Havelock Ellis – a biography P. Grosskurth

Havelock Ellis was a lifelong evangelist for women’s sexuality; one of those fighters against Victorian repression whose missionary zeal was undoubtedly a response to his own sexual nature. Not too likeable a man – completely humourless, ponderous, literal minded, self-engrossed – he nonetheless attracted throughout his life a large number of female followers: fans, groupies, and friends who felt themselves touched by his radiance.

Phyllis Grosskurth’s biography picks him up at birth in Croydon in 1859, moves chronologically via his letters and diaries, and scatters his ashes in Golders Green cemetery 80 years later. His uneventful but restless childhood finished at 16 when his parents dispatched him to Australia to find his feet before settling down. Fearfully shy and needing solitude, he found work teaching in isolated outback schools. Two events during his four year stay in Australia were significant. His sexual awakening: first orgasm while reading a passage from Brantôme’s Dame Galantes. (Grosskurth conjectures the arousing passage to have been when “the greatest nobles of the Court one day, not knowing what else to do, went to see the girls make water, concealed, that is to say, beneath a floor with wide cracks”.) His spiritual awakening: he read James Hinton’s Life in Nature, an amorphous mush of Christianity and Spencerian organicism that convinced him of the divine unity of all life, to be found in universal love (of women) and total unselfishness.

He resolved to return to London and enter the medical profession. He spent seven years on his medical studies, and at the same time attended Fabian society meetings, helped found The Progressive Association and Fellowship of the New Life, wrote an appreciative essay on Hardy’s novels, became embroiled with Hinton’s relatives, and fell in love with the turbulent and perpetually troubled female liberationist Olive Schreiner. There was much peculiar passion between them: he showing her “live sperms” through a microscope, ardent and incessant discussion of The Woman’s Question, swapping details about masturbation (they were both guilty and took bromides to suppress their urges), speculating on the significance of Olive’s increased sexual desires during masturbation, and so on. It didn’t last. Olive took off leaving Ellis to write the heartfelt whacky literary essays that were to appear as The New Life.

Olive Schreiner was the first of many bizarre sexual liasions Ellis enjoyed and suffered for the rest of his life. In 1891 he married Edith Lees, a nervous promiscuous lesbian (as he was to find out) who readily agreed to his suggestion that theirs should be a “modern marriage:, i.e., separate lives in separate beds. Then there was the sweet craving Mneme Barker Smith. Then Francoise Lafitte-Cyon and Margaret Sanger, both of whom seemed sympathetic if not enthusiastic about Ellis’s attraction to their urine; his “germ of perversion” as he called it: “The sacred J.A.R. longs to be filled with sacramental wine”, he wrote to Margaret; whilst his letters to and from Francoise were filled with images of liquidity and mutual pourings. The succession of handmaidens ended with Ellis at 68 being alternately fascinated and wearied by Faith full of “quiet virginal ecstasy” etc…

In and among these liaisons Ellis wrote his autobiography, many books of essays, his seven volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, and hundreds of articles on War, Sex, Peace, Morals, Racial regeneration, Social Hygiene, and other big issues of the day.

What are we to make of him? And before that, since she has assembled the data, what does his biographer make of him? Phyllis Grosskurth anticipates the question in her introduction in order to duck it. She rejects the idea that it is her job to provide a “frozen icon”, and offers instead a depiction of Ellis as character in motion, invoking Henry James’s dictum “What is character but the determination of incident. What is incident but the illustration of character?” Perhaps certain kinds of fiction James’ formula is a good one, but in biography it leads to a disastrous mimesis. Certainly the biography presented here is a carefully researched, patiently documented exhibition of Ellis’s life as recorded by him in his letters, diaries, and autobiography. Unfortunately it gives as vague, confusing and repressed a picture of his character as he himself had. How could it be otherwise? The principle of letting the facts speak for themselves is at best an inductivist cop out. Here, where the “facts” are a shy secretive individual’s account of himself, it produces an undifferentiated porridge.

There are a few raisins in the porridge here and there. The minor figures come off best. The unpleasant, hard-nosed statistician Karl Pearson, always eager to ridicule Ellis and his theories, leaves a vivid trace. As does the arch crook de Villiers (one of his 30 aliases) whose University of Watford (!) Press finally published Sexual Inversion.

Ellis lived wrote promoted researched and slept sex. Two items: he was impotent and he was attracted to female urine. Phyllis Grosskurth tells us this much and stops. How impotent? When? With whom? In what manner? Why? Except for the admissions, mostly sad, furtive and self-pitying, snatched from Ellis himself, we are told next to nothing. Nothing is conjectured. No picture is created. No wider characterization is offered. No connection made between his impotence and his character.

The fact seems to be that an erect cock was anathema to Ellis. Anything that had a hard outline, that took a definite stand, that smacked of firmness, aggression, thrust, or penetration made him uneasy and threatened him. The man could not be expected to be firm about his impotence. Unfortunately Phyllis Grosskurth’s biography echoes rather than respects or illuminates his softness. And on the rare occasions when she does intervene with an independent voice she is hard in the wrong sort of way. As when, with a post-Kinsey smugness she takes Ellis to task for hiding behind “tumescence” and “detumescence” rather than good healthy words like “arousal” and “climax”. Or when she suggests, with a marvelous insensitivity to the man’s condition and her own words, the motto for his whole aesthetic – “Only Enlarge.” Perhaps I have missed the irony.

And what of Ellis and urine? Grossburth is almost as evasive and hesitant about it as he was – with far less justification. The word she uses – urolagnia – surely as de-gutted and scienticised as his “tumescence”, is safely excluded from all the usual dictionaries. A medical lexicon offers “libido aroused by watching a person micturating”. Does she mean this? The Brantôme passage quoted earlier suggests the desire to be urinated on. Other references of Ellis’s suggest quaffing the stuff. Which is it? The biography, making no connection between Ellis’s sexuality and his character, or his writings, or his way of being in the world, never raises these questions. Instead we get unconscious ironies. Thus Grosskurth commenting on his book Kanga Creek decides that “his obsession with excrement is tasteless”. Tasteless? Apart from exhibiting the very prudishmess Ellis fought so hardd against, the word is so beautifully ill-chosen. His biographer, it seems, is embarrassed about her subject’s embarassments, and poor Ellis almost disappears in the process.

Almost but not entirely. For all his emotional shallowness, Ellis’s apprehension of his own pain and confusion rises on occasions above his wallowing. And then the mimetic method of the biography pays off. The chapter “Soliel de Joie” is a moving account of a man painfully recognizing that he is being crushed by a sexual jealously which all his intellectualizing of passion tells him he shouldn’t be feeling. Ellis’s strength emerges here. What was strong about him was not any originality or power of mind – his sexological observations were derivative and amateurish in comparison to Kraft Ebing, his ideas muddled and unimaginative when set beside the contemporary work of Freud – but his never-ending battle with his own weakness. He believed that life was a dance which was “infinitely difficult and that the dancer may always expect to find his slippers full of blood”.

The photographs in the book are excellent. Two images of Ellis are particularly striking. The first, used on the dust jacket, shows him at 64, Old Testament prophet head, eyes staring into the distance with a fearlessness belied by the hands – the left twisted back to shield and block the clenched right fist. The other, taken four years later, shows him sunbathing nude, one leg raised protecting his member from the camera, his body alabaster white and vulnerable against the rough grass – a frail, touching and slightly repellent faun.

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