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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 3: Medical History •

Medical History

book jacket

Author's response


The Pursuit of Serenity: Havelock Ellis and the New Politics

by Chris Nottingham
Amsterdam University Press, 1999

Lesley A. Hall

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 as 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's 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.

June 2000

Original review

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