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  • The Very First Lady Chatterley? Mrs. Havelock Ellis’s Seaweed
  • Jo-Ann Wallace

On 31 May 1898 George Bedborough—secretary of the English branch of the Legitimation League (a society whose object was the legalizing of illegitimate children) and editor of the League's journal, the Adult—was arrested for selling a copy of Havelock Ellis's recently published Sexual Inversion to an undercover Scotland Yard detective, John Sweeney. As numerous biographers and historians (not to mention the detective himself) have pointed out, Sweeney was less interested in Ellis's book than in the Legitimation League's seeming advocacy of free love and the anarchists numbered among its members. However, one effect of Bedborough's arrest was the accidental suppression of Mrs. Havelock (Edith) Ellis's first novel, Seaweed: A Cornish Idyll. Seaweed, like Sexual Inversion, had been published by "Dr. Roland de Villiers" under the imprint of the University Press at Watford. It was seized, along with Sexual Inversion and several other publications, during the raid on Bedborough's shop.

Although she attempted to sell it by post from her cottage in Cornwall, Edith Ellis's book dropped from sight until it was revised and reissued as Kit's Woman: A Cornish Idyll in 1907. Two years later, the novel was again slightly revised, this time eliminating much of the Cornish dialect, and published in the United States as Steve's Woman. At the instigation of Daphne (Mrs. Clifford) Bax, Edith Ellis revisited the novel again, transforming it into a four-act play that received a special performance at the Court Theatre with Beryl Faber playing the leading role. Finally, the London publisher T. Werner Laurie brought out a popular (i.e., paperback) edition of Kit's Woman in 1916, the year of Edith Ellis's death.1

The novel is of interest not only for its accidental implication in one of the famous censorship trials of the period and its subsequently volatile publishing history (described in more detail below), but for its subject [End Page 123] matter which in many ways anticipates, and quite possibly inspired, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, another famously censored and suppressed book.2 As I will argue in what follows, Seaweed presents numerous interesting challenges for literary historiography generally and for modernist literary history in particular. It requires us to broaden our understanding of literary modernism to account not only for its much-vaunted cosmopolitanism and internationalism but also for its varied and localized development, in this case the development of a specifically English modernism with its roots in late-nineteenth-century English progressive idealism.

Edith Ellis & Seaweed: A Cornish Idyll

Edith Ellis (née Lees, 1861–1916) was a turn-of-the-century writer, lecturer, and social experimenter. Although she is today more often remembered as the lesbian wife of the sexual psychologist Havelock Ellis—who included her as a case study in Sexual Inversion—during her lifetime she was a well-known figure in her own right.3 In the late 1880s, together with Ramsay MacDonald (who would go on to become Britain's first Labour Prime Minister), she helped establish the Fellowship of the New Life's experiment in communal living at 29 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury. The Fellowship had its origins in October 1883 when Percival Chubb (among others), inspired by the teachings of Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson, organized a meeting of several sympathetic men and women to discuss the possibility of founding "a communistic society whose members should lead the new higher life."4 The Fellowship was committed to principles of social justice based on class and sexual reform, goals that it believed were best pursued through simplicity of living, the combining of manual with intellectual labour, and "the highest and completest education of the young."5 Less than three months after its initial meeting, a number of members split from the founding group to form the Fabian Society. There was some continuing overlap in membership in the two associations and the Fellowship—which by now had attracted the interest of people like Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, Edward Pease and Frank Podmore—lasted another fifteen years. In that time, it published a quarterly magazine, Seed...


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