Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017
Article abstract: Believing that sex should be discussed openly and seriously, Ellis collected, classified, and wrote about sexual behavior, thus dispelling many of the Victorian prejudices and misconceptions about sex and paving the way for future study.
Henry Havelock Ellis was born February 2, 1859, in St. John’s Grove, Croydon, England. His father, Edward P. Ellis, a merchant sea captain, was not present at the birth of his son, and saw Ellis only for a few months in the first three and half years of his life. Ellis’ mother, Susannah Wheatley Ellis, dominated his early years, impressing upon him her seriousness and literal-mindedness. When he was four years old, Ellis’ relationship with his mother was weakened by the birth of the first of four more children, all girls. His relationship with his sisters was impersonal and detached, with the exception of Louie Ellis, the only sister he later mentioned in his autobiography, My Life: Autobiography of Havelock Ellis (1939).
When Ellis was seven years old, he accompanied his father on a trip around the world. A solitary learner, he read natural history books, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, and other books from the ship’s library. On his return, he was sent to Granville’s School in Croydon and later to the French and German College in Wimbledon. He was a voracious reader, reading, for example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Milton. During this period, he began the practice of keeping notebooks in which he wrote quotations from and comments about his reading.
On April 19, 1875, after spending three years at a boarding school, The Poplars, Ellis sailed with his father on his second trip around the world. Listed as a captain’s clerk, he had few, if any, duties and spent most of his time reading and writing. Before the ship left Sydney, Australia, the ship’s doctor decided that the climate in India would be harmful to Ellis’ health. (Ellis was nearly six feet tall and weighed about 145 pounds, much less than other boys his age.) On the doctor’s advice, Captain Ellis decided to leave his son in Australia, perhaps for several years. The younger Ellis remained in Australia and was appointed assistant master at Fontlands School in Sydney. His teaching was unsatisfactory, and he resigned after several months. In rapid succession, he was a private tutor, assistant master and then headmaster at Grafton Grammar School, and, finally, schoolmaster at a school in Sparkes Creek.
Those four years that Ellis spent in Australia were significant for several reasons: First, he decided to devote his life to investigating human sexuality; second, he experienced religious doubts and lost his faith; and third, he discovered James Hinton’s books. Hinton was a nineteenth century physician and pseudomessiah who preached that all life was one. This divine unity belief attracted Ellis and he converted. This belief in the divine beauty of the universe eventually led Ellis to an acceptance of all that is natural—in particular, all varieties of sexual behavior. In the meantime, following the example of Hinton, Ellis decided to enter medical school.
On April 22, 1879, Ellis returned to England from his four-year stay in Australia. Twenty-one years old, he enrolled in medical school at St. Thomas’ late in 1880; it took him seven years to complete the course of study because his interests lay elsewhere. In fact, because of his other interests, Ellis practiced medicine for only a brief period. In addition to completing medical school, Ellis was active as a journalist, literary critic, and editor, writing for many of the leading magazines of the day. He contributed to the Camelot series (reprints of the classics), started and edited the celebrated Mermaid series (collected works of Elizabethan dramatists), and worked on the Contemporary Science series, a collection of about fifty titles dealing with developments in science. He also became involved in several radical social and political groups, traveled extensively to the Continent, and formed friendships with many intellectuals, notably Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm (1883), with whom Ellis remained close for many years.
By 1890, Ellis had established a literary and scientific reputation, completed his medical studies, and published two books, The Criminal (1890) and The New Spirit (1890). On December 19, 1891, he married Edith Lees: Their marriage, unusual at that time, was based on four vows: first, that each would be economically independent; second, that there would be complete mutual frankness between them; third, that they would not live permanently under the same roof; and finally, that they would have no children. Their marriage sounded workable in theory but in practice was complicated by Lees’s lesbianism and Ellis’ lack of knowledge and understanding of sex and possible impotence. What evolved was a relationship in which each needed and supported the other but found fulfillment outside the marriage.
Ellis’ marriage was, however, an immediate cause of his greatest work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, with six volumes published between 1897 and 1910 (a seventh volume was published in 1928). Not understanding homosexuality, he began an objective and scientific study of it. Using case histories supplied by John Addington Symonds, a homosexual literary figure of the time, Ellis wrote the first book of the set. Titled Sexual Inversion (1897), the book examined homosexuality seriously and sympathetically, creating a storm of controversy in Victorian England. Ultimately judged obscene literature at the Bedborough Trial, the book, for Ellis, was the starting point for his life’s work. By 1910, he completed the five other books in the set: The Evolution of Modesty, The Phenomena of Sexual Periodicity, Auto-Erotism (1899), The Analysis of the Sexual Impulse, Love and Pain, The Sexual Impulse in Women (1903), Sexual Selection in Man (1905), Erotic Symbolism, The Mechanism of Detumescence, The Psychic State in Pregnancy (1906), and Sex in Relation to Society (1910). Also banned as obscene in England, the set was available in the United States, but only to the medical profession until 1935.
These works, considered his best and most important, established Ellis in the field of the scientific study of sex, although certainly without as great a reputation as his contemporary, Sigmund Freud. Ellis’ works, even though they have no conceptual framework, are significant because of their measured, open discussion of such previously taboo subjects as homosexuality, masturbation, menstruation, and sexual intercourse. In addition, Ellis’ work was pioneering in its discussion of the sexual drives of women.
By 1910, Ellis was known and admired by certain groups in England, the United States, France, and Germany. His important series completed except for the seventh volume, he spent the next decade reading, reflecting, classifying, and writing. On September 7, 1916, his wife, Edith, died, and as part of his grieving, he began to work again on the autobiography on which he had been working for twenty years. Published posthumously in 1939, the work was considered, by Ellis, to be his most important work. Ending with the death of Edith Ellis, it has been judged sentimental in its treatment of their marriage and in its focus on his wife rather than on the author.
Once described as looking the part of an Old Testament prophet, Ellis in his later years was identifiable by his flowing white hair and beard; his noble head, blue-green eyes, and calm demeanor contributed to his attractiveness. After his wife’s death, he had a series of relationships with women, most notably Margaret Sanger, the American birth-control advocate. She introduced him and his work to a wider audience in the United States, and he received more support there than in England, especially for his works on birth control and sexual behavior. While he was recognized as a scientific and literary figure in some circles, to most of the world he was the man who wrote obscene literature.
During the 1920’s, the world began to change, and some of the changes in dress, personal habits, and conduct hinted of a coming revolution in sexual behavior. New recognition came to Ellis as the circle of admirers widened into a community of admirers. In 1923, he published what would be his most popular book, The Dance of Life. Containing his philosophy of life, the book became a best-seller in the United States but was received less favorably in England. When he was almost seventy years old, two biographies of him were published: Isaac Goldberg’s Havelock Ellis (1926) and Houston Petersen’s Havelock Ellis, Philosopher of Love (1928). By the time he reached his seventieth birthday, his reputation was such that tribute and recognition reached him from all levels of European and American society.
By 1935, Ellis’ health began to decline, and by the time a correct diagnosis, that of dysphagia, or a pouch in his throat which caught the food he swallowed, was made, it was too late to operate. After slow deterioration, he died July 8, 1939.
Havelock Ellis was a transitional figure between Victorian and modern times. Believing that sex was a gift which needed to be explored, he wanted to dispel the myths and misconceptions of the Victorian view of sex. In his attempt, he established the methodology of later sexual investigation, most significantly that of Alfred Kinsey in the twentieth century. Ellis’ work was the first serious and scholarly attempt to explore and explain human sexual behavior. Using an objective and scientific approach, he brought the discussion of sex into the open. He saw his work condemned as obscene and also lived to see it sold openly throughout the world.
He was modern in his acceptance of “abnormal” sexual behavior and in his recognition of the right of women to sexual satisfaction. Overshadowed by Freud’s total system of psychology, analytical ability, and literary skill, Ellis deserves recognition as a recorder and classifier of human sexual behavior. Always a solitary individual (he never made a speech and seldom appeared in public), he was persistent, dedicated, and faithful to his beliefs and ideals.
Brome, Vincent. Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Sex. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. The first biography to delve into Ellis’ own sexual behavior. Draws on previously unused material made accessible to the author by Françoise Delisle, longtime companion of Ellis after his wife’s death. A highly readable account; devotes a chapter to Freud’s relations with Ellis.
Calder-Marshall, Arthur. The Sage of Sex: A Life of Havelock Ellis. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Relies heavily on two sources, Ellis’ My Life and Delisle’s Friendship’s Odyssey. Disagrees with Grosskurth on several points, most notably the account of Ellis’ death, and should be read.
Collis, John Stewart. Havelock Ellis, Artist of Life: A Study of His Life and Work. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1959. A very brief biography which presents the facts of Ellis’ life but does not interpret them. Includes excerpts from Ellis’ literary work not related to his sex studies. Should only be used as a starting point in research.
Delisle, Françoise. Friendship’s Odyssey. London: Heinemann, 1946. A confusing, sentimental account of Delisle’s early life and her twenty-year relationship with Ellis. Should be read to complete an understanding of Ellis’ relationships with women.
Goldberg, Isaac. Havelock Ellis: A Biographical and Critical Survey. London: Constable and Co., 1926. The first biography of Ellis. Goldberg corresponded with Ellis for a year and a half before writing. Devotes no attention to Ellis’ scientific work and presents his life uncritically. A onesided, favorable view of Ellis. Includes a chapter on the writings of Edith Ellis.
Grosskurth, Phyllis. Havelock Ellis: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. Carefully prepared, complete biography. Extensive research of previously unexamined material, including Ellis’ voluminous correspondence and his pocket diaries. This must be read for an objective and scholarly view of the subject.
Peterson, Houston. Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928. Written while Ellis was living, this work is a study of his intellectual development and does not cover his private life. The book stops at 1927 but is valuable because of the fifty-page bibliography of Ellis’ works up to 1928. It includes a list of the contents of Ellis’ Commonplace Books (1,039 entries), books, articles, introductions, prefaces, and translations. The book itself includes some of Ellis’ poetry.