Havelock Ellis, Marjorie and Me

Havelock Ellis, the English pre-Freudian doctor and pioneer sexologist, was the love of my Great Aunt Marjorie’s life. She corresponded with him for several decades and constructed a small altar to the man in a corner of her Sydney flat. I used to hear my parents having a giggle at Marjorie’s expense but didn’t listen closely. Marjorie was always Marjorie, a name I heard now and then, part of the background chatter of my childhood. But then I worked out that Marjorie had a connection to something vaguely adult and exciting, something no one wanted to tell me about. I paid attention from that point on.

Marjorie, born in 1899 never married; my mother was her only niece and as such spent much of her girlhood in Marjorie’s company. And when Marjorie had an afternoon nap my mother would wait until she’d settled in to her nap, put down her copy of Anne of Green Gables and tiptoe over to the bookshelf that held all of Havelock Ellis’s books. This, my mother said, is where she learned about sex.

How very interesting I thought to myself, I wonder if we have any of his books in our house?

There was a book in my father’s study I knew held something I wasn’t to know about and I had this book marked on my mental map of the house. It was like a soft, glowing light in the darkness, a book that I would get to the bottom of one day. On the cover there was a drawing of a man in striped pyjamas and the title was something about death camps. I had asked what it was about but was fobbed off with some reply which only made it more fascinating.

But what was my mother doing reading about sex anyway? Why didn’t she stick to Anne of Green Gables? And who was this Marjorie who kept books about sex that mothers read? Mothers didn’t have sex, whatever that was.

My sister and I liked to look through my mother’s collection of Vogue magazines and were scandalized by the photos of nude women that occasionally appeared. There’s nothing wrong with nudity my mother answered when we asked her why pictures of naked women were in her magazines. She didn’t get it. Cecelia, who lived in the house over the back fence, forgot to wear her undies to school one day and the boys kept lifting up her dress and teasing her about her nude bottom. There was the evidence, right over the back fence, in Cecilia’s bare bum. Mum didn’t know what she was talking about. Too much Havelock Ellis probably.

Marjorie wasn’t the only controversial character who popped up in my parent’s conversations. Gwendolyn, my mother’s mother, generated a lot of talk and not all of it positive. Gwendolyn was Marjorie’s sister-in-law, having married my grandfather Tom, and while I don’t know what their sisterly relationship was like, they did have something in common – an engrossing passion for a man they would never meet and an equally passionate attachment to the ideas of these men. In my grandmother’s case, it was Jiddu Krishnamurti.

My mother disapproved of Gwendolyn’s embrace of ‘weird religions.’ But she read about Krishnamurti in an attempt, probably, to work out who the hell her mother really was. I didn’t know who Krishnamurti was and as he was not associated with forbidden books I didn’t care. I was too busy working on my project of installing my own swimming pool in the patch of bush next door. With my mother’s gardening trowel in one hand, trailing a large piece of plastic in the other, I wandered through the house preoccupied with images of my cool, sparkling bushland pool. Krishnamurti was completely irrelevant to me, but Great Aunt Marjorie’s possession of saucy books – and my mother’s subsequent reading of them – now that was a topic calling for further investigations.

But it’s only recently that I’ve got around to doing anything about it, decades later. My mother, when offered Marjorie’s papers after her death, said she didn’t want them. Havelock Ellis’s literary executor burnt all correspondence from people with no public profile. But some letters still survive. I’ve traced some letters to the British Library, another relative has one from Ellis to Marjorie, Cornell and Yale University libraries have the bulk of Ellis’s estate but Cornell have nothing for me. I’m waiting to hear from Yale, but I fear the worst. If I could reconstruct their friendship from what letters survive it would make fascinating reading, but I doubt it can be done.

What I’d like to know is, who were Marjorie and Gwendolyn and why did they nurse these unconventional passions? What was it about the early twentieth century tumult of ideas that seduced these ordinary middle class women? Religion and spirituality, sex and gender, freedom, morality, responsibility and even eugenics – these were areas Ellis and Krishnamurti wrote about constantly and debated with their followers. But in middle class Australia in the nineteen twenties and thirties Marjorie and Gwendolyn were considered a little odd, they were bluestockings, an old fashioned pejorative term for a woman with intellectual leanings. Gwendolyn’s solution was to leave Australia, whereas Marjorie stayed, constructed her altar to Havelock Ellis and carried out her own worship of the man and his ideas in private until her death the year before I was born.

4 thoughts on “Havelock Ellis, Marjorie and Me

  1. Phillipa Post author

    Thanks for your comment Elizabeth. It is a great shame the letters were lost or burned. Nobody at the Australian end took Marjorie’s obsession seriously, if they had those letters would have provided an interesting insight into a private woman’s life and thoughts at the time. What I’m curious about is the decision to not marry – to be a spinster. It wasn’t like being unmarried now, but more a choice that held out the possibilities of intellectual and spiritual freedom that a woman couldn’t have in a marriage in those days.

  2. Helene

    Phillipa, what a shame that the letters have been lost. It sounds like a fascinating connection between the two of them.

    Both Marjorie and Gwendolyn must have been remarkable women. We had several unmarried ‘Aunts’ who were close family friends. Without exception they added much to our lives as they held such different perspectives of the world. I hope you unravel more of their story.

  3. Pip Post author

    Thanks for your comment Helene. I never knew Marjorie but I certainly remember my grandmother, she was a headstrong individual.

    As you may have noticed I’m fussing about with this blog, trying to get it just ‘right’ and your comment has revealed to me that I have posted this post twice! Now to tidy up ….

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