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?

In all Cupid’s pageant there is presented no monster,” says Troilus. “Nor nothing monstrous neither?” asks Cressida. “Nothing, but our undertakings,” he replies, “when we vow to weep seas, live in fire, eat rocks, tame tigers…. This is the monstrosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite, and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.” That was in fact the moral of the whole of Havelock Ellis’s work and the tactic which he found nearly always worked with girls. The particular act which he enjoyed was to see girls pee. Not on him. In front of him. Preferably standing up. In those days of long voluminous skirts his mother, in his childhood, had amused herself by performing in front of him in the street on more than one occasion, and for the rest of his life his imagination remained obsessed by what had gone on under those skirts. This was why Françoise was called Naiad and Winifred de Kok Dryad. “It seems lonely and strange,” Winifred wrote to him after a visit, “to be making golden streams all alone and not in a lovely garden with the great god Pan in loving attendance.”

The stream of women was not a mere metaphor. He would write to his lovers and beg them to leave another golden jar behind. He finally achieved perfect ecstasy: he got Françoise to pee in Oxford Circus. In his writings he bestowed the name of “undinism” on the practice and to one convert he wrote that ever since Adam and Eve there had never been an essay written on it and his own, therefore, was “an event in the history of Man.” He made love through different forms of mutual masturbation and if anyone declined to give him his final pleasure, he would gently chide them and predict that in time they would come to it. But the knickerbocker lady remained obdurate.

Another lady too remained unimpressed. There is a marvelously suggestive passage in which Phyllis Grosskurth describes a meeting between Ellis and a distinguished gynecologist, Dr. Helena Wright. She was repelled by the meanness of his house: he appeared to have no contact with it, as if he was a mere visitor. She was even more repelled by the coldness of his eyes and felt that the eyes were taking no part in what the brain was saying. Then a woman—Françoise—entered the room and the mood of the discussion shifted. Although she remained silent it seemed evident both that he would have no respect for her opinions had she uttered any, and that he had a relationship with her “both very complicated and very simple.” The expression in his eyes did not, however, change. They were of a man who had spent his life contemplating sexual emotions but who did not know how to express them. Tacitus should have immortalized him.

Using his own sexual fancies as his guide this intrepid, single-eyed, walled-in, timorous man set out to liberate his conventional countrymen. As a boy in Sydney he had discovered Rabelais. Fay ce que voudras inspires all his writings on sex; and if we are to ask how real was his contribution to sexual understanding in the English-speaking world, there is no other answer than that it was immense. What his correspondents had thought must be abnormal de-naturing dreams, fantasies, desires, or practices, he told them were part of Cupid’s pageant. He was the first person to point out that sexual desire in women was often at its highest during menstruation and that this, and not the brutality of the seducer, was sometimes at the root of what at first sight must appear to be an act of gross insensitivity. He was also the first, Professor Grosskurth claims, “to write a book in English which treated homosexuality as neither a disease nor a crime.” Krafft-Ebing had followed society in regarding homosexuals as outcasts, and Ellis’s case histories showed how many people led tragic, furtive lives, disguising or trying vainly to suppress their own natural tendencies.

Even sadism and masochism, Ellis declared, were extensions of conduct indisputably observable in the most normal of encounters between men and women. Indeed, in the fifth volume of the Studies which deals with erotic symbolism Ellis referred to such practices as fetishism or his own delight in watching urination as triumphs of the imagination of “the individual man not only apart from his fellows but in opposition, himself creating his own paradise.” On masturbation, it is true, he conformed to contemporary medical opinion. Naturally he rejected the myths that those who indulged went mad or blind, but he went along with the notion that to “spend,” as the current term was, was to lose vital energy and hence self-induced spending was likely to lead to shame, remorse, and possibly impotence. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the simplest. All the leading sexologists declared that women were less sensual than men. But Ellis, says Professor Grosskurth, had learned from James Hinton that what women needed was to feel fulfilled. The reason why so many were not was that their male lovers did not know how, or did not care enough, to arouse them. It is this that has changed women’s lives in our time.

How did he get away with it? In post-Wilde England with a magistracy whose zeal for ordering the destruction of books and imprisoning people for obscenity was the laughing stock of Europe, why was he not prosecuted? He nearly was. A wretched bookseller called Bed-borough was prosecuted in 1898 for selling Sexual Inversion and narrowly escaped jail. Ellis behaved far from well. Not only did he not help Bed-borough, he would have nothing to do with him, was relieved that he pleaded guilty, and published explanations of his views which were diametrically opposed to those in his book. He was not born to be a martyr. Had he been required to recant by some secular Inquisition he would have pushed reluctant Galileos aside to offer on his knees a revised version. He lived in fear of publicity and had his papers read for him at scientific congresses. However contemptuously the Freudians reviewed his works, he always declared he was Freud’s friend.

No doubt his refusal to offend and stand up and be counted was, as his biographer says, part of his vanity and of his need for continual admiration from the stream of women. Yet, as is often the case with artists who are driven toward a goal which some force within them seems to have determined, Ellis knew that if he was ever to complete his life task he must not get involved in controversy. He must appear to be the remote, unworldly scientist, goofy and aloof. His books were written in semi-scientific language in which terms such as tumescence and detumescence predominate: near enough to medical jargon to distract the eye of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prowl to bring charges of indecency and yet straightforward enough to entice the common reader. At times you feel as if you are being smothered in an eider-down of warm words. Having lulled you into drowsy acceptance, Havelock Ellis then slips in the carefully qualified affirmations which are quoted in this book. If marriage were the subject, birth control must be discussed—but with immense delicacy. “It seems to me,” he wrote, “that one has to say everything that one thinks ought to be said but to say it so persuasively that it can give no offense.”

Phyllis Grosskurth is far too wise to make more than modest claims for Ellis as a scholar. She observes that the very title of his main work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, is a misnomer. He tells us little of psychology. The case history method he employed is nearer to the anthropology of his times in England, and he was as uncritical of the stories he was told as Frazer was of the legends he amassed in the libraries.

Over Ellis loomed the figure of Freud, and Professor Grosskurth does not hesitate to salute him as the profounder thinker or to admit that Ellis never fully understood what psychoanalysis was about. That was certainly Freud’s view. When one of Ellis’s disciples told Freud that Ellis had urged him to follow Freud’s example rather than his precept, Freud characteristically replied, “Ellis, in a fundamental sense, has rejected psychoanalysis.” In the sense that Ellis saw sex in terms of aberrations, whereas for Freud behavior was suffused with sex and sexual conduct was the clue to character, he was right. The unconscious and the irrational hardly appear over the horizon in Ellis’s vision of life.

Ellis was, of course, a nineteenth-century positivist and people see him as the forerunner of Kinsey. There is some truth in this but there are also some distinctions to be made. For instance, Ellis escapes some of the devastating criticism with which Lionel Trilling riddled the Report. He knew his Rabelais too well to believe that the more frequently men have orgasms the healthier they are and that the quicker they come the more natural. If he did not actually refer to himself as impotent, he felt his own failing too keenly not to realize that failure to sustain intercourse—which Kinsey treated as entirely acceptable—was to deprive a woman of her legitimate pleasure and fulfillment. Kinsey prided himself on eliminating moral criteria from his scientific treatise. But Trilling showed that he brought them back in the form of assumed norms and value judgments. Ellis never let his reader doubt that sex should be concerned with love and should not be a self-regarding activity.

It was inevitable that he should be a positivist. Virtually no other philosophical mode carried weight in England. To examine society you began with the individual man responsible for his actions and cognisant of the law and custom. Each man chose his own goals. Being given freedom of conscience, men chose different goals. Yet, miraculously, these goals did not conflict because of the law of the natural identity of interests of which the most famous example was the discovery in classical economics that by pursuing different ends men maximized their pleasure, provided governments did not interfere too greatly with the natural harmony of the exchange of goods. Society progressed because men became more rational and made more sensible choices. The Idealist philosophers, it is true, understood that men were pushed around by history, belonged to different ages and cultures, and did not behave solely according to their desires. But they too believed in “reason” and in a rational world which “made sense.” The Idealists did not see people behaving irrationally even though men’s actions were not all purposive. They redefined the concepts of will, rationality, and freedom so that they could apply them both to their conscious individual acts and their social and unconscious behavior. The revolution in social studies which we associate with the names of Weber, Durkheim, and Pareto passed England by.

Yet we have before us an awful warning of what happens when the most up-to-date descendants of the revolution in social though consider these matters. For Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality, Havelock Ellis and the whole Western tradition of applying scientific methods to sexuality are the modern analogues of the priest in the confessional. They are the paid jailers of the instincts, interpreters of dreams, arbiters of conduct, agents of social control. What used to be instinctive behavior is now conduct governed by pedagogic rules. These rules destroy the erotic and impede a free-going notion of sexuality no less than the formal laws of society which also regulate sex and are imposed by judges, priests, and legislators. The sexologists are careful to interpret sex in terms of health. They may praise orgasm as a lyrical property, or encourage a complete and flourishing sensuality, but they never fail to interpret and define sex in terms of something else. The West is corrupt. Only in Ancient Rome or in China, Japan, and Arabo-Muslim society do we find an alternative strategy, of regarding sex as embodied in an ars amatoria, handed down from generation to generation, spoken of but not analyzed, and hence removed from the power structure of society. What have the sexologists achieved but to insert sex even more rigidly into the oppressive structure by which the ruling classes impose their will on society?

I cannot be sure that I have summarized Professor Foucault’s argument accurately. Since the book is written in the language of deconstruction and skillfully hedged about with disarming admissions which verge upon recantation but never quite go so far, how can one be sure that he does not regard the Kama Sutra as the equivalent of a treatise by Hirschfeld or Tardieu? And are not Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris pseudo-didactic poems and sophisticated satires—indeed, handbooks for young lovers, and not all that far removed from De Rerum Natura and the Georgics? Is Foucault asking us to believe that the Arabo-Muslim world has no legal system every bit as imprisoning as any in the West which governs sexuality? Or are we to interpret the sentence of stoning to death pronounced upon some prostitutes by an ayatollah as merely a subtle means of preserving for the marital couch alone those delectable methods of embracing chronicled in the last century by Sir Richard Burton? It is, I think, true that the science of sex of which he complains has demystified love and made it less erotic, but it is another matter to maintain that “the bourgeoisie endowed itself in an arrogant political affirmation with a garrulous sexuality which the proletariat long refused to accept since it was foisted on them for the purpose of subjugation.”

Professor Grosskurth does no more than allude to Foucault’s book in a sentence, possibly because she recoiled from portraying Havelock Ellis as a cog in the ineluctable system of power technology which enabled the British ruling class to impose their notion of sexuality upon society as a whole; or because she could not accept that through the investing of sex with a new importance which makes a man intelligible to himself and grants him his identity, men and women have become so fearful of sex, so obsessed by it, so submissive to its sovereignty, that they are willing to die for it (as formerly men were willing to die for their country). Within sex is the Death Wish. “While the deployment of sexuality permits the techniques of power to invest life,” writes Foucault, “the fictitious point of sex, itself marked by that deployment, exerts enough charm on everyone for them to accept hearing the grumble of death within it.” Suffocating as Havelock Ellis’s prose often is, it never extinguishes life quite so definitively as this treatise does.

Phyllis Grosskurth does not need to apologize for failing to capture the “essential Havelock.” She has done something far more important. Her biography of John Addington Symonds, with which she made her name, had that same special quality of truthfulness you find here. She conveys in wonderful detail the distasteful, ugly austerity of the sage’s life, the individuality of those in his circle, the nuances of emphasis among the progressives. She also possesses that rare quality of being neither embarrassed nor embarrassing about sex. No portrait could have revealed the way in which, like a simple form of marine life, he undulated and palpitated his way through life.

Just how dangerous portraiture can be is well exemplified in Eminent Edwardians which Piers Brendon has written in open homage to Lytton Strachey. To match the four portraits in Strachey’s famous polemic he chose Balfour, a prime minister; Baden-Powell, the hero of the relief of Mafeking and first Chief Scout; Mrs. Pankhurst, the militant suffragette; and Northcliffe, the most prodigious of the uninhibited press barons.

One of my imitators,” piped Strachey, when someone asked him whether he had read one of Guedalla’s biographies. He is not an easy man to imitate. He did not choose his Victorians at random. It was through the four portraits that in deadly earnest he satirized the morality of the age. Manning stood for the worldliness of that branch of Christianity which seemed in 1918 to appeal to the fashionable and the intelligent; Arnold symbolized the public school ideals which, debased as they had become in Strachey’s day, dictated English ideas of good form; Gordon epitomized evangelical imperialism; and Florence Nightingale, the angel of humanitarianism, the virtue with which the Victorians salved their conscience, was depicted by Strachey as a ruthless eagle who tore her enemies and scared her friends with her talons in utter disregard of the private virtues so long as she gained her public end.

What does Mr. Brendon’s quartet satirize? He scores a bull’s-eye with Northcliffe. The Edwardian age is the age of vulgarity and of riches deployed to ignoble purposes; he is right to see it also as pre-eminently the age of the mass circulation newspaper at the height of its power; and of all the tyrannical proprietors Northcliffe is the finest example. But what aspect of Edwardianism does he satirize in Mrs. Pankhurst? If it is militant protest, that is more relevant to our times than hers. The real analogue to Florence Nightingale is surely Beatrice Webb.

He is nearer to hitting the target with Baden-Powell. Yet naive and comical as much of scouting was, Piers Brendon overlooks the fact that it was a more genuine international movement than the League of Nations and its offshoots, and that in England it was one of the few organizations at that time which was not riddled with snobbery. The choice of Baden-Powell does not impale the games-playing cult and the philistinism of the Edwardians as brutally as it should.

Nor is Balfour—“he will be just like the scent on a pocket handkerchief” was Lloyd George’s epitaph for him—quite an accurate enough target for fainéant politics and aristocratic insolence. It is true that he was a poor prime minister and often ineffective. It is true that his worldly success and sophistication were part of his self-satisfaction and complacency about his set. It is also true that his way of life and his pursuits were remote from the real problems of his country, its aging industry and the rising syndicalism of trade union politics. But he gave Ireland the institutions which were invaluable to the first Free State Government, passed an Education Bill as famous as that of Rab Butler a generation later, and, in opposition to the dominant Arabism of his country, got the Government to issue a declaration in favor of a “national home” in Palestine for the Jews. There is a Stracheyesque insinuation that Balfour’s Zionism was inspired by his anti-Semitism; but it is too rash to imply that Balfour was ambiguous about the establishment of a Jewish state. That was perhaps the only vision he ever had in politics.

But there is no point in quibbling about Brendon’s interpretation of history or character. He is in the bull ring executing his passes with the cape and reveling in the moment when the bull drops dead before him. But he is no Manolete. Occasionally an authentic Stracheyan pase de castigo enlivens the text but there is none of the inevitability, ending in the pase de pecho with which Strachey brought to a close the torment of his adversaries before moving in to the kill—if the conceit of Strachey attired as a matador is not considered too fanciful. Amusement wounds more painfully than contempt.