(Henry) Havelock Ellis (1859 - 1939) was a British writer and pioneering sexologist. Ellis’s father was a sea captain and he was raised, with his four sisters, chiefly by his evangelical Christian mother in the Surrey suburbs of London. At the age of sixteen, Ellis sailed with his father to spend four years living in Australia and working as a teacher in the Australian outback. This period of his life had a profound effect on the young Ellis, who underwent a phase of intense intellectual and spiritual development. He was strongly influenced by James Hinton’s book Life in Nature published in 1862, and especially attracted by Hinton’s notion that human beings and nature were not separate but flowed into each other, with all living creatures profoundly and inextricably connected. Ellis was also convinced that science could “lay bare the truths of human nature” (Weeks 2004), and so decided to embark on a career as a doctor. Ellis’s medical studies, which lasted between 1881 and 1889, were funded in part by the Hinton circle, in particular by James Hinton’s sister-in-law Caroline Haddon, in recompense for Ellis editing various of Hinton’s writings.
During the 1880s Ellis also became involved in the exciting intellectual and political activities taking place in London at the time, and early in 1884 he met Olive Schreiner after writing to her about her The Story of an African Farm. Ellis contributed to the radical journal Today, became the secretary of the Progressive Association, and a leading member of the Fellowship of the New Life, although his focus tended to be primarily on his writings and literary and scientific studies rather than political activism. As Schreiner pertinently wrote to him in January 1888, “You of all people I ever met (infinitely more than Karl [Pearson]) are a man of the study & nothing else.” After Schreiner’s departure from Britain in 1889 their friendship and correspondence, discussed in more detail below, continued. Also around this time Ellis started editing the ‘Contemporary Science’ series of books, which helped to support him financially for some years to come. In December 1891 he married Edith Lees, with whom he shared an interest in the works of Hinton and the Fellowship of the New Life.
During the 1890s Ellis began working on his long-term project, the multi-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1910). The first volume called Sexual Inversion was a collaborative project with John Addington Symonds, although Ellis completed the volume himself after Symonds’s death in 1893. Although the Studies volumes attracted a great deal of controversy, they were to prove important and influential. In them Ellis tended to emphasise sexual behaviour, including homosexuality, as biologically innate, although he also explored the social and historical facets of human sexuality. His later publications included The Dance of Life in 1923 and The Psychology of Sex in 1933. After Edith Ellis’s death in 1916, by which time the couple had become estranged, he edited and published her James Hinton: A Sketch (1918). Two important figures in Ellis’s later life were the American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, with whom he developed a close friendship, and Françoise Lafitte-Cyon, who was the separated wife of a Russian journalist with whom Ellis developed a relationship from 1918. Ellis’s last years were marked by financial insecurity and ill-health; he died in 1939.
The correspondence between Schreiner and Ellis was initiated by him early in 1884, in writing to her via her publishers to express his sympathy and admiration for The Story of an African Farm. Schreiner replied, and within a couple of months she was writing to him regularly, discussing her writing, his writing and the books they were reading and found intellectually stimulating, including protracted debates about James Hinton’s work which had so influenced Ellis. One portion of the extant correspondence between Schreiner and Ellis is now archived at the Harry Ransom Center (HRC) at the University of Texas, with a smaller part in the collections of the National English Literary Museum in South Africa. Versions of the HRC letters were published in 1992 by Yaffa Claire Draznin under the title ‘My Other Self’: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884 - 1920. Firstly, it is important to note that the ‘letters’ from Ellis to Schreiner which appear in this volume were in fact the drafts of his letters to her, and these bear an unknown relationship to the letters which he ultimately sent and which Schreiner read and responded to. Secondly, while Draznin’s edition is exemplary for its time, it nonetheless considerably ‘tidied’ Schreiner’s letters as part of its editorial procedures, for example by supplying ‘missing’ punctuation and ‘correcting’ some of Schreiner’s grammar and spelling. Thirdly, many of Schreiner’s letters to Ellis which appear in Draznin’s volume had to be pieced together from scraps and fragments, and this piecing together was by no means a certain, straightforward and always accurate process; thus the items in Draznin which appear as ‘letters’ cannot be taken as such at face value. And fourthly, Schreiner’s letters to Ellis archived at the HRC represent only a portion of the total letters from Schreiner to Ellis and are actually very atypical of her letter-writing generally.
Whether or not Schreiner and Ellis engaged in an active sexual relationship has been the subject of speculation by both his and her biographers; it is of course now impossible to know this, but their letters from the mid-1880s suggest their relationship was emotionally intimate and intense, although there are signs that over time Ellis’s emotional demands became unwelcome for Schreiner and that she withdrew from this part of their friendship. However, in mid- to late 1884 she was referring to Ellis as ‘my other self’ in her letters, and also as ‘my brother’, they exchanged portions of one another’s diaries, and Schreiner discussed with him such intimacies as the details of her menstrual cycle and his likely sperm count.
The sheer volume of Schreiner’s letters to Ellis is striking and gives a sense of how large some of the destroyed correspondences (to her mother Rebecca and to Cronwright-Schreiner, for instance) must have been. The correspondence with Ellis lasted from 1884 until Schreiner’s death in 1920, and at times during the 1880s they exchanged letters not merely on a daily basis, but sometimes several times a day, with this aided by the multiple daily deliveries then offered by the postal service in Britain. Insofar as this can be discerned, given the destructions of many letters, the large majority were written between 1884 and 1889, a smaller number cluster between 1889 and 1913, and then rather more were written in the period after Schreiner returned to Britain between 1914 and 1920. This suggests that Schreiner’s letters to Ellis were not primarily of the ‘keeping in touch’ variety, but were actually mainly written when they were in close geographical proximity to one another so as to facilitate face-to-face meetings.
The genesis and development of many of Schreiner’s writings - including From Man to Man, Dreams, many of her allegories, and also her later ‘peace writings’ from the First World War period - can be readily and fascinatingly traced out across her letters to Ellis. In them she discusses the writing process, including her practice of ‘dreaming’ stories, and also her writing style as ‘ribbed’ or ‘plain’, as well as testing out ideas for plots and characters. By mid-1884 there is a sense that face-to-face meetings began to replace some of the letter-writing between Schreiner and Ellis, with perhaps this becoming the primary site for their intellectual exchange, with their letters instead increasingly focused on making arrangements to facilitate the face-to-face meetings.
Apart from her discussions of her writing, Schreiner’s letters to Ellis over this period are also filled with interesting glimpses into her life in 1880s London, and discussions about prostitution, the ‘woman question’, socialism and so on. By mid-1886 there is a growing sense that Schreiner’s friendship with Ellis was beginning to be eclipsed by her involvement with Karl Pearson and the Men and Women’s Club, although she also reassured him that she was ‘always & unchangingly your Olive’. By April 1889, however, it is clear Schreiner had withdrawn from some of the more emotionally demanding aspects of her relationship with Ellis, commenting in a letter to him from this time, “You quite intentionally misunderstand me in every thing, or, sometimes I think are we grown so wide apart that no understanding is possible
between us.” After she returned to South Africa in late 1889, Schreiner explained to Ellis that she wanted to turn away from the ‘personal world’ and towards the impersonal world of work; “I seem to drink in the external world through every little pore”, as she put it to him (see Stanley 2011 for a fuller discussion). But their friendship persisted, as did their letter-writing, and Schreiner wrote to congratulate him after his marriage to Edith Lees in 1891, and later wrote to tell him about her own marriage to Samuel ‘Cron’ Cronwright (who took her name and became Cronwright-Schreiner on marriage).
For some years Ellis also acted on Schreiner’s behalf regarding publishing matters while she was in South Africa, ‘placing’ her writing with publishers in Britain, negotiating deals with publishers and dealing with some of her finances. Later after Schreiner’s return to Britain in 1913 her letters to Ellis regain some momentum (again, insofar as this can be discerned given that the letters which remain are a fraction of those originally written) and interestingly discuss her involvement in pacifism, her ‘peace writings’ and also the decline of Edith Ellis’s health in 1916. However, Schreiner’s later letters to Ellis seem to be characterised by a ‘for old time’s sake’ and have rather routine tone (many of the later letters were in fact postcards), with the overall impression being of exchanges with Ellis now marked by kindliness and remembrance of old times, and drained of more meaningful response except when moved by strong differences (see Stanley, Dampier and Salter 2011).
After Schreiner’s death, Havelock Ellis met with Cronwright-Schreiner on various occasions and he was in fact one of the few close friends of Schreiner’s who fully co-operated with Cronwright-Schreiner’s preparations for The Life and The Letters of Olive Schreiner, supplying him with copious letters, notes and ‘reminiscences’. Indeed Cronwright-Schreiner dedicated The Life to Havelock Ellis ‘with admiration and affection’.
For further information see:
Yaffa Claire Draznin (ed, 1992) ‘My Other Self’: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884 - 1920 New York: P. Lang
Havelock Ellis (1940) My Life London: Heinemann
Phyllis Grosskurth (1980) Havelock Ellis: A Biography London: Allen Lane
Chris Nottingham (1999) The Pursuit of Serenity: Havelock Ellis and the New Politics Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks (1977) Socialism and the New Life: The Personal and Sexual Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis London: Pluto Press
Liz Stanley, Helen Dampier and Andrea Salter (2011, under review) “The Epistolary Pact, Letterness and the Schreiner Epistolarium” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
J. Weeks (2004) ‘Ellis, (Henry) Havelock (1859-1939)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33009