. James Hanley, 1990, p. 161.

9. Frank G. Harrington, James Hanley: A Bold and Unique Solitary, Francestown: Typographeum, 1989, p. 28. 10.Fordham,p. 146.

11 Liam Hanley, p. xvi.

12. Manchester Guardian, 21 March 1935.

13.Fordham,p. 145.

14. Manchester Guardian, 21st March 1935.

15. Alan Bush, 'Against the Peace of Our Lord the King', in Left Review 1:8 (May 1935), p. 330.

16. Fordham. p. 146.

17. Bush, p. 330.

18. Manchester Guardian, 21  March 1935.

19. Manchester Guardian, 21 March 1935.

20. Manchester Guardian, 21 March 1935.

21. Bush, p. 330.

22. Manchester Guardian, 21  March 1935.

23. ManchesterGuardian, 21 March 1935.

24. Manchester Guardian, 21  March 1935.

25. Daily Mail, 3  October 1935, in Harrington, p. 29.

26.Burgess, pp. ix-x.

27 Jack Lindsay, Fanfrolico and After, London: The Bodley Head, 1962, p. 119 Fordham,p. 270.

28. Bush,p.330.

29. Fordham p253

30. T. E. Lawrence The Letters of T E. Lawrence, ed. David Garnett, London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, p. 729

31. Lawrence p864

32. Lawrence p848

33. Burgess p x

34.Harrington, pp. 28-9.

35.Fordham, p. 146.

36 Burgess, p. x

37. Fordham, p. 146.

38. Harrington. p30.

39. James Hanley, 1953, p. 53.

40.Fordham, p. 257.

41.Ken Worpole, Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading, Popular Writing, London. Verso Editions, 1983, p. 82.

42 Edward Stokes, The Novels of James Hanley, Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1964, p. 28.

43.Harrington, p. 28.



Bush, Alan. 'Against the Peace of Our Lord the King', in Left Review 1:8 (May 1935), p. 330.

Daily Mail, 3rd October 1935.

Fordham, John. James Hanley, Modernism and the Working Class, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002.

Gibbs, Linnea. James Hanley: A Bibliography, Vancouver: William Hoffer, 1980.

Hanley, James. Boy, 1931; rpt Bury St. Edmunds: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1990.

Hanley, James. Don Quixote Drowned, London: Macdonald, 1953.

Harrington, Frank G. James Hanley: A Bold and Unique Solitary, Francestown: Typographeum, 1989.

http://www. hmso.gov. org

Lawrence, T. E. The Letters of T. E. Lawrence, ed. David Garnett, London: Jonathan Cape, 1938.

Lindsay, Jack. Fanfrolico and After, London: The Bodley Head, 1962,

Manchester Guardian, 21st March 1935.

Stokes, Edward The Novels of James Hanley, Melbourne. F. W. Cheshire,


Worpole, Ken. Dockers and Detectives: Popular Reading, Popular Writing, London: Verso Editions, 1983.