The Sun-Bather

Michael Neve

  • Havelock Ellis by Phyllis Grosskurth
    Allen Lane, 492 pp, £10.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 7139 1071 2

After sex, sexology. The making of many extravagant theories about nature’s mysteries is not particularly new, and wasn’t even in the 19th century. Indeed, that century can be seen as a spawning ground for all kinds of ambitious intellectual projects, grand ‘totalisations’ of the varied phenomena of nature and society. Sociology, itself the product of a general feeling that mére history was too narrow a form, has perhaps been the most resilient of these creations. Sexology is certainly the most curious. As writers such as Stuart Hampshire have reiterated, almost all the grand syntheses attempted by the 19th-century intelligentsia share a common aim: to replicate, as far as possible, the achievements and accuracies of the natural sciences. This is as true of the tedious volumes of Herbert Spencer, who needed a special chair, fitted with nails, to stop him falling asleep, as it is of Marxism. It holds, too, for the spate of scientific programmes, many of them German in origin, that were laid down for the attack on the final citadel: sex. Towards the end of the 19th century, science turned its gaze on the thing itself. Unsurprisingly, the campaign produced its own particular range of prophets, seers and sages. Almost all of them were men, and men who shared some physical similarities, if nothing else. Sad eyes, perhaps; beards certainly. Freud remains by far the most powerful and influential, possibly because he was the most pessimistic. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) seems more elusive.

Ellis has received critical and biographical attention before, notably in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s well-known study of 1959, and also in Vincent Brome’s Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Love, published last year. But students of biography will particularly welcome Phyllis Grosskurth’s contribution, remembering her last biographical effort with pleasure. Her book on John Addington Symonds, now 16 years old, is one of the genuinely original works of its kind, a detailed and sensitive rescuing of its subject from the Victorian silence that entombed him. In writing about Symonds, historian of the Renaissance, Ms Grosskurth plucked no heart out of the mystery, and instead traced Symonds’s escape from the claustrophobia of his youth (his father was a distinguished West Country physician) into a world of sexual self-awareness and reasonable contentment. The flight from England, via the gondoliers of Venice and a house on the zattere, to invalidism at Davos Platz became, in that biography, the model of a whole type of Victorian upper-class career.

The relationship between biographer and subject is rather different when dealing with a figure such as Ellis. Ellis, after all, was to make it his aim to produce (God forbid) a science of sexuality. He shares some things with Symonds, and collaborated with him, but a biographer is dealing here, not with life and art á la Symonds, but with the relation of life to life. A certain trepidation must be felt as the reader picks up this handsomely produced (and American-printed) book. How many unreversling sentences of the kind ‘ ... and then mutual masturbation took place’ will there be?

But first things first. Ms Grosskurth follows, maybe inevitably, the narrative pattern laid out in Calder-Marshall’s earlier study. She brings out clearly the marginality of Ellis’s life in general, and in particular the loneliness of his early years. Havelock Ellis (he was to drop the family first name Henry for effect) was born in Croydon, to a maritime family (he shared this background with his distant admirer Edward Carpenter). His early years were given over to colonial journeyings that left him self-conscious and unhappy: there were two voyages to Australia, on the second of which, in 1875, he got his first job, as a minor teacher in somewhere called Sparkes Creek, teaching settler children. Ellis felt this marginality acutely in his life, and tried to make up for it by inventing complicated genealogies that traced his supposed Suffolk ancestry. Ms Grosskurth also remarks that while in Australia he met a girl on a ferry who said to him ‘Ain’t the moon lovely?’ He recoiled, and hurriedly excused himself.

The return in 1879 from the land of whatever saw Ellis into the world of Ibsenite radicalism that had taken hold in London: a society of secular freethinkers, followers of the New Life, of Olive Schreiner and the sexual radical James Hinton. While involved in this doll’s house in reverse, Ellis attended St Thomas’s Hospital to complete a medical training. He had an unsatisfactory, rather destructive, semi-relationship with Olive Schreiner, with both parties withdrawing as weaknesses were rèvealed. Life was further complicated by the presence of Hinton, whose energy and stamina appear to have alienated those committed to his programmatic radicalism. One other figure who flits through this early period is Ramsay MacDonald, already dreaming of being prime minister while running a ‘Fellowship House’ in Doughty Street in Bloomsbury. Ellis left London for a medical practice in Blackburn in 1887, and managed to survive the death of his mother (she died as he was reading to her Peer Gynt). In March 1890, he published his first book, The New Spirit. This impressed the Fellow-travelling Edith Lees, an ex-school-teacher who was in a state of nervous depression. Despite warnings from friends, Ellis married her.

It was a disaster. At the very time that Ellis was beginning the studies of sexual inversion that were to make him famous, Ellis married someone he knew might be homosexual, and hoped it would not matter. But of course it mattered. Edith developed feelings for other women, and Ellis could not deal with them. He was not new to jealousy, having had experience of Olive Schreiner’s obsession with Karl Pearson, professor of applied mathematics at University College London. But his inability to face his wife’s true nature was both ironic and painful. Ironic, because here he was, engaged in prolonged theoretical discussion of these very things. The pain was simple jealousy. One way out, as always, was work. Ellis wrote and travelled extensively in these years, organised the publication of popular science books, and in 1897 published Sexual Inversion, which he wrote with John Addington Symonds.

A famous court case, the Bedborough trial, followed the publication of this sexological classic, and all subsequent volumes of the Studies in the Psychology of Sex were published in America. Ellis and Edith went on holidays to avoid the difficulties, as he produced the successive additions to the work. The unhappiness of the marriage deepened: Edith went on a lecture tour to America, Ellis’s own feelings wandered, and after returing to England, Edith died. Ellis slowly recovered from the blow, riddled with ambivalence as he must have been. He was helped in his recovery by a young French admirer, Françoise Laffitte-Cyon. But here, too, ironies abound.

With Françoise’s help, Ellis began to come to terms with the fact that his own sexual focus did not concentrate on the act itself, but somewhere else. In some startling private correspondence with Françoise, he explained that he wanted to be neither lover nor husband. Instead, he enjoyed libidinal release when his girlfriends pissed their pants. This fetish – ‘urolagnia’ – brought Ellis pleasure and satisfaction: one friend of his recalls the thrill he felt when he persuaded her to urinate ‘among the bustling crowd at Oxford Circus’. Fay ce que voudras, as Ellis used to say, quoting Rabelais.

This poignant admission did not quite solve the problem of sensual enjoyment. Ellis’s friend and admirer, the writer Hugh de Selincourt, met up with the sexologist and his friend, to exchange mutual admirations. Trouble lay in store. Selincourt was a good example of a much underexamined sexual type – the wittol, or acquiescent cuckold. He had always encouraged his wife Janet to have affairs, notably with the critic Harold Child. Child repayed the compliment in a neat way, by writing flattering reviews of Selincourt’s inferior novels for the Times. We certainly need a social history of wittolry. Selincourt’s ‘over-whelming personality’ forced itself on Françoise and another friend of Ellis’s, Margaret Sanger. They fell. Even more cruelly, Selincourt was a practitioner of the so-called Karezza method of prolonged sexual intercourse, a technique that the blighted Ellis had written about in the Studies. He could not reply to the chaos of the real libidinal world, except to recall the need for spiritual thoughts.

Ellis’s last years brought a considerable reputation, and, inevitably, an acquaintance with the work of Freud. Freud gave Ellis the benefit of his doubts as to the merits of his work, and the two men seem miles apart: Freud, with his austere materialist genius, and Ellis, a brave but troubled visitor from the land of faery, endlessly bathing in the nude and celebrating ‘the dance of life’. For all these differences, there can be no doubt that Ellis made a substantial contribution to sexual theory, always insisting that homosexual and deviant forms were part of the normal spectrum of human sexual response, and not in a separate classificatory space of disease and illness. Ellis stood up for this view from within a personal shyness and unhappiness that makes his theoretical contribution both original and courageous.

This much has indeed been understood from other studies of Ellis, and Ms Grosskurth repeats some of this past work. But she has extended the Ellis story in important ways. First, in the details of his life: his interesting defence of the novels of Thomas Hardy, for example, and the energy that he put into the marketing of the ‘Contemporary Science Series’, one of whose early titles was Karl Pearson’s The Grammar of Science, a book much read by Freud. Secondly, and this is new, Ms Grosskurth has uncovered a more sinister dimension to the sexology of Havelock Ellis, and one that repays attention.

Ellis developed his sexology by drawing inspiration from a wide range of 19th-century anthropological and social writing: from Adolphe Quetelet’s Anthropométrie, through George Drysdale’s Elements of Social Science, to Herbert Spencer and the anthropologies of Westermarck and Malinowski. What Ms Grosskurth makes much clearer than before, however, is the relationship between sexology and eugenics, or the planned biological removal, by social means, of ‘unfit’ types. Recent work in this area has made clear how concerned such figures as Marie Stopes were that any programme of sexual education should be linked to a vision of social fitness: sex should promote health, and not just pleasure. The same is true for Ellis. He translated the work of the Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso; he remained opposed to any liberal notion of the innocence of masturbation (recommending the wearing of corsets to prevent it); and was much given to the sexless discussion of sex: ‘The sexual act presents many characters which are absent in an ordinary act of evacuation, and, on the other hand, it lacks the special characteristic of the evacuation proper, the elimination of waste material; the seminal fluid is not a waste material, and its retention is, to some extent perhaps, rather an advantage than a disadvantage to orgasm.’

Perhaps the most enlightening contribution that Ms Grosskurth makes to our knowledge of Ellis, and hence to the history of British eugenism, is his relationship with Karl Pearson, the proponent of social eugenism. Pearson and Ellis came to dislike each other personally, in ways that are reminiscent of earlier breakdowns among sexual radicals – the locus classicus for this being Shelley and his circle. Pearson had found Ellis’s involvement with the machinations of James Hinton distasteful. But both men moved in a pre-1914 world that was full of anxieties about population growth, the health of various ethnic groups, and where there was felt to be a need for an organised policy on social (and sexual) health. Ellis made his contribution. In 1909, he wrote an article for the Eugenics Review entitled ‘The Sterilisation of the Unfit’, and two years later produced a pamphlet for the National Council of Public Morals called ‘The Problem of Race Regeneration’. He advocated the use of vasectomies for sterilising the ‘unfit’, but spoke against other forms of birth control as being ‘quite dull and commonplace’. Ms Grosskurth has done considerable service in placing Ellis in this cultural background, much of it generated within the Fabian Left. The progressive intelligentsia have yet to face the depth of the commitment to ‘purity’ and the ‘breeding of thoroughbreds’ present in almost all of this kind of Edwardian thinking. It was fully articulated by Bernard Shaw, perfectly acceptable to Wells, and only opposed by such as G.K. Chesterton. Ms Grosskurth also hints, at this point in her book, at Ellis’s anti-semitism.

What kind of figure was he then? One hesitates, in the pages of the London Review of Books, with its editorial opposition to ‘deconstruction’, to mention Michel Foucault, but the first volume of his History of Sexuality has some powerful things to say about the kind of enterprise that Ellis was engaged in. (Ms Grosskurth, in a footnote, calls Foucault’s book ‘a brilliant exposition’, but leaves it at that.) Foucault suggests that the development of sexological writing, far from promoting sexual freedom in any simple way, is actually one of many social forms of imprisonment and surveillance. The development of expert, technical discussions of sexual life, the growth of statistical surveys on the nature of orgasm, these result in the death of an ars erotica, and the arrival instead of a scenita sexualis. Foucault cites Havelock Ellis as one of those who make out of sexology ‘a procedure of confession’, a de-eroticising, dismal science, with everything (and nothing) laid bare: a world made safe for Masters and Johnson.

This argument has a French cuteness that does injury to Havelock Ellis, but it cannot be ignored. Ellis is a theorist of absence, the absence of his own libido. His dignified rescuing of sexual deviancy is only part of a huge web of words that are themselves the index of his sexual estrangement. This biography, by using its manuscript materials carefully, uncovers the distressing story of a quirky medical student producing volumes of stifling prose, all in the service of the liveliest of subjects. Ms Grosskurth has painted a good picture of a marginal medical career in late 19th-century England, of a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, outside the medical power centres, for whom writing on sex was the way into metropolitan circles. But an outsider Ellis remained. It is certainly queer to know that he was deemed ‘le sage de Brixton’.

Ellis’s relations with women seem both magnetic and unhappy, and this brings one to a final, political point. Ellis’s wife Edith was very happy in a different atmosphere of sexual alternatives: one with an explicitly socialist, anti-metropolitan outlook – the Edward Carpenter coterie near Sheffield. The feeling, there, of democratic easiness was remarked on by others at the time, and it is possible that a genuine idea of community enabled Carpenter and others to provide a world that was less self-examining and humourless than the one Ellis inhabited.

Somehow, the joke was always on this shy but relentlessly serious-minded man. It is hard not to feel that Ms Grosskurth has given us a eugenist Malvolio, unable to join in the fun. Some of Malvolio’s lines seem alarmingly apt: ‘By my life, this is my lady’s hand: these be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.’ That Ellis was honest about his own interest in great peeing should not prevent us from finding him close to spoiling the sport. Ms Grosskurth, who writes as if ambivalent towards him, traces this strange career with feeling and protectiveness. Ellis can now be seen in full: writing away in a hut in misty Cornwall; hunting up his ancestors; hating D.H. Lawrence but adoring Spain; befriending in later life the wonderfully named Winifred de Kok (later to marry A.E. Coppard); lying naked in his sunny garden. But Ms Grosskurth has also shown up the inner tendency to be the kill-joy. Ellis had to make a science of everything, including peeing, and cross-gartered himself. This book helps explain the need for yellow stockings.