The Pursuit of Serenity: Havelock Ellis and the New Politics
Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 1999, ISBN: 9789053563865
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine
Date accessed: 2 June, 2023
This is an important book which deserves wide circulation. It is perhaps the only satisfactory extended study yet produced of that important cultural figure Havelock Ellis and the impact of his writings. The parlous state of Ellis scholarship was recently demonstrated by Vernon Rosario's otherwise excellent edited volume Science and Homosexualities (1997). Hardly a chapter failed to allude to some passage in Ellis's works, yet the book as a whole neglected to include any chapter on Ellis himself (o r even on his close colleague, Edward Carpenter). There have been a number of biographies, ranging from the hagiographic to the critical, but these have all tended to emphasise the dramatic soap-opera aspects of the emotional and sexual lives of Ellis and his circle rather than supplying a reasoned assessment of his place in history. Narrowly biographical focus has also tended to occlude the broader historical context within which Ellis was operating, leading to distortions in the analysis of his work. Gr osskurth, for example, suggested that Ellis's lack of attention to 'normal' male sexuality was the result of his personal idiosyncracies, although for just about everyone writing about sex in later nineteenth century, it formed an assumed and uninterrogat ed norm against which deviancy could be defined. Indeed, the 'normal' heterosexual male has largely continued to be ignored by sexual investigators.
Nottingham rightly concedes of Ellis that 'it would never be possible to establish a clear distinction between his life and his books' (p. 7) and he is extremely clear on the significance for the writings, and for the perceptions of Ellis within the publi c domain, of the private events of Ellis's life. He pays attention, therefore, to the intricacies of the seminal period as a schoolteacher in the Australian outback, during which Ellis's ideas were formed and his sense of mission developed. His complex an d formative relationship with the South African feminist writer, Olive Schreiner, and the difficulties of his marriage to the predominantly lesbian Edith Lees, are analysed, as is the importance of his congenial relationship with pioneer homosexual rights activist, socialist and early 'green', Edward Carpenter, and their empowering mutual sense of being engaged in a common purpose.
However, Nottingham does not get bogged down in the intricate minutiae of Ellis's relationships. Instead, one of the major strengths of The Pursuit of Serenity, is a thoroughly historically grounded sociological awareness, not only of 'the sociological improbability' of Ellis's own career, but of his relationship to the intellectual currents of his time, the make-up of the constituency to which he appealed, and the reasons why he did so. Nottingham suggests that Ellis and his milieu need to be exa mined within a framework of generational revolt, in particular the late nineteenth century rebellion against the cherished ideals and conventions of Victorianism. This wide-ranging 'New Spirit' is perceptively described and analysed. Influenced by a remar kably diverse range of thinkers, it covered a range of what may now appear to be incongruous and even contradictory social causes. As Nottingham demonstrates, there were not only personal contacts between this social current and the aesthetic/decadent mov ement in the arts (Ellis shared chambers with the decadent poet Arthur Symons), but strong intellectual links between these apparently distinct responses to 'Victorian humbug' (as indeed Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man under Socialism reminds us).
Nottingham brilliantly reconstructs a world of 'earnest little societies', a 'vigorous, if precarious, radical press eager enough to accept earnest articles', and 'a number of adventurous publications... beginning to search out a new audience for intellec tual literature' and to offer advances to likely providers of this (p. 80). 'Science' was a catchword; as Nottingham perceptively remarks, it was 'a way of looking at the world, a side to be on, a vantage point from which to dismiss old fashioned moral ju dgement', almost entirely distinct from the activities and concerns of an actual, increasingly professionalised, scientific community (p. 88). This milieu provided Ellis with outlets, a forum, an audience, and an income. If he was so shy at meetings that he 'sat at the literature table near the draughty door' (p. 7), he 'became a lion when he took up his pen', manifesting 'boldness... intellectual ability... .security of agenda and certainty of purpose' (p. 80-1). Eccentric perhaps but by no means margi nal, rather, he played a central part in this significant intellectual current.
Ellis's writings on sexuality, principally the seven massive volumes of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex, which appeared over a period of thirty years, have been routinely, and usually uncritically, mined for exemplary gobbets of late nineteen th century sexology, mostly presented from a pejorative angle. Such cherry-picking has seldom been entirely clear, when presenting the material thus gleaned, as to whether the opinions and theories cited with horror from the perspective of 1970s radical f eminism or gay theory were even those of Ellis himself, or citations from the innumerable other authorities quoted in his encyclopaedic compilation. Nottingham carefully places Ellis's work as sexual enlightener as less ground-breaking than usually concei ved, suggesting that he was in fact articulating the discontents and aspirations of a constituency already moving beyond accepted conventions, if perhaps only in theory and speculation rather than practice. Given the almost mediumistic role played by Elli s in gathering up and expressing the range of ideas current at the time, it is possible (and I must plead somewhat guilty myself) to prove just about anything about Ellis's ideas by judicious selection from Ellis's writings - as with one of his own heroes , Walt Whitman, he was large, he contained multitudes, he contradicted himself, and, over his very long career, he sometimes changed his mind.
In his account of the life and writings Nottingham deals mainly with Ellis prior to 1914 (while considering the much longer extended period of his influence), a legitimate choice to sharpen the focus in dealing with an individual who had a long life and p roduced numerous writings and also in keeping with Nottingham's concept of generational rebellion. Ellis can be and often has been characterised as the product of a specific late nineteenth century moment, a last Victorian rather than an early modernist/m oderniser (though his influence on modernism in the widest sense has only begun to be explored with any seriousness). The bulk of the Studies (volumes one to six) had appeared by 1910 (with a late coda in 1927) and as Nottingham persuasively argues, the t heories and personal stance which Ellis had generated by the first decade of the twentieth century did not undergo any radical alterations under the impact of either wider political events (such as the First World War) or events within his personal life. It is possible that Nottingham may have rather underplayed the influence on Ellis's thought about women and marriage in particular of several important relationships with women in his middle years. He not only entered a second, common-law, marriage with Françoise Lafitte-Cyon (also known as Françoise DeLisle), but had liaisons with, among other dynamic women of the day, American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger and the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle ('H.D'), as well as close if probably non-sexual fri endships with women exploring new avenues of female subjectivity, such as Stella Browne and 'Bryher' - Winifred Ellerman, H.D.'s close companion. Yet although later works (such as the 1933 Psychology of Sex) demonstrated that Ellis kept up with sci entific developments, revealing him as well abreast of the recent explosion of endocrinological knowledge, they indicate a process of continuous accretion to, and moderation of, the existing corpus, rather than profound conceptual change or development. Certainly the ideas about female sexuality advanced in such essays as 'The erotic rights of women' and 'The play-function of sex', had been prefigured in the chapters on marriage in Sex in Relation to Society.
Nottingham draws attention to the strong 'spiritual' component in Ellis's thought and writings: as with Carpenter, the Church had been considered as a career-path before the rejection of conventional Christian beliefs, and there remained both a certain c haracteristically English nature-mysticism, and concern for non-material values. It would have been nice to see this related to the interest in alternative forms of religion, such as theosophy, so common in progressive circles of the time. It would appear that he introduced Margaret Sanger to Rosicrucianism, which remained a life-long interest of hers, during a visit to Ireland. However, the aura of spirituality detached from any too specific doctrinal commitment, surely played a large part in Ellis's app eal. His writings could be, and were, referred to and recommended with no feelings of embarrassment or inappropriateness by religious writers of the interwar period, for example A. Herbert Gray and Leslie Weatherhead, when advancing their new visions of C hristian marriage.
This lack of too close specificity in doctrine also applies, as it becomes clear from Nottingham's astute analysis, to Ellis's political agenda. He was 'clearly interested in a series of issues which were political in any ordinary sense' however, 'he had no concern for the conventional means of politics' (p. 217). Almost allergic to conflict and strife, he posited a benign evolution towards a harmonious state. His works eschewed demagoguery and preaching in favour of addressing himself 'as if... to an as senting community', assuming the agreement of the reader (p. 213). He saw real reform as taking place through the creation of a more enlightened public opinion, fanning out from an initial small group or clusters of like-minded individuals, who would emb ody in lifestyle choices 'an alternative to the hypocrisy and needless complexity of modern life' (p. 212). The agents of the transformation of society as Ellis envisaged it were not politicians and statesmen but 'the doctor in his consulting room, the te acher in the school, the preacher in the pulpit, the journalist in the press' (p. 222). When presented with the more intractable political choices he had 'a habitual tendency to drift into transcendentalism': yet, if sometimes politically naive, he was n ot politically ignorant, and his circles included a large number of activists representing a wide spectrum of affiliations. Indeed, many of the causes to which he was devoted had their adherents among those engaged in what is more usually considered the p olitical sphere. But his very lack of the doctrinaire surely assisted in the gentle spread of his theories, through a failure to stimulate any of the usual antibodies against their consideration or acceptance.
One of the great achievements of this book is to define the audience which was influenced either directly by Havelock Ellis's writings, or the idea of 'Havelock Ellis', the 'Sage of Sex', the prophet of sexual enlightenment and a utopian vision of the har monious life. Nottingham convincingly argues that 'the relationship between the metropolitan lecturers on the tramp and their provincial listeners' forms the clue to 'the expansion of Ellis's readership and his position in the intellectual history of radi cal and progressive politics' (p. 223). There was a 'growing market for progressive ideas' in provincial England at the beginning of the twentieth century among the 'villa-bound seekers after truth'. Here, Nottingham suggests, there was a deep resonance b etween the new values Ellis created from his own socially ambiguous status, and the needs of those experiencing similar strains, especially the expanding group of lower middle-class professionals. He provided them with a 'politics... that would do service as a philosophy of life', worthy of their dedication to its service, while assisting in the creation of personal and social identity: a politics that was about principle and influence rather than power (p. 233). These aspirants could feel part of a large r network, a virtual 'community of enlightenment', even if themselves peripheral to the conventional centres of political power. (The kind of communities they formed, or at least constituted an influential group within, are represented, not entirely unkin dly, through the eyes of Richard Hannay in the 'Garden City' of 'Biggleswick' in the opening chapters of John Buchan's First World War thriller Mr Standfast,.)
Ellis has been criticised, notably by Phyllis Grosskurth in the most recent biography, for failing to create a theory and a school of thought comparable to Freud and psychoanalysis: one of Nottingham's greatest services in this book is to show how beside the point such a criticism is. In a very telling phrase he comments that this 'has something of the air of denying a canary a prize in a cat show' (p. 244). As Nottingham points out Ellis was a 'fastidious, painfully self-conscious and secretive individua l', much of whose personal life was conducted by correspondence (surely he would have relished the Internet). His lack of combativeness was exacerbated by the excruciating ordeal of the prosecution of Sexual Inversion for obscenity in 1898. While h e may have perceived himself as a seer, or even a prophet, he rejected (indeed, demonstrably flinched away from) the status of guru or leader and spent much time evading attempts to constitute him as such. Falling outside the parameters of this work, Norm an Haire's attempts to set himself up as Ellis's chief disciple on his arrival in England from Australia, and his failure to gain more than very general statements of support from an elusive Ellis for the World Sexual Reform Congress in London, 1929, are an amusing story in themselves. They form a paradigm of the relationship between these two very different personalities, Haire the relentless self-promoter with his profitable, and occasionally skirting the illegal, Harley Street practice, his vigorous in volvement in organisations and public activity, forming almost the antithesis to Ellis.
There are one or two slight niggles: was Brixton quite such a geographically black hole as Nottingham implies? - or is this overlaying the modern transport network upon early twentieth century London? It was off the fashionable map, and undoubtedly inconv enient for casual dropping in, but hardly as much of a gruelling pilgrimage as Carpenter's Milthorpe. Surely there were trams and buses? Stella Browne, for example, was at one time making the journey from Chelsea to take tea with Ellis relatively often.
While, as indicated at the outset, the state of Ellis scholarship is deplorable, the rather early cut-off date of the works cited by Nottingham mean that a number of recent works which endeavour to place the sexological project in its wider cultural conte xt have been overlooked. Rosario's Science and Homosexualities has already been mentioned, and the essays in Lucy Bland and Laura Doan's Sexology in Culture (1998) similarly provide some new ways of looking at the influence of Ellis and his compeers. But this book is so solid in its research, going where nobody has yet gone, that this is but a minor cavil and far from being a major lacuna.
Finally, it must be said that this book is very well-written and a joy to read. Ellis himself was a remarkable stylist - as Rebecca West, herself no mean mistress of English prose, commented. Nottingham's own prose-style does not suffer when in conjunctio n with quoted passages, and some of his lines indeed stand comparison with West's wonderful characterisation of Ellis as sustaining 'in the most difficult circumstances' the 'inveterate appearance... of being a character out of Cranford'. Nottingha m has produced a subtly-argued and nuanced study which, while far from uncritical of Ellis as a man and a thinker, explains why and how he became such an important and influential figure in the intellectual life of twentieth-century Britain.
I must begin by thanking Lesley Hall for a thoughtful, perceptive and, above all, generous review of my book on Havelock Ellis. It is particularly gratifying, that such an acknowledged authority on the study of human sexuality feels that my work makes some contribution to what has now become a recognised and voluminous, if somewhat boundary-less, field of study.
I found Ellis a rewarding but difficult subject and I thought it might be most useful if I discussed the points Hall has raised in the context of the four major intellectual difficulties I encountered in writing the book. Firstly, there was the problem posed by the sheer volume of archive material, secondly, the sharply contested nature of Ellis's current reputation, thirdly the range of fields in which Ellis made a serious contribution, and finally, a set of particular difficulties in setting Ellis in his proper historical context.
Firstly then, this abundance of archive material: Ellis was a painfully shy man whose desire for privacy was matched only by an intense evangelical impulse. Add to this his belief that the ideal friendship, even the ideal marriage, was something that could be conducted by post, and one has a correspondence which was both vast and intellectually substantial. Coming to terms with this was not, I felt, just a matter of time and effort. It would certainly be possible to follow all the connections but the risk would be an account that lacked focus or worse, a work where the processes of selection were not acknowledged. My suspicion was that it would be most productive to focus on his earlier development. I felt that it was in that extraordinary milieu that was progressive London of the last years of the nineteenth century that one should seek answers to the three key questions: how he developed his conviction that he had something to convey, what he saw as the key purposes of his work, and why he was able to convince so many others that he had something significant to communicate. At the end of the project I have no reason to doubt that this was on balance the right way to proceed, but I cannot deny that there are perspectives that have been overlooked. Hall is quite right in pointing out that I have largely ignored the well-documented relationships between Ellis and his 'dear friends' that developed in the last two decades of his life. I don't doubt that there is much of interest here, particularly pertaining to Ellis's personal appreciation of heterosexual relationships, yet in terms of the specific task I set myself, these relationships seemed to represent the working out of themes already present. The exception perhaps is his long-term domestic ménage with Françoise Lafitte. This of course I had to deal with if only for Ellis's discovery, in late middle age, that he was capable of a greater range of conventional heterosexual sexual responses than he had previously thought possible. This would have been poignant in any life but was clearly additionally significant for someone who claimed an authority in such matters.
Secondly, there were the difficulties associated with the fact that the legacy of Ellis has become heavily contested ground. In the long period of incubating the book I came across a number of people who were quite convinced that that they knew every thing that needed to be known. Feminists in particular seemed to be universally, sometimes passionately, hostile. In a sense Ellis invited such criticism. In failing to draw a line between his persona and his writings, in presenting himself as the man of exceptional imagination who in both life and work could transcend the gender divide, in encouraging the mythology which afforded him an almost totemic status as 'the greatest exponent of the woman question', he virtually invited a hunt for heresies and hypocrisies. His marriage, publicly, if selectively, displayed, was always going to have some bearing on his professional reputation, given that his wife was a prominent feminist with homosexual inclinations. Some celebrated the union as Ellis would have wished, as 'a simple, but daring step in the direction of liberated love - a thing of beauty' but it is now usually, and not unreasonably, presented as a miserable failure from beginning to end. More seriously, his theoretical handling of the differences between men and women has been seen as 'one of the most reactionary aspects of his work'. A recent historian of sexual science (Paul Robinson) has designated him 'sexist'. The height of the original pedestal makes the fall all the more irresistible. Yet such dismissals miss the important point for, even if one assumes he was a awful as he is now presented, it is still necessary to explain why prominent feminists of his own day, such as Marie Stopes, Ellen Key, and Margaret Sanger, so readily endorsed his work? Why was it that Bertrand Russell praised him as one who did much to demystify human sexuality in an era of repression? Why do many others testify to that quality in Ellis's work which had enabled them to liberate themselves both personally and intellectually from 'Victorian' attitudes.
To my mind answers can only be found in a precise recreation of historical context; in engaging with my third problem. It is all too easy to forget that Ellis was a Victorian himself, being fully forty-two years old in the year the Queen died. Yet partly because of his subject matter, partly because of that engaging style which Hall identifies, partly also because of the vibrancy and self-conscious modernity of the radicals of those last decades of the Nineteenth century, it is difficult to remember that a process of historical recreation is necessary. Those who rush to judgement in terms of our contemporary knowledge and sensibilities tell us something about themselves, perhaps even ourselves, but not much about Ellis. I should add that I see no need to exempt Ellis from criticism. As readers of the book will see I find many aspects of his work inadequate, even annoying, but I have tried, as far as is possible, to apply the rule that his work can only be criticised, only understood, in terms of the state of knowledge and argument of his time. In reality, in spite of his unequivocal celebration of the new, Ellis can best be understood as a pivotal character, consciously embracing the modern, but, less consciously, rooted in the past. Setting Ellis's thought in an era when the tensions between past and present were acute enough to find expression in ideological form helps, I suggest, not only to explain his success but the significance of his ideas. His first book, the New Spirit was obviously the work of a self appointed herald of a new age, but it is equally useful to consider the Studies in the Psychology of Sex as a guidebook for those in need of new bearings.
The final difficulty in writing about Havelock Ellis is how one is to cope with the sheer variety of his work. As well as that work in human sexuality and gender relationships with which modern readers are most familiar, he produced, and continued to produce throughout his career, substantial books and articles on a wide variety of topics. For example, he argued for a progressive penal policy, a 'public health' approach to medicine, and proposed a national health service fully fifteen years before Beatrice Webb. He was, like many progressives of his time, an energetic supporter of eugenic policies and a no less passionate advocate of internationalism Equally, he was a perceptive and entertaining critic who played a major role in bringing Thomas Hardy, Ibsen and Nietzsche to the progressive reading public. Most of those who have written about Ellis have simply ignored this, some pausing to express incredulity at his claim that he was a socialist, and got on with discussing what they find most interesting. This is not unreasonable in itself but in this case it does have unfortunate consequences for the other work provides the important clues to understanding the work on human sexuality itself. While there is a good deal of respect for Ellis's major work, the six volume, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, but there is also a degree of bafflement. It is indeed a strange work, not ill written nor uninteresting, but formless. It feels like, and indeed was, the product of obsession: a plethora of apparently unrelated facts and ideas, more an encyclopaedia than a thesis. How then could Edward Carpenter see this as a 'foundation stone of a new age' and historians of sexual science acknowledge it as a pioneering work in their discipline? The answer I believe lies in understanding it as a work that was essentially political, albeit in a rather specialised sense. Ellis contribution was more a matter of forcing facts into the public arena, than of systematically analysing them; of approaching sensitive areas with indulgence, rather than censoriousness; of insinuating comforting notions of relativity by publicising the variety of sexual experience; of putting names to less common practices, thereby making them more bearable to those who followed them; and of, above all, of turning sexual enlightenment into a casus belli; on the one side the repressed and repressing under the banner of hypocrisy, on the other an alliance of the tormented and enlightened under the banner of sincerity.
A proper appreciation of this political aspect of the work also helps us with the question of why Ellis became so famous. He was a major contributor to the development of what I have described as the 'New Politics', that wave of progressive enthusiasm which swept through Britain and the United States in the last years of the Nineteenth century. The new politics was abstract and idealist, rooted in the certainty that the inadequacies of the existing political world could be swept away on a tide of rationality and sincerity. It was all issues plans and causes: the rights of women, the imperative of peace, the reform of everything from social institutions to habits of eating and dressing. It was a world where politics was becoming domesticated as private life was being politicised. It was a politics defined for those who could not aspire to the glittering prizes but were still reluctant to see themselves as the unconscious pawns of history. Politics, so defined, could be practised in the nursery, the bedroom, the radical journal, or the evening meeting. In short it was a world which was perfectly suited to Ellis's ministrations.
In the end, whatever else we may feel about Ellis, we must recognise a staggeringly successful intellectual career. Largely unaided and sometimes in the face of nagging privations he took himself from lower middle class obscurity to an honoured seat in the progressive firmament. He created himself as a beacon around which the debates of the enlightened could revolve. He presented himself as the evangelist of an alternative mental kingdom, the founding father of a new state of mind. Armed with little more than the certainty that he had something vital to convey he sought to involve his audience in his dream of a new serene order. The size of the audience and the continuing ripples of interest stand testament to a remarkable achievement.