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 …

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