Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds (2008) Sexual Inversion: A Critical Edition

In the 1880s the first psychiatric books on sexual variation were published in France and Germany in tandem with the development of new concepts and theories. Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) became the major work in this field. As Harry Oosterhuis has argued in his Stepchildren of Nature (2000), this psychiatric interest should not be simply demonized as the ‘pathologization of sexual variation’ (as Krafft-Ebing’s title suggests) because these books were in fact highly ambivalent. Krafft-Ebing quoted many letters from sexual inverts and masochists who defended their rights, acts and fantasies. The social meaning of this medicalization of ‘abnormal’ desires was still uncertain around 1900, while the near general dismissal of ‘pervert’ pleasures became the standard in the twentieth century through to the 1960s. The early sexology was led by curiosity; its successor by dogma.

In this tension-riven field, Henry Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds decided to cooperate on a book about homosexuality. This was first published in German in 1896, and in English in 1897; the publication was posthumous for Symonds, who died in 1893. It was a remarkable collaboration between the heterosexual doctor, Ellis, and the homosexual cultural historian, Symonds. The latter had already written two short texts on the subject that were only published in small private editions, being considered too explosive for a broader public. He realized that working together with Ellis might make these texts acceptable as part of a broader study. In other medical texts on sexual variation it was common to find historical and anthropological information as part of the argument. The most central part was often the ‘case history’, which gave voice to these ‘perverts’ who were otherwise silent, or only received attention of a very negative nature in very disobliging places, such as the court and press attention that Oscar Wilde was subjected to c.1895.

Sexual Inversion was innovative because it was the first such book on homosexuality in English, and because the perspective was modern in the sense of being both scientific and emancipatory. Ellis and Symonds argued that consensual homosexual relations conducted between adults in private should not be condemned by either justice or psychiatry. Their study also discussed the earliest homosexual cases found in the British literature. It was rich in material and included several addenda on homosexuality, for example, in the army and among tramps, as well as the views of what we might term the leading German ‘gay emancipator’ of this period, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–95), a pioneer and forerunner of the homosexual rights movement.

Ivan Crozier has written an 85-page introduction to this new edition of the first English version, the first since 1975. The best part of this article is the description of the cooperation between Ellis and Symonds which was conducted entirely by post, for these men never actually met. Crozier argues that both authors generally agreed on the content of the book, a point that some historians have denied. Ellis did not enforce upon Symonds a medical perspective, nor did he alter the text after his co-author’s death. Nor is this study a case of ‘morbidization’ of male or female homosexuality as some lesbian historians have declared. Furthermore, Crozier offers an overview of the sexual history of Britain at that time, the sexological literature that was read, the general views of Ellis on sexuality, the reactions to and the reviews of the study, and the differences between the main editions of 1896 (in German) and 1897 and 1915 (English). He has done an excellent job with notes and references, although occasionally the reader wonders why some titles are translated and others not.

What is missing is more information on both men’s lives and relations, the influence of Ellis outside the English-speaking world and the translation of this work into other languages, and the effect of the Wilde scandal on the debates about homosexuality and on the publication of this book in 1897. In that year it was published twice: the first with the name of both authors, and bought up by Symonds’ literary executor, Horatio Brown, at the request of the family; and the second without Symond’s name (while writing this review, I saw two copies of this first edition for sale on the internet for £3000!). It is always debatable what to discuss in such an introduction, but I would have preferred a bit more on the book itself and on its authors, and a bit less on English sexual history generally. I also wonder why the publisher has not added some illustrations and a complete table of contents of the original book.

In addition, on one important point I would have framed the argument differently. Crozier asks why homosexuality got a special place in such books at that time. Following Sean Brady, he refers to new codes of masculinity in late-nineteenth-century England that silenced homosexuality. For me, this raises the question as to what would have been so different in English versus continental masculinity concepts. More important, in my opinion, was the heterosexualization of (masculine) society that prompted homosexual ‘visibility’, sometimes by way of psychiatrists. Homosexuals were forced out of hiding by stricter ‘straight’ codes of behaviour while previously male ‘homosocial’ (or exclusively masculine) culture offered a cover for their erotic exploits. The stricter discipline found in boarding schools, in prisons and on the streets, the growing intimacy between men and women, and also Darwinian theorizing all contributed to a heterosexualization of society that excluded different groups and affected most directly homosexuals who could now begin their struggle for a marginal place under the sun.

It is extremely important that such books are reprinted because they offer a fresh perspective on an essential moment in gay and sexological history, on the making of the homosexual out of the ashes of sodomites, pederasts and tribades. Many scholars discuss such books and often condemn them without even having read them or understood them within the context of their time. Crozier offers us the opportunity to get intimately acquainted with a book that represented a momentous beginning for serious debates on same-sex pleasures in the English-speaking world.


University of Amsterdam