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Havelock Ellis

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

My Life. By Havelock Ellis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.75.

Completed a few weeks before Havelock Ellis died on July 8, 1939, “My Life” will be prized by his friends, whether readers of his scientific texts or the more numerous literary works; it will also interest the student of biography. Long planned, with the motive, “aside from the fundamental desire for self-expression” that his “experience . . . might help others who came after . . , to lead their own lives,” it was begun at forty, and took forty years to write. Ellis, who had received and written down the intimate stories of so many, knew the great helpfulness of the personal history, and the limitations of most records; and he had long considered the meaning and function of biography in practical psychology. Moreover, the autobiography in itself as a literary form seemed to him “precious in its nature and permanent in its value” beyond “all other forms of prose outside the limits of imaginative art.”

The total effect of this book is profoundly moving, for so clearly are the inner events of his life conveyed that the reader actually shares in turn the experiences of beauty and confusion, agony and exaltation, conflict and peace. Essentially meditative, the book requires leisurely reading. To the reader accustomed to the stream-of-consciousness novel or the case method in modern science, this will bring little difficulty, and great reward. The reconsideration of the same situations at varying intervals, now fifty, now ten, now two, now thirty years after the occurrence, make for a curious sense of timelessness: beginning and end are seen together, each lighted by the other; and the whole seems lived at once, as all of a long spiral may be seen from any of its levels.

The greater part of the book is devoted to the story of his married life; this weighting reflects his conviction that “What I experienced with this woman—I feel now many years after her death—was life . . . it is because I have known love that I have lived and that my life and work in the world have been one. My work, I am often told, is cool and serene, entirely reasonable and free of passion, but without that devouring passion of the soul my work would have been nothing.” Little attention is given to his literary and critical writing or his editorial labors in the wide range of his interest: drama, crime, public health, philosophy, religion, art; or to the psychology of sex, to which Ellis gave his major thought as a student and author. And nothing is said about his place in the development of modern psychology, of his relation to Freud and his predecessors.

Even had he the inclination, Ellis had no need to write the record of his outer life: that was patent in his published works, and was also amply covered by others. But the inner story, which was never known and could not have been written by anyone else, is given here in satisfactory completeness. Moreover, it is as much the story of Edith Ellis as it is of Havelock, which makes it an entirely new and original contribution to spiritual biography—almost a dual autobiography. Barely can two persons have known each other so entirely, and surely no one has ever written it down.

The story of the marriage illustrates Ellis’s concept of how to attain the middle way: not by avoiding extremes, but by uniting them. Edith Lees was as nearly the opposite of Ellis as may be imagined, in mental make-up and emotional disposition as well as in physical constitution. Here were elements of conflict, more than are likely to occur in an ordinary mating, for these were two unusual persons, of superior intellectual and moral endowment. On his side, there were shyness and extreme distaste for social contacts, a pronounced need for solitude and silence; on hers, a marked vital energy, finding its best outlet through social channels: she was an accomplished speaker, a writer, producer, and even actor of plays. Beneath her gaiety and vividness and the kind, quick sympathy which endeared her to all, were a multitude of fears, a deep mistrust of herself and of others— the perversion of a naturally trustful spirit through the wounds of earliest experience. Ellis had calm confidence in his own judgment and impulses, and in those of others whom he had come slowly to love—again the product of hereditary, congenital, and early environmental conditions, this time favorable. Finally must be added three grave circumstances: the marriage was childless, on medical advice; there existed in his wife a “deep-lying anomaly of temperament” which Ellis only gradually came to recognize as emotional sexual inversion; three years before the end, there appeared the evidence of the slow insidious poison of diabetes, which must have been undermining the whole constitution long before.

With only these negative and painful things before one, it may well be asked whether any marriage so handicapped could be brought to success. Careful reading of the evidence seems to find that the answer is yes. The reasons furnish perhaps the most instructive lesson in the book.

Much as each of us suffered through marriage I have never been convinced that our marriage was a mistake. . . . It would be a sort of blasphemy against life to speak of a relationship which like ours aided great ends as a mistake, even if after all, it should in a sense prove true that we both died of it at last. . . . My own work in life had been more or less definitely planned before I knew her, yet it was altogether carried out, and to a more triumphant conclusion than at the outset I had ever imagined, during my fellowship with her. . . . She on her part was developing during all that period, and she only attained the complete adult maturity of her spiritual and intellectual powers a year or two before the end.

This record perhaps cannot be evaluated now; the life seems too near us. Time will give perspective, but this may be said now: it will stand with the great autobiographies.


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