“…I prefer that the principle from which and through which I work should be hidden from me.”*

*Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

Above: Oscar Wilde, pictured in 1882.

From: Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985):

“My mother has always given me problems because she is enlightened and reactionary at the same time. She didn’t believe in Determinism and Neglect, she believed that you made people and yourself what you wanted. Anyone could be saved and anyone could fall to the Devil, it was their choice. While some of our church forgave me on the admittedly dubious grounds that I couldn’t help it (they had read Havelock Ellis and knew about Inversion), my mother saw it as a wilful act on my part to sell my soul. At first, for me, it had been an accident. That accident had forced me to think more carefully about my own instincts and others’ attitudes…”

Book review in Medical History (2010 Oct), by Thomas Dixon:

“Ivan Crozier’s carefully researched and meticulously produced new critical edition of Sexual inversion (1897) will be welcomed not only by researchers in the histories of medicine, psychiatry, sexology and homosexuality, but also by those who teach courses touching on changing attitudes to sexuality in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The original text of Sexual inversion (1897) started as a collaboration between the classicist, poet, travel writer and literary critic John Addington Symonds and the medical writer and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis. When it was published, Sexual inversion became not only the first medical textbook in English on the topic of same-sex sexuality, but also one of the first publications (along with works by Edward Carpenter) to champion a more dispassionate and sympathetic approach to the legal, social and ethical aspects of the topic in late Victorian Britain. In the immediate aftermath of the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for acts of “gross indecency” in 1895, this was not an easy task. By the time Sexual inversion was published, Symonds had died. His literary executor, acting on the wishes of the Symonds family, bought up and destroyed all the unsold copies. A new edition with another publisher fared no better, being banned as an obscene publication in 1898, despite protestations by Ellis and others that it was a purely medical work. The text now published in this modern edition, therefore, with Symonds named on the title-page, had very few nineteenth-century readers. The book finally became more widely available, first in German, and then in twentieth-century American and British editions, as part of Havelock Ellis’s multi-volume Studies in the psychology of sex, with Ellis credited as sole author.

In a wide-ranging, 86-page introduction, Crozier uses Sexual inversion as a case study in the social production of scientific knowledge. Havelock Ellis is given more prominence than Symonds, and their text is situated primarily in relationship to continental sexological writings, and somewhat less so to literary and philosophical works. Crozier makes especially effective use of the correspondence between Ellis and Symonds (who never met in person), which reveals how an ambitious medical man and an aesthetic, philosophical Hellenist tried to negotiate their way towards an agreed line on controversial issues. These included questions about the relevance of ancient Greece to the modern debate; about whether sexual inversion was generally congenital or acquired; and the extent to which it should be treated as a morbid condition in itself or as one indirectly associated with pathological symptoms. The introduction also explains how individual case histories were collected by Ellis, Symonds, and Edward Carpenter through networks of correspondence. These cases of sexual inversion among sane, law-abiding and productive members of society were a crucial part not only of the sexological project, but also of the broader attempt to make a case against the severe legal penalties then in place in Britain for homosexual acts (which remained in place until 1967).

The fact that Symonds died before the text was published, and that his involvement was subsequently suppressed in line with the wishes of his family, has led some historians to blame Havelock Ellis for taking undue credit for Sexual inversion, and others to accuse him of having produced a medicalized and illiberal work which went against Symonds’ original intentions. Some of these criticisms have been unfair, but Crozier is excessively defensive on Ellis’s behalf, and sometimes veers too far in the opposite direction in portraying Ellis as a liberationist who thought homosexuality was as normal and natural as any other expression of sexual impulse.

It is true that Ellis thought sexual inversion was generally inborn, but that is not quite the same as suggesting he thought it either normal or healthy. Ellis referred to homosexuality as a “psychic abnormality”, a “sexual perversion”, and “an aberration from the usual course of nature” (p. 222). In the conclusion of the book Ellis explained how he thought homosexuality should be prevented in schools, how it might be treated or even removed by medical means in adults, and the extent to which the invert must be prevented from becoming a “cause of acquired perversity in others” (p. 213).

On the subject of using marriage as a possible “cure” for inversion, and the offspring that might thus be produced, Ellis wrote: “Often, no doubt, the children turn out fairly well, but for the most part they bear witness that they belong to a neurotic and failing stock. Sometimes, indeed, the tendency to sexual inversion in eccentric and neurotic families seems merely to be Nature’s merciful method of winding up a concern which, from her point of view, has ceased to be profitable” (p. 213). Even if Ellis’s views were not quite as liberated, nor as liberating as Crozier would have us believe, Ellis was certainly a strong campaigner against severe social and legal penalties. Homosexuality, for Ellis, was a medical abnormality but not a crime. With reference to the recent Wilde trials, Ellis wrote that in the modern era the predominant negative reaction to homosexuality was based not on economics, theology, or even morality, but on an aesthetic reaction of disgust. Such a feeling might be understandable, Ellis wrote, but “it scarcely lends itself to legal purposes”. To eat excrement, Ellis noted, “is extremely disgusting, but it is not criminal” (p. 221). Crozier shows how the reception of Ellis’s own writings on homosexuality also bore out this point, with critics describing the subject matter as “disgusting”, “nauseous” and “revolting”.

We cannot know whether John Addington Symonds, if he had lived, would have approved of everything Havelock Ellis wrote in the published version of Sexual inversion, but Ivan Crozier’s excellent edition gives us ample scholarly materials with which to engage with this and many other questions about the interlocking histories of homosexuality, medicine and science.”

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