• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Sage of Sex

Havelock Ellis: A Biography

by Phyllis Grosskurth
Knopf, 492 pp., $16.95

I thought you were going to capture the essential Havelock,” wrote a disappointed admirer to Phyllis Grosskurth, who had shown her a chapter of this biography in draft. But even after she had read well over twenty thousand letters in the archives belonging to Havelock Ellis’s adopted son, hundreds more in four other private collections and in fifty-one libraries, together with the fifty odd volumes, two hundred articles and reviews, and thirty-five introductions and editions which he wrote, le sage de Brixton remained as elusive as the South London borough where he lived is featureless.

Was he a noble monument of Victorian integrity or a fraudulent old satyr? Did he make a contribution to science or write misty metaphysics? Did he liberate and make us more aware of what we are or does his analysis of sex inhibit and imprison us? Was Shaw right to praise him or Orwell to pillory him? Was he credulous or critical, naïve or devious, courageous or cringing, innovating or trendy? The truth seems to be that he was all these; and to study his life you have to be prepared to bathe in the shallow waters of a beach where the tide seems to be forever going out, leaving him in the company of those earnest, dedicated, humorless progressives, so often the salt of the earth, who in late-Victorian times were either immersed in the Higher Thought or promoting neo-Malthusian practices, voluntary euthanasia, the reunion of the churches, or a world state, or who were vegetarians, feminists, spiritualists, theosophists, free thinkers, abstainers, pacifists, socialists, anarchists, or intrepid members of the Rational Dress Society. Nothing could be more apposite than the title of his last article, written on the eve of the Second World War: “World Peace Is Our Next Upward Movement.”

I don’t want children. I never did, I hate children. I am a child myself and know too much about them.” Havelock Ellis led a lonely, desolate childhood. His father was a sea captain and he grew up under a dominating mother with three sisters, and never understood much about men. His father took him to sea when he was sixteen, thought him too tall and thin to continue the journey, and put him ashore in Australia to earn his bread as a teacher. He spent four years there and made not a single friend. Homesick and lonely, he taught in Sydney and educated himself in the bookshops—he taught in the outback and discovered thoughts, books, and wonders of nature which, as he put it, “delivered him from human beings.” The self-educated are particularly susceptible to the appeal of messiahs, and Havelock Ellis discovered that an obscure mystic called James Hinton, who preached that man was simply a limited manifestation of the divine spirit and must attain felicity through unselfishness, had undoubtedly unfolded the sweet mystery of life. He became convinced, and never lost the conviction, that the Universe glowed with benevolence. On his return to England Hinton’s widow and son took him up and helped him raise money to qualify as a doctor. He dabbled with the Fabians, wrote a Hymn of Progress, and after reading The Story of an African Farm, one of the sacred works of late Victorian agnosticism, contrived to meet the author, Olive Schreiner.

This was the first of a long line of attachments, and it set a pattern for so many of them. She loved Ellis passionately; he loved her…spiritually. Enormous numbers of letters were exchanged and finally in despair she turned her eyes on a far more virile man, Karl Pearson, the young biometrician at University College, London. He rejected her. She sailed for South Africa desolate, and Havelock kissed her goodbye.

The trouble, says Professor Grosskurth, was that Ellis scarcely found anyone congenial for any length of time. When he married Edith Lees he and his wife lived apart for much of the time; she liked troops of friends, he not; she was stormy, he groaned for peace; he wrote rapturously about motherhood, but declined to have children, and they agreed perhaps on one thing only, that each wanted to be mother to the other. Although he was writing Man and Woman in early married life, he believed, says Phyllis Grosskurth, that “all marriage needed was tenderness, intelligence and emancipated understanding.” That, alas, is not all that marriage needs, and he was shattered when Edith began a lesbian affair, the first of a line of “dear friends.”

Havelock was unable to exist without someone to admire and massage his ego. So he found a sweet, dumb, obliging girl called Mneme (who was nevertheless sharp enough to descend and destroy all her letters to him on his death). As his reputation in progressive circles grew he found no difficulty in acquiring dear friends on his own account. When his wife, by now mad to compete with him, was on a lecture tour in America, he acquired another.

This was Margaret Sanger, who had fled to England as she was about to be indicted in New York on nine counts under the Comstock Law for disseminating birth control literature through the mails. Then Edith, in high megalomania, returned. Indignant that no lecture hall would any longer accept her bookings, she turned the sitting room of her flat into a lecture room, went on the rampage and suddenly expired. Characteristically, Ellis thought that the life force in him would now be extinct. It wasn’t. A French girl, who had been translating Edith’s works, approached him for payment and on her second visit to his flat became convinced he was a “healer” and would sort out the chaos of her life. He did. “Am I really your comrade and pal, Havelock?” she asked him. He replied that those words did not adequately express his feelings. “You are a dear and loving person whom it is always beautiful to think of.” She became his companion for life.

They lived, as he had with his wife, in two establishments. Françoise Lafitte discovered that she was not to be the sole mistress of his household. Mneme, he made it clear, though she was now married, had the right to forward the mail when he was away. “You think you’ll keep him,” the dumb girl said to Françoise with a sweet smile, “but you won’t.” Actually, Ellis had to share her. Somewhat guilty that the presence of another American admirer, who always wore knickerbockers, was making Françoise jealous, he encouraged her friendship with a handsome young disciple, Hugh de Sélincourt. Ellis was her Faun, she his Naiad. The next thing he knew was that she was Sélincourt’s Bear, and Sélincourt her Soleil de Joie. All three professed devotion to each other. Ellis, doomed as ever to be supplanted, was again for years tortured by jealousy.

Some have accused him of hypocrisy. That is unfair. Most people when supplanted in love feel jealous: what matters is how you deal with jealousy. Ellis, as did Bloomsbury, took the unfashionable view that you did not treat your former lover and her admirer as enemies, but accepted the inevitable as befitted l’homme moyen sensuel. He never could see why the resident lady should not welcome the one who was appearing over the horizon. They rose in profusion: H.D., Marguerite Tracy, Josephine Walther, Winifred Henderson, Faith Oliver, Gloria Newall, and the throbbing Winifred de Kok.

Over the years Margaret Sanger was immensely good to him and in 1929 offered to pay Françoise a secretary’s salary so that she and Ellis could at last live together. Phyllis Grosskurth shrewdly observes his reaction to this act of generosity. “Ellis was beginning to feel that other people were trying to take over his life.” He was no longer so certain that sheer hard study of case histories would by revealing all transform love into the simple Hellenism of his idealistic youth. “When I was young,” he wrote about this time, “I thought it would be possible to settle the problems of love, I thought that we only had to understand them—and all the pains and difficulties of the world of love would melt away…. But I know now that what we can do merely touches the surface of things.” He was no technocrat. “What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance,” he wrote. Eventually old age transformed him into an institution; in true British style he was awarded the honors which would have meant something to him had they come at the time of his achievements. Lord Dawson of Penn, the king’s doctor, referred to him at the banquet after his admission as an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians as “my friend Dr. Havelock Ellis,” having met him for the first time that evening. Always something of a recluse, still existing on a pittance, still writing, he died just before the Second World War.

How did he do it? Indeed, what did he do to them? His reputation as the sage of sex was vastly enhanced by his appearance. He looked like a sage. The flowing beard, the startling eyes, the noble carriage were matched by great tenderness and concern for the stream of women who came to lay their sorrows on his breast. Just as some famous Victorian clergymen were said to have “a taking gift of unction,” Havelock Ellis had the knack of writing love letters to which women at once responded. “Love is funny and I am funny. It needs wifie’s little breasties every two hours like a baby and if they seem far off—it do shriek,” he wrote to Edith. You need a strong stomach to take his letters to his admirers, or theirs to him, but every age is branded by its sentimentality. Progressives at the beginning of the century were sentimental about personal relations, just as our progressives at the end of it are about social relations; and in time to come our writings about race, injustice, and inequality will appear as suffused with overblown emotion as those of Ellis and his contemporaries seem to be when they expressed their feelings to each other about love, children and friendship.

His romances followed a discernible pattern. There would first be an exchange of confidences; then he would reassure them that their problems were the most natural thing in the world; this would produce ecstatic gratitude on their part and on his affirmation of the beauty of life and the delicacy of their relationship; page after page of tender, understanding, romantic sentiments would flow from his pen and evoke from his beloved page after page of liberated rapture; after some weeks of admiration they would embrace and then they would become lovers…after a fashion. Freud deduced from his writings and their correspondence that Ellis was impotent. Ellis himself vaguely hints that his trouble was premature ejaculation. Such was his power to fascinate that he convinced his lovers that coitus was relatively unimportant. What then did he want?

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print