Friday, October 14, 2016

Havelock Ellis. A Biography. By Phyllis Grosskurth

Havelock Ellis was a late Nineteenth Century physician whose writings had a humanizing, freeing influence on the sexually-repressed societies of Europe and North America. Regarding a couple’s private sexuality, he encouraged play and sexual fulfillment for women. Publicly, Ellis counseled reform of divorce laws, acceptance of masturbation and dissemination of birth control information. Also, Ellis saw lesbians and gays as a natural part of humanity, during a time when they were condemned by society as (at best) mentally ill, or (at worst) evil. These open, permissive values not only reduced suffering for people willing to read his works, but also pointed the way towards our contemporary acceptance of human sexuality.

Phyllis Grosskurth writes a typical birth-to-earth biography. There is nothing innovative about the organization of her book. However, it is prodigiously researched, employing the most important primary sources concerning Ellis’s life. Grosskurth estimates that she has examined “well over twenty thousand” unpublished letters while preparing this volume (Grosskurth, p. xi). The list of libraries, private collections and personal papers she perused is equally impressive.

Despite the author’s dedication to her project, she has few illusions about her subject. Ellis was a peculiar man. He became famous during his lifetime, with numerous friends, admirers and lovers; but this British scholar was shy, passive and required a great deal of time alone. Sexually, he preferred urolagnia (Grosskurth, pp. 227-8), and was frequently incapable of sustaining an erection (Grosskurth, p. 94). Mercifully, the descriptions of his carnal life are opaque. While his books on human sexuality were instructively explicit, his letters (wherein information regarding his proclivities resides) are more typical of the age than his books, and merely allude to erotic activity. But there are advantages to Ellis’s peculiarity: If the norm, in late Victorian England, was suffocating repression concerning physical relations, then it may be that an atypical individual outside of that norm was better suited to present alternatives that were liberated and liberating. Also, a person whose own sexual practices were condemned by society would be less likely to condemn the practices of others. Ellis rarely expressed urolagnia as anything but an abnormality. Conversely, he put his less than stellar potency to good use. He proposed couples have open communication about likes and dislikes, offering suggestions, beyond coitus, that contribute to close erotic relationships.

By the early Twentieth Century, Freud had eclipsed Ellis as the chief authority on human sexuality. The Viennese doctor had many critics who disagreed with his conclusions. But most people were willing to recognize Freud’s genius and the superiority of the psychoanalytic method over anything that had come before. Though Ellis receives little recognition for the freedoms we have, his contribution was not insignificant. Throughout the bio, Grosskurth vividly depicts Havelock Ellis’s flaws. But she also shows him as a loving person, who saw how self-abnegating conventions around sex were inflicting harm on individuals and societies. He also saw a way out: In Ellis’s own words to his wife, “I am not a God, but only a very human creature, full of defects & always failing, & with limitations & peculiarities & shyness & reserves—a creature that has always been liable to be wounded at a touch. I cannot alter my nature & I do not think anything is gained by hiding things & pretending, but that it is best in love to be open” (Grosskurth, p. 338). This is what Ellis brought to the exploration of sexuality: openness, self-reflection, vulnerability and honest communication. By emphasizing these humble qualities in his life and writing, he helped to break-down the walls of fear, repugnance and silence that those of his generation had built around the human body.


Grosskurth, Phyllis. Havelock Ellis. A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1980.