Havelock Ellis Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111200198-Ellis_H.jpg Havelock Ellis (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)