Havelock Ellis was born on February 2, 1859, in Croydon, England, the son of an English sea captain, Edward Peppen Ellis. His mother, Susannah Wheatley Ellis, was a highly energetic and vivacious woman. Ellis felt, however, that he owed much to the mediocrity of his father’s family, most of whose males, “whatever their occupation, have all the qualities of trustworthy bank clerks”; and their temperate and cheerful acceptance of the world, according to Ellis, helped to modify his own literary-aesthetic temperament and prevent him from adopting a one-sided, excessive, or eccentric view of life.
Ellis went to a boarding school, the Poplars, at Tooting, where he was well grounded in French, German, and Italian. It was here that one of his masters, Angus Mackay, revealed to him the delights of nineteenth-century English literature and helped arouse his vital interest in philosophic and politico-economic questions of the day. At 16 he began an undistinguished career as a teacher and later headmaster in Australia. At the age of 19, however, he came under the influence of and was in effect converted by the writings of the philosopher-surgeon James Hinton. Hinton’s book Life in Nature made such a profound impression on young Ellis that he decided to undertake the study of medicine in order to do research and writing in the field of sex. Ellis received his medical training at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, and as a medical assistant he attended a number of patients, many of them women in labor. He obtained his M.D. in 1889 but did not practice medicine; instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing—for many years his main source of income—and writing.
During the 1880s Ellis wrote on literary and social subjects for first-rate English journals and edited the Mermaid Series of Elizabethan dramatists (a series of scholarly reprints), the Contemporary Science Series, and other works. He made a name for himself in the field of belles-lettres with such books as The Soul of Spain, 1908, and Impressions and Comments, 1914–1924, and in the field of science and its social implications with such writings as A Study of British Genius (1904), The World of Dreams (1911), and The Dance of Life (1923).
Havelock Ellis is known best as a researcher and philosopher in the field of sex and love. Beginning his studies of human sexuality with a fact-packed book, Man and Woman (1894), he went on to write his monumental seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928). Although originally banned in his native England, the Studies became widely read and cited in all other parts of the world and were without question the most influential and precedent-shattering volumes on human sexuality ever written, up to the time of the publication of the Kinsey reports. They were followed by several other important books on sex-love relations from Ellis’ pen, including The Task of Social Hygiene (1912), Little Essays of Love and Virtue (1922–1931), Psychology of Sex (1933), My Life (1939), and Sex and Marriage (1951).
It is difficult to spotlight the most important and influential of Ellis’ contributions to the subject of sex. He produced the first notable scientific book on homosexuality; he pioneered in the presentation of full case histories, diaries, and letters on sexual subjects; he was the first important popularizer of the subject of sex-love relations; he was an outstanding crusader against sex censorship; he convincingly showed the interrelationships between human sexuality and the love emotions; he did some original research on masturbation, using himself as a subject; and he presented many original and well-formulated ideas on sexual modesty, the biology and psychology of the sexual impulse, sexual periodicity, erotic symbolism, transvestitism, and several other sexual-amative aspects of life. He and Sigmund Freud did more to make sex a respectable word than any other writers of their day. Although Ellis was largely a devotee of the library rather than a clinician or a laboratory scientist, his careful sex research has inspired much clinical and laboratory investigation.
The remarkable thing about Havelock Ellis’ sex writings is that while they are factual, objective, and coolly analytical, they are often pervaded with a thoroughly humane, love-centered (rather than sex-centered), and at times aesthetic-mystic quality that makes his views acutely personal as well as dispassionately scientific. He himself was a mild undinist, suffering from sexual shyness and inadequacy during his youth. Ellis was married for 25 years to a basically lesbian woman, Edith Lees Ellis, with whom he nonetheless had a remarkably intense love relationship. He achieved real sexual fulfillment, however, during the last twenty years of his life in his extramarital relationship with Francoise Delisle (he died in 1939 in Suffolk). It seems clear that Ellis’ own sex experiences, as well as his personal naturist—humanist philosophy of life (which he carried to almost religious extremes), combined to enable him to view human sexuality in a uniquely realistic yet essentially poetic way and to make him the best and most effective antipuritan of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
[For discussion of the subsequent development of Ellis’ work, seeSEXUAL BEHAVIOR.]
Works of purely literary interest have not been included.
(1894) 1929 Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary and Tertiary Sexual Characters. Rev. & enl. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
(1897–1928) 1936 Studies in the Psychology of Sex. 4 vols. Reissued in a new form. New York: Random House. → First published in seven volumes.
(1904) 1926 A Study of British Genius. New rev. & enl. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
(1911) 1926 The World of Dreams. New ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
1912 The Task of Social Hygiene. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
(1922–1931) 1937 On Life and Sex: Essays of Love and Virtue. 2 vols. in 1. New York: Garden City Pub. → The two volumes were originally published as Little Essays of Love and Virtue, 1922, and More Essays of Love and Virtue, 1931.
(1923) 1929 The Dance of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
1933 Psychology of Sex: A Manual for Students. New York: Emerson; London: Heinemann.
1939 My Life: Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
(1951) 1952 Sex and Marriage: Eros in Contemporary Life. Edited by John Gawsworth. New York: Random House; London: Williams & Norgate.
Collis, John Stewart 1959 Havelock Ellis; Artist of Life: A Study of His Life and Work. New York: Sloane. → Published in England as An Artist of Life: A Study of the Life and Work of Havelock Ellis.
Delisle, Francoise 1946 Friendship’s Odyssey. London: Heinemann. → An autobiography, with an account of the author’s relations with Havelock Ellis from 1916 to 1939.
Peterson, Houston 1928 Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Love. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.