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.

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