Havelock Ellis

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Phyllis Grosskurth’s study, painstakingly researched and documented, comes as close to answering perplexing questions about the eminent English psychologist as readers are likely ever to obtain. During his lifetime, Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) was ill served by two mostly adulatory biographies, both written by Americans who had little knowledge of his actual history. Isaac Goldberg’s Havelock Ellis: A Biographical and Critical Survey (1926), a journalistic essay that Ellis himself once described as embarrassingly flattering, and Houston Peterson’s more detailed yet also flawed Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Love (1928) perpetuated for more than three decades an inaccurate portrait of their subject. As he was superficially viewed by these writers and by other admirers not fully knowledgeable about his personal life, Ellis appeared to be a man of robust health, vigorous, and sun-drenched; a scientist whose credentials of authority in many areas, but particularly in the new social sciences, were established by his publications in dozens of scholarly journals; a humanist, moreover, with an acute aesthetic sensibility that ranged widely and persuasively over literature and the arts; and, finally, a seer, whose life, dedicated to the cause of freeing mankind from the repressions of Victorian prudery, could well serve as a model for an enlightened generation. This image, at least indirectly cultivated for the public by Ellis and his friends, began in part to crumble in 1939 with the posthumous publication of Ellis’ My Life and was damaged further in 1959 by revelations in Arthur Calder-Marshall’s The Sage of Sex: A Life of Havelock Ellis.

For many liberals of Ellis’ generation, the pioneering sexologist had come to represent the finest hopes for a sane reconstruction of popular attitudes concerning human sexuality. In many of his essays, some of them collected under such titles as Sex and Marriage, Little Essays of Love and Virtue, and My Confessional, Ellis promoted for a large audience his tolerant opinions regarding the Victorian bugbear of “purity”; and in his more nearly scientific works, including his major six-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, he offered his authority as a doctor and researcher toward defining a more compassionate evaluation of the entire range of sexuality. For his labors, unquestionably valuable in relaxing the restraints of the past and for opening wide for true scientific inquiry a necessary field of investigation, he became the champion of many intellectuals who had similar aspirations. In appreciation of Ellis, Joseph Ishill published in 1929 a collection of encomiums by forty-four important figures, among whom the usually acidulous H. L. Mencken opined that “Ellis is the most civilized Englishman of his generation.”

In My Life, however, Ellis revealed with guarded candor a part of his life that challenged on the strength of reality such a flattering judgment. Far from his public image as a physically robust and psychologically well-tempered man, happily married to a wife who shared his advanced attitudes toward open wedlock, he described his real personality in contradictory terms. Reclusive to the point of evidencing nearly pathological fears of meeting strangers, he suffered from at least one other psychological abnormality—urolagnia, or erotic excitement caused by urination. Moreover, his troubled marriage to Edith Lees, a Lesbian, scarcely resembled any pattern of normal relationships, let alone one serving as a model for superior couples. On the basis of these admissions, Karl Menninger reviewed the book by describing Ellis’ “feet of clay,” and Graham Greene sarcastically referred to the psychologist in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951) as “this ageing man with his fake prophet’s air—rather like a Santa Claus at Selfridge’s.” Later, revelations by Françoise Delisle, Ellis’ mistress and the executrix of his estate, also damaged his image of wholesomeness. In Friendship’s Odyssey (1946), Delisle (Françoise Lafitte-Cyon) suggested that Ellis had been impotent prior to the time of their relationship but hinted that he had, at least during the early period of their lovemaking, functioned as a normal, virile man. In addition, she detailed a vexing chronicle of jealousy, anguish, and finally reconciliation as the aftermath of her affair with a younger lover, the novelist Hugh de Selincourt. Although Ellis had in several of his essays predicted a new era for marriage in which jealousy, along with all...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)