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  (Henry) Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), by Emil Otto Hoppé, 1922 (Henry) Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), by Emil Otto Hoppé, 1922
Ellis, (Henry) Havelock (1859–1939), writer and sexologist, was born on 2 February 1859 at 1 St John's Grove, Croydon, Surrey, the eldest child and only son of Edward Peppern Ellis (1827–1914), a sea captain, and his wife, Susannah Mary (1829–1888), whose father, John Wheatley, was also a seaman. Both parents were of Suffolk stock and Ellis was later to devote a great deal of time to exploring his East Anglian ancestry, but he spent most of his early life with his four sisters in various homes in the Surrey suburbs of London. The boy was named after a distant relation, Sir Henry Havelock, a general during the Indian mutiny, and when young he was known as Henry or Harry. He adopted the name Havelock Ellis when he began his literary career.

Influences and education

His father was rarely home, and Ellis was to pay little attention to him in his posthumously published memoirs. Ellis's mother was the dominant influence in his early life. As an ardent evangelical Christian, who had experienced a conversion at the age of seventeen, she had vowed never to visit a theatre in her life. Despite this she was a warm influence on the young Ellis, who early on slipped away from the more rigid aspects of her faith. He was provided with a basic education at Mrs Granville's school in south London, the French and German College, Merton (1868–71), and The Poplars, Mitcham (1871–4). His schooling was interrupted by a year-long sea voyage with his father at the age of seven. His main education, however, derived from wide reading, including in his adolescence J. E. Renan, A. C. Swinburne, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But the crucial formative influence was his stay in Australia for four years from the age of sixteen. Occasioned by health worries, this second trip with his father was intended as a journey round the world, but he stopped off in Australia, becoming a very young, and not over-competent, teacher and, at the age of nineteen, briefly a headmaster, at schools in the outback. Here, in almost total isolation, he began to experience conflicts in his awakening sexual life and in his spiritual outlook. The turning point, as he ever after saw it, came when he was teaching at a small school in Sparkes Creek in New South Wales. Born in the year of the first publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Ellis was a child of a new scientific optimism, unattracted to a religious world outlook which he saw as dying, but repelled by the absorption of science into a chilly utilitarianism. It was in this state of mind that he read, for the second time, a book entitled Life in Nature (1862) by James Hinton, an aural surgeon and a writer on political, social, religious, and sexual matters. The book sparked a spiritual transformation:
The clash in my inner life was due to what had come to seem to me the hopeless discrepancy of two different conceptions of the universe … The great revelation brought to me by Hinton … was that these two conflicting attitudes are really but harmonious though different aspects of the same unity. (Ellis, 130–31)
Each person, Ellis believed, constructed a personal pattern of meaning, the shaping of which was an art—and much of his philosophical work was concerned with the depiction of this ‘Art of Life’. The dance for Ellis most perfectly represented the form of life: a unity of pattern, rhythm, feeling, and intellect. But balancing this spiritual outlook was a conviction that science, guided by a humanist outlook, could lay bare the truths of human nature. In particular, for the young Ellis the belief that sexual freedom could bring in a new age of happiness helped direct him towards the scientific study of sex. To prepare him for this he resolved to train as a doctor, and with his new inner self-confidence and ambitions he returned to London in April 1879. Ellis soon embarked on his medical training, supported financially by his mother and the Hinton circle, eventually becoming a medical student at St Thomas's Hospital, London. His training took a long eight years (1881–9), and, having failed to achieve more prestigious qualifications, he ended up as a licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries, which nevertheless qualified him to practise. Thereafter, however, his actual work as a doctor was spasmodic. During his training and in the years that followed his real preoccupation was with his literary and scientific studies. The London of the 1880s was a focus of intense intellectual and political ferment, and Ellis immersed himself in this new culture. Through his work on the radical journal Today, his secretaryship of the Progressive Association, and membership of the Fellowship of the New Life (a loose gathering of radicals exploring new ways of living from which the Fabian Society later developed after an acrimonious split), he met many of the radical luminaries of the time, including H. M. Hyndman, Eleanor Marx, George Bernard Shaw, and Edward Carpenter. He began publishing essays on religion, philosophy, travel, and politics. He briefly edited a pioneering series of unexpurgated editions of English plays, the Mermaid series, and started editing the highly influential Contemporary Science series of books, which was to provide a major source of his income for the next thirty years. In 1890 he published his own first book, The New Spirit, which described what he saw as the spiritual awakening of the age. The chief elements of this were the growth of science, the rise of women, and the march of democracy, all of which demanded education and a reasonable organization of life.

Character and private life

Ellis described himself throughout his life as a socialist, but despite his association with various radical groups he was never a political activist. Even as a well-known writer in later life, giving his formal support to campaigns for sex reform, eugenics, abortion, and voluntary euthanasia, he was extremely reluctant to become involved in public controversy. Although physically a handsome and commanding figure with a flowing beard which, as he grew older, increasingly confirmed his reputation as a sage, he was diffident in manner, generally finding excuses to avoid high profile events or even social engagements. Despite frequent foreign travel, often with his close friend Arthur Symons, he regularly described himself as a recluse. It was in private involvements, through a vast daily correspondence, and by his voluminous writings that he exercised his influence. Even in his publications his manner was often indirect, preferring, as he put it, ‘to express the shocking things in a quiet, suave, matter-of-course way, sugar coating the pill’ (Grosskurth, 384). Yet both his private life and his public writings had the potentiality to shock his contemporaries.

It was in these early years of incessant intellectual activity that Ellis began the two most important emotional involvements of his early life. The first was with the South African author , already famous for her novel The Story of an African Farm (1883) when they met early in 1884 through their mutual friend Eleanor Marx. Olive was a forceful and passionate woman, though prone to ill health, and the two writers quickly established a fervent relationship. It is not clear whether it was conventionally consummated. Ellis himself appears not to have been strongly drawn to heterosexual intercourse, and had a lifelong interest in urolagnia, a delight in seeing women urinate. The sexual ardour of the relationship, certainly on Schreiner's part, appears to have soon cooled, though the emotional intensity remained. It survived Schreiner's return to South Africa in 1889, continuing until her death via an almost daily correspondence and occasional meetings.

Ellis's relationship with the woman who was to become his wife, Edith Mary Oldham Lees (1861–1916), daughter of Samuel Oldham Lees, a landowner, began the year after Schreiner's departure, and was consolidated by a common interest in the work of Hinton and with the Fellowship of the New Life. Edith Lees had become secretary of the fellowship house in London (an experience which was to convince her that ‘fellowship was hell’), though she gave this up when she and Ellis married on 19 December 1891. She too was a passionate woman who, despite an intense mutual involvement with Ellis (he was to devote almost half of his autobiography to their relationship), pursued an independent life as a lecturer and writer. By Victorian standards the partnership was highly unconventional. They maintained separate incomes (neither of which was high or secure) and, for large parts of the year, separate dwellings. Both were devoted to their homes in Carbis Bay, Cornwall (here Ellis began his lifelong practice of writing in the open air), and in Surrey, but Ellis also used rooms in the Temple, Chelsea, Brixton, West Drayton, and the Chilterns. Edith's emotional and sexual passions were primarily lesbian, and both she and Ellis were to have a series of close emotional involvements with other women, certainly sexual in Edith's case, more ambiguously erotic in Ellis's case.

Studies in the Psychology of Sex

By the early 1890s Ellis was ready to embark on what he regarded as his crowning achievement, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1910, with a seventh, supplementary, volume in 1928). The series began with Sexual Inversion, the first serious study of homosexuality published in Britain. It was conceived as a collaboration with the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, himself homosexual, and anxious to promote a more tolerant climate towards homosexuality. The co-authors (who never in fact met, both preferring correspondence) were in many ways ill-matched, but Ellis was strongly committed to the project, partly as a result of his awareness of the homosexuality of his wife and friends such as Edward Carpenter, whose own accounts appeared as slightly disguised case studies in the book. He completed the book after Symonds's death in 1893, the first print appearing in German, then in English in 1897 under their joint names. Ellis now became embroiled in an unfortunate series of events. First of all, Ellis was forced by Symonds's family to withdraw his co-author's name from the book. The aftermath of the trials of Oscar Wilde was not the best time to publish a major text on homosexuality that might sully another aesthete's reputation. Then Ellis found himself caught in the web of a dubious publisher and in a subsequent trial of the secretary of the sexually progressive Legitimation League, George Bedborough, for selling the book. In the 1898 trial, which did not directly involve Ellis, the book was labelled a ‘certain lewd, wicked, bawdy, scandalous libel’, and was subsequently withdrawn from sale. Ellis was confirmed in his caution about getting involved in public controversy. More crucially, he determined thereafter that the Studies should be published in the USA.

Despite this unfortunate beginning the Studies were to prove enormously influential. The first volume set the tone. By collating all the available evidence, historical, anthropological, social, and scientific, Ellis's aim was to demonstrate that homosexuality (or inversion, his preferred term) was not a product of peculiar national vices, or periods of social decay, but a common and recurrent part of human sexuality, a quirk of nature, a congenital anomaly. In line with what was then considered advanced thinking, his conviction of the biological origins of human behaviour was to colour much of his thought. His book The Criminal (1890) had already argued that criminal behaviour was innate. The various volumes of the Studies explored this biological emphasis across the range of sexual behaviours. First, he sought to establish the natural basis of human sexuality in all its forms; nothing that was based in nature could be seen as inherently wrong. But second, he attempted to reconcile these variations to what he regarded as the supreme biological origin and function of sex, the man wooing a woman for the purpose of reproduction. Though an advanced advocate of a woman's right to sexual fulfilment, his view of an essential female passivity in sexual matters subsequently attracted sharp criticism, particularly as it appeared to subordinate female sexuality to male. His biological determinism led him to give support throughout his life to eugenics, the planned breeding of the best, and to differentiate him from his great contemporary Sigmund Freud, with whom he had a mutually respectful but somewhat fractious relationship (conducted entirely through correspondence and print). Yet despite his biological preoccupations Ellis was no empirical scientist. His method was that of the naturalist, collecting facts from a vast variety of sources and presenting them in an ordered, but essentially descriptive, fashion. As a result, unlike Freud, he never established a scientific school, nor is it possible to see an intellectual master plan in his work. But for his progressive contemporaries he seemed a prophet of a more humane attitude to sex. Through the Studies, probably read about more than read, he became internationally famous as a sexologist, and a magnet for other would-be sex reformers. Many, like the American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, became lifelong friends. Thousands of lesser known people wrote to him about sexual issues, and for advice.

Later works

On completing the sixth volume of the Studies Ellis wrote, ‘The work that I was born to do is done’. In fact, many years of productive writing and growing fame lay ahead. He continued writing on sexual matters, including a textbook, The Psychology of Sex (1933). His various other interests were reflected in a number of collections of essays, and the publication of The Dance of Life (1923) made him a best-selling author for the first time. From the 1920s he also contributed short articles to American newspapers and journals, which did little for his intellectual reputation, but contributed significantly to his finances. Edith Lees had died in 1916, after some years of growing ill health, accentuated by then untreatable diabetes. In the last months she had secured a legal separation from Ellis, but her death left him emotionally bereft, and facing substantial debts left by his wife. Though legally no longer liable, he struggled to pay these off, and also to pay her a debt of honour by editing for publication her study of their common inspiration, James Hinton: a Sketch (1918).

Ellis's emotional life was not, however, over. From 1918 he shared his life with an acquaintance of Edith's, Françoise Lafitte-Cyon, also known as Delisle (1886–1974), separated wife of a Russian journalist, and mother of two boys. As he had with Edith, for many years Ellis retained his own home, and each of them continued to cultivate strong relationships outside their partnership. From 1928, however, as a result of the generosity of Margaret Sanger, Ellis, Françoise, and her sons shared a house in south London, 24 Holmdene Avenue, Herne Hill—which Ellis seems to have regarded as a mixed blessing. Eventually, again thanks to Sanger, Ellis found a cottage in Wivelsfield Green, Sussex, where he spent a substantial part of each year, indulging his new taste for nude bathing. In 1937 the two found a new home, Cherry Ground, Hintlesham, near Ipswich, Suffolk, the county of his ancestors. The last years of Ellis's life were shadowed by ill health—largely caused by an undiagnosed dysphagia, a pouch in his throat which caught all the food he ate—as well as continuing poverty. He died at Cherry Ground on 8 July 1939. His ashes were scattered at Golders Green crematorium, Middlesex. Ellis had intended that his autobiography, My Life, published in 1940, would provide an income for his companion, but wartime conditions led to poor sales; little else was left. He was survived by Françoise and her sons. He had no children of his own.

J. Weeks


H. H. Ellis, My life (1940) · P. Grosskurth, Havelock Ellis: a biography (1980) · V. Brome, Havelock Ellis, philosopher of sex: a biography (1979) · S. Rowbotham and J. Weeks, Socialism and the new life (1977) · F. Delisle, Friendship's odyssey (1964) · R. First and A. Scott, Olive Schreiner: a biography (1980) · m. cert. · d. cert.


BL, corresp. and MSS, Add. MSS 70524–70589 · Boston PL, letters · Col. U., corresp. · Harris Man. Oxf., MSS · Harvard U., Houghton L., MSS · Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, MSS · Meninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, division of museums and archives, letters and literary MSS · Ransom HRC, corresp. and MSS · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters and literary MSS |  Library of Birmingham, letters to Bernard Sleigh · BL, corresp. with George Bernard Shaw, Add. MSS 50533, 61891 · BL, corresp. with Society of Authors, Add. MSS 56701–56702 · BL, corresp. with Marie Stopes, Add. MS 58564 · BLPES, letters to Bronislaw Manilowski · Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, letters to Josephine Walter · Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam, corresp. with Emma Goldman · JRL, letters to Andre Raffalovich · Mitchell L., NSW, corresp. with William Chidley · Sheff. Arch., letters to Edward Carpenter · Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, corresp. with Jane Burr · U. Reading L., letters to the Bodley Head · UCL, letters to Francis Galton · UCL, corresp. with Karl Pearson · University of Bristol, corresp. with J. A. Symonds · University of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, letters to James Mavor


H. Bishop, oils, 1890×99, NPG · Man Ray, vintage bromide print, 1920×29, NPG · E. O. Hoppé, bromide print, 1922, NPG [see illus.] · H. Bishop, oils, 1924–5, RCP Lond. · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1931, NPG · B. Sleigh, drawing, 1931, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery · H. Coster, photograph, 1934, NPG · H. Coster, seven half-plate film negatives, 1934, NPG · E. X. Kapp, oil sketch, 1937, NPG · H. Channing Stephens, portrait, RCP Lond. · A. G. Walker, bronze bust, Ipswich Museum · bust, Book Trust, London · photographs, repro. in Grosskurth, Havelock Ellis

Wealth at death  

£5662 5s. 1d.: probate, 12 Dec 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales