Skip over navigation
Ellis, Havelock (1859-1939)
by Allen, Renée


This object is available for public use. Individuals interested in reproducing this object in a publication, web site or for any commercial purpose must first receive written permission from the Brown University Library.

For further information, please contact:
Modernist Journals Project
Box 1597, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912
Robert_Scholes@brown.edu

Henry Havelock Ellis 1859-1939

Part-time midwife, literary critic, sexologist, psychologist, letter-writer.

Henry Havelock Ellis was the oldest child—by many years—in a family that eventually included four girls, only one of whom was he ever close to. His father was a ship master, so the sickly Ellis spent most of his childhood alone with his mother. As a child he went to French and German schools in England, and as a teenager he was sent to private boarding schools. At the age of seven he sailed around the world with his father. At sixteen, he set out on another world tour, but became too sick to go beyond Sydney. Ellis remained in Australia for four years, earning his living as a school teacher.

While in Australia, Ellis read Life in Nature by James Hinton (surgeon, philosopher, sex reformer) and was profoundly affected by it: he abandoned the Christianity of his youth for Hinton's religious vitalism and determined to become a doctor like Hinton in order to explain sexuality, a project that would become his life's work. Back in England, Ellis' enthusiasm for Hinton led Hinton's sister-in-law to help finance his education.

Throughout his life, Ellis sought to bring science and mysticism closer together. His major work in this vein, and also his best-selling book, was The Dance of Life (1923) . In it he promoted the constant development of the self through a variety of “arts,” including thinking, morals, and dance.

Ellis began his medical studies in 1880, but only graduated 1889 with the lowest possible medical degree, a Licentiate in Medicine, Surgery and Midwifery from the Society of Apothecaries. The only medical course Ellis excelled in was midwifery; this skill kept him employed during the summers. He practiced medicine for only a short while after receiving his degree and never opened his own practice, though he remained a member of the British Medical Association until his death.

Ellis did not test well, but his poor medical school performance was probably mostly due to the prodigious number of jobs he took or invented in order to pay for his courses. In 1880 he began writing articles on literary, philosophical, and social questions. In 1886 he proposed to Henry Vizetelly, English publisher of Flaubert and Zola, a series of unexpurgated Elizabethan dramas to be called the Mermaid Series. Ellis edited Marlowe's works himself, and met John Addington Symonds, with whom he would later collaborate on Sexual Inversion, and Arthur Symons, who would become a life-long friend and traveling companion, while looking for other editors. Ellis was dropped from the series in 1888 when the publisher changed. Ellis edited the first English collection of Ibsen that same year. In 1890 he published The New Spirit, a collection of literary essays, and went with Symons to Paris where they met many of the symbolist writers.

In 1889 Ellis had proposed The Contemporary Science Series to the Walter Scott company; this series continued successfully until World War I. Ellis' contributions to this series included Man and Woman (1894) The Criminal (1890) , based on the early criminology of Cesare Lombroso, whose Man of Genius, he translated in 1891. After the publication of Max Nordau's Degeneration (English trans. 1895), Ellis repudiated Lombroso's association of degeneration and genius and defended in his writings those artists accused of degeneration.

Ellis became the co-founder, with Percival Chubb, of the Fellowship of the New Life in late 1883. This society aimed at the moral perfection of its members. Almost immediately a sub-group split off to become the Fabian Society, because, in G. B. Shaw's words, some members felt “revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally attained perfection.” Ellis continued to attend Fellowship meetings, though he rarely contributed to them. It was through the Fellowship that Ellis eventually met both Edward Carpenter and Edith Lees, his future wife.

Ellis wrote to Olive Schreiner early in 1884 after reading The Story of an African Farm. They met after several months correspondence, already half in love with each other. Schreiner was quite disappointed by Ellis' physical appearance. Despite this setback, they became inseparable. They were extremely open with each other and discussed sex, especially masturbation, freely. They considered marriage, but never became engaged due, apparently, to sexual incompatibility. She was drawn to aggressive, even abusive, men; he was painfully shy and often impotent. Other women were drawn to Ellis and he had many lovers; however, most of those relationships, like that with Schreiner, seem not to have involved intercourse. During 1885 Ellis and Schreiner saw less and less of each other. She moved sporadically across Europe until 1889, when she returned to her native South Africa. Through all the changes in their relationship, they remained friends and wrote to each other on an almost-daily basis until Schreiner died in 1920.

Ellis first met Edith Lees in 1887, but they did not become close until 1890. Along with Ramsay MacDonald, Lees was co-secretary of the Fellowship; she also lectured on feminism and democracy. During 1890-91, they developed a strong and intimate friendship, something they believed to be more important to a long-term relationship than the sexual passion neither had for the other. Both objected to conventional marriage and thought alternatives to it needed to be found. Nevertheless, their friend Eleanor Marx' difficult common-law relationship convinced them to be legally married in 1891. They determined to remain financially independent and to maintain separate residences for part of every year. In fact, the half-year they lived together after their marriage was their longest period of cohabitation.

It is not clear how much Ellis knew of Lees' sexual history when they married, but, given that they had discussed sex in detail, it seems unlikely that he was unaware of her prior lesbian experiences, as he later claimed. Early in their marriage, both Ellis and Lees began having affairs with women. Despite their lack of attraction to each other, these affairs created jealousy on both sides. Yet they continued write to, rely on, work and, occasionally, live with each other, and always considered themselves married. Lees used Ellis' name throughout her married life.

Shortly after his marriage, Ellis began working his most important work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Originally, he expected to solve what he called the “problem of sex”; by the time he finished, he acknowledged that he had only learned which questions to ask. In 1892 he and Symonds agreed to write Sexual Inversion. Symonds sudden death in 1893 left Ellis to finish the book alone. Because English publishers were afraid to publish any material on homosexuality in the years following Oscar Wilde's trials, it was first published in 1896 in Germany as Das Konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (The Contrary Sexual Feeling). The first English version appeared the following year, but Symonds' literary executor insisted that his name and materials be removed. Though somewhat frustrated with this development, Ellis was also relieved since he feared that Symonds' homosexuality would detract from the book's scientific credentials. A new “first” edition, with Ellis as sole author, appeared later in 1897. In 1898 one George Bedborough was arrested and tried for selling a copy-mostly as a pretext for the police to arrest an anarchist.

Sexual Inversion was one of the first scientific books not to treat homosexuality as a pathological condition. Instead, it presented homosexuality as an innate disposition similar in most aspects to heterosexuality. Throughout the Studies, Ellis explained seeming perversions (including his own urolagnia) as forms of “erotic symbolism” that were mere variations on behaviors accepted as normal. Ellis' treatment of men and women in Sexual Inversion, however, was uneven. There were fewer case studies of female homosexuals than male (6 vs. 33), and, whereas he had actively undermined stereotypes about male homosexuals, he reinforced those about lesbians. This, too, anticipated his attitude in later volumes of the Studies. On the one hand, Ellis was revolutionary in insisting that women should enjoy sex and that cases of apparent frigidity were due to the failure to learn how to give women pleasure. On the other, he consistently represented women as passive beings whose ultimate fulfillment was in motherhood, even though he advocated birth-control.

The other volumes of the Studies covered such topics as “Sexual Selection in Man”, “Auto-Erotism” (a term coined by Ellis), and “The Mechanism of Detumescence.” Tumescence and detumescence were Ellis' terms for sexual arousal and release. Today Ellis is often considered as important to the development of sexual theory as Freud, and rather more liberal. Whereas Freud studied the sick and produced theories of how sexuality should function, Ellis studied the healthy and appealed for tolerance of the full range of ways sexuality did function. Freud and Ellis were respectful of each other, but rarely agreed. Freud even sent Ellis a picture of himself in one of their irregular letters. Despite their differences, they had similar conceptions of human activity as a closed system in which energy from one area, e.g. sex, might detract from or be sublimated into another, e.g. art. And like Freud, Ellis has recently come under attack from some feminists for his hostility to any form of feminism that denied the existence of essential differences between the sexes and for banalizing men's abuse of women as a simple variant of normal sexual behavior.

In 1907 Edith Lees began publishing novels, stories, and plays. Her works did not sell well or receive much critical approval, and she became jealous of Ellis' modest success. Eventually, this jealousy, and the stress of their unusual marital arrangements, made the manic-depression she had suffered for years worse. In 1914, shortly after learning she had diabetes, Lees left for a lecture tour in America. A second American tour, after the war broke out, left her physically very sick. The combined mental and physical illnesses made her unstable and at times suicidal for the last years of her life. In 1916 she demanded a legal separation from Ellis, but died in September, before it could be finalized.

Late in 1914 Ellis met Margaret Sanger, who was in Europe avoiding a possible prison sentence in the US. They quickly became lovers and their enduring friendship eventually contributed to Ellis' fame. From 1919 onward, Sanger, now back in the States, devoted the February issue of The Birth Control Review to Ellis, thereby introducing him to a wide audience in America. By 1930 Ellis was so well known that newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst asked him to write a weekly column. “My Mail Bag” ran for five years, until Hearst dropped it without warning.

The year after Lees had died, Françoise Lafitte, a Frenchwoman Lees had hired to translate one of her novels, contacted Ellis in hopes of being paid at least in part for her work (despite their financial independence, Ellis took responsibility for Lees' debts when she died). Although thirty years apart in age, Ellis and Lafitte were immediately drawn to one another. He resisted her romantic overtures for some while, but acquiesced once it was clear the she expected neither marriage nor monogamy. Eventually she moved in and lived with him until his death. She even changed her name to Delisle, an anagram of Ellis. She also claimed to have restored his virility.

In 1920, Ellis traveled to Greece with H.D. and Bryher, whom he had met the previous year when they came to him for psychological help. He returned alone, however, after deciding that they were too indecisive for him. H.D. later brought Ellis the message that Freud wanted to meet him, but Ellis demurred.

In 1928 Ellis began corresponding with Radclyffe Hall after referring a case of female homosexuality to her. Ellis' foreword to The Well of Loneliness may have been a deliberate exception to his usual rule against such public endorsements or the result of a miscommunication about a letter written to Hall. Either way, he refused to testify at her trial, arguing that he would do more harm than good since his own books had been considered lewd.

Ellis died in 1939, after suffering from a mysterious inability to eat for several years. Several of his friends considered the illness psychological. One doctor diagnosed a pouch in the throat, but Françoise refused to listen to him. The illness caused Ellis such pain that he had planned a suicide with Françoise's help, but there is no evidence the plan was carried out. My Life, the autobiography Ellis had begun in 1899 and mostly completed immediately after Lees died, was published shortly after his death.

For contributions by or regarding Ellis in The New Age, you may want to begin your search in volumes 2 and, and in the “Sex and Supermen” discussions in the “Letters” section of volumes 8 and 9.

—Renée Allen

Sources

  • Brome, Vincent. Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Sex, A Biography. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
  • Grosskurth, Phyllis. Havelock Ellis: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1980.
  • Jackson, Margaret. "Eroticizing Women's Oppression: Havelock Ellis and the Construction of the 'Natural'" in The Real Fact of Life: Feminism and the Politics of Sexuality c. 1850-1940. UK: Taylor and Francis, 1994. 106-128.
  • Robinson, Paul. "Havelock Ellis." The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. 1-41.

Selected Works by Ellis

  • The Nationalization of Health (1892)
  • Sexual Inversion (1897; originally vol. 1 of Studies in the Psychology of Sex, renumbered as vol. 2 from the second edition)
  • Studies in the Psychology of Sex (vols. 1-6, 1897-1910; vol. 7, 1928)
  • A Study of British Genius (1904)
  • The Task of social Hygiene (1912)
  • Impressions and Comments (three series, 1914, 1921, 1924)
  • The Erotic Rights of Women (1918)
  • Kanga Creek: An Australian Idyll (1922)
  • The Dance of Life (1923)
  • From Rousseau to Proust (1935)
  • My Life: Autobiography of Havelock Ellis (1939, posthumous)
    Retrieve Images