- “How Wonderful to Die for What You Love”:Mrs. Havelock Ellis’s Love-Acre (1914) as Spiritual Autobiography
This paper explores the question of spiritual self-representation in the last novel, Love-Acre: An Idyl in Two Worlds (1914), of the now little-discussed writer Edith Ellis (née Lees, 1861–1916). Better remembered today as the lesbian wife of sexologist Havelock Ellis, she was a significant and well-known figure in her own right. She was active in progressive social and political associations in London; she put the simple living credo of the later nineteenth century into practice by operating her own farm for ten years in Cornwall; she wrote essays, novels, short stories, and biographies (most of them published under her married name, Mrs. Havelock Ellis); and she completed two extensive lecture tours in the United States. Following her death, Havelock Ellis attempted to manage her posthumous reputation by issuing anthologies of her work and by devoting his own autobiography, My Life (1940), to a detailed examination of their marriage. Edith Ellis herself never spoke openly about her longings or her lesbian relationships, and since Havelock destroyed most of her letters and other private papers after completing his autobiography, we must look to her fiction and lectures for evidence of her self-understanding. Her final novel is her most extended attempt to find a form and language to express the spiritual meaning of her life as an “invert.” As I will discuss below, she does this by combining realism and fantasy and by drawing on several traditions to embrace the figure of the scapegoat, the fool of God, and the willing self-sacrifice. The result is an unusual novel: not entirely successful, but heartfelt and even heartbreaking. Drawing on elements of her own life, on the commitments of late nineteenth-century progressive idealism, and on a variety of established and alternative religious traditions, Edith Ellis fashioned an innovative form of spiritual autobiography. In what follows, I offer a brief outline of the novel before sketching in some of the socio-cultural background necessary to understanding her experiment in self-representation.
Love-Acre relates the life of Tobias Trewidden, a Cornishman, from his childhood to his early death from consumption at age thirty-one. Tobias’s life history is divided into seven allegorically named parts, each but the last representing a different stage in his development: “The Psychic,” “The Shepherd,” “The Lover,” [End Page 137] “The Alien,” “The Dreamer,” “The Outcast,” “The Pilgrim,” “The Woman.” The novel also has a highly allegorical prologue and epilogue in which little seeds of light (presumably souls) are blown from Love-Acre to World-Acre and back again.
The sensitive and visionary Tobias is born prematurely to the gentle Mary, who dies within three weeks of his birth; shortly afterwards, his abusive father remarries, to a woman as coarse as himself. Only Leah, the family servant, harbours soft feelings for the child, who loses himself in a partly imaginary world of insect fairies, a world that is a presentiment of Love-Acre, a higher stage of existence. At seventeen, Tobias secures work as a shepherd, and the isolation of his role brings him closer to the “great secrets” of nature, including his own “threefold nature” wherein his fate or destiny lies: “in Tobias Trewidden was hidden … the man, the woman and the child entombed in his little sensitive body” (63).
This period of his life ends when he meets, falls quickly in love with, and is betrothed to Loveday Cocking, a pretty and materialistic village girl whose unworthiness is apparent to the reader though not to the idealistic Tobias. At Loveday’s urging, Tobias abandons shepherding to find employment as “a head grocer” in the village, nicely outfitted in “a new suit and a bowler hat” (129). He soon runs afoul of Albert Tremayne, Loveday’s erstwhile suitor, and is goaded into a fight at the local tavern. It is clear that Loveday’s already wavering affections are further undermined by this event, and, partly as a result of his injuries and partly due to his loss of faith in Loveday, Tobias falls into a coma. He...