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06 June 2013

The strange case of Phyllis Grosskurth and Eonism


Phyllis Grosskurth (1924 – ) spent most of her life in the English department at the University of Toronto.  She is best known for a series of biographies of sexologists: John Addington Symonds, Melanie Klein and Havelock Ellis.

The Havelock Ellis volume was recommended to me when it came out in 1980.  However noting that ‘Eonism’, the concept, was not in the index I did not pursue it.   Recently I acquired a copy of the book for $1 in a charity book sale, and decided to look more closely.

Havelock Ellis was one of the first writers to separate cross-dressing from the other types of sexual inversion.  He named it Eonism after the 18th century diplomat, Charlotte d'Eon de Beaumont, on the model that Sadism had been named for Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade and Masochism for Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch.   For whatever reason no term based on a prominent practitioner ever came into usage in the same way for what we now call homosexuality (Wildeism is more used for his witticisms)

Ellis is often quoted:
“On the psychic side, as I view it, the Eonist is embodying, in an extreme degree, the aesthetic attitude of imitation of, and identification with, the admired object. It is normal for a man to identify himself with the woman he loves. The Eonist carries that identification too far, stimulated by a sensitive and feminine element in himself which is associated with a rather defective virile sexuality on what may be a neurotic basis.” 
This quote is found in Wikipedia and in Blanchard’s “History of Autogynephilia” but not in GrossKurth’s book.

The only entry under Eonism in the index of Grosskurth’s book is for the title Eonism and Other Supplementary Studies.  However the concept does come up a couple of times.  On p219 while discussing an overview of Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex, she writes:
“Furthermore, if he had applied himself to an investigation of ‘normal’ sexuality, as he claimed, it is puzzling why he devoted long sections to aberrations like ‘cross-dressing’, which he termed ‘Eonism’ after the eighteenth-century transvestite.”                            
On p379 she mentions Magnus Hirschfeld: 
“ Ellis’s attention had been drawn to first to Hirschfeld in 1904 when he published Die Transvestiten, which places what Ellis was later to term ‘Eonism' on a solid basis as an anomaly distinguishable from homosexuality”.  
That is it.

Grosskurth summarizes most of Ellis’ publications, and spends most of Chapter 23 summarizing the papers in Eonism and Other Supplementary Studies. She summarizes “The History of Florrie and the Mechanism of Sexual Deviation” (a case study of a woman who longs to be whipped); “The Synthesis of Dream”; “Undinism” (better known as urolagnia, and Ellis’ own predilection); a review of Edward Westermack’s The History of Human Marriage.  What she does not summarize is the initial 110 page essay that gave its name to the volume.  She passes quickly by “Eonism” as if it were not there.

Phyllis Grosskurth’s book is definitely not the book on Havelock Ellis to read if you want to know about Eonism.

  • Phyllis Grosskurth. Havelock Ellis: A Biography. London: A. Lane, 1980.

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