Discovering “The Soul of Spain”… in Kansas!

Since my hectic, teaching-heavy spring semester is finally over, I now have some time to start easing back into a few of my research projects. But first, of course, I needed some time to relax and not think about anything related to academia – or so I thought. It happens that whenever I have the time to do something seemingly unrelated to academic work, it ends up transforming into an entirely new type of learning and research.  Last week I stopped in to look around The Dusty Bookshelf here in Aggieville (Manhattan, KS), and I ended up finding quite the gem to add to my book collection – The Soul of Spain, written in 1908 by [Henry] Havelock Ellis, an English physician, sexologist, essayist, and progressive intellectual.  This particular book caught my attention not simply because it dealt with early 20th century Spain, but because I had read about Havelock Ellis and his research, specifically his significant influence on and connections to several Spanish intellectuals at this time who were involved with research on human sexuality and sexual reforms.  The book I purchased – for only $7.00 –  is a later edition, published in 1937. It also includes 12 illustrations (absent from the original and earlier editions) and Ellis’ new Introduction, in which he reflects on his numerous visits to Spain and on the early stages of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Towards the end of this post I have included a sample of the images and vintage photographs found in the book.

Havelock Ellis cph.3b08675.jpg

Henry Havelock Ellis (1912). Image via Wikipedia.

Soul of Spain

My instagram-worthy $7.00 purchase









Before I discuss The Soul of Spain, it’s worth mentioning a few key details about Havelock Ellis’ life and career. In turn of the century England, his work challenged traditional taboos surrounding sexuality, and he examined topics such as homosexuality, masturbation, the physiology of sexual behavior, and eugenics. He was also one of the first physicians to study transgender phenomena, and his work was quite controversial. His 1897 essay on homosexuality (which he termed “sexual inversion”) was banned in England for being obscene. Nevertheless, in the early 20th century, his research found a ready audience when Spanish translations arrived in the peninsula (Zubiaurre). For example, the young Spanish prodigy Hildegart Rodríguez corresponded with Ellis regarding his research on human sexual behavior and eugenics, and she advocated many of his theories on sexual reform in her essays and public lectures (see Sinclair for the letters between Ellis and Rodríguez; see my posts on the life and death of 17-year-old Hildegart here and here).  The fact that Spanish intellectuals read and engaged with Ellis’ research was perhaps an additional quality that drove the physician to further explore a land and a people that he found “singularly fascinating” (Ellis vi).

So… I wondered, what exactly does a controversial British sexologist write about when he sets out to capture the “soul of Spain” in the early 1900s? Curiously, the New York Times gave The Soul of Spain a glowing review in 1908, calling it “a book which clears away many delusions regarding an enigmatical land and people” and “one of the best and most enlightening books on Spain and the Spaniards that have ever appeared”. A quick glance at the Table of Contents reveals the most obvious objects of Ellis’ largely observational study:


Goya’s “La Marquesa de las Mercedes”

1. Introduction
2. The Spanish People
3. The Women of Spain
4. The Art of Spain
5. Velázquez
6. Spanish Dancing
7. Ramón Lull at Palma
8. ‘Don Quixote’
9. Juan Valera
10. Santa María del Mar
11. The Gardens of Granada
12. Segovia
13. Seville in Spring
14. Seville Cathedral
15. Monserrat
16. Spanish Ideals of To-day

This list includes many of the most “classic” themes associated with Spanish Culture, as anyone who has ever taught an introductory or survey course on the topic can attest – Don Quixote and Cervantes, Velázquez, the cities and architecture of Andalucía. But what caught my attention immediately is the fact that Ellis devotes two chapters to the Spanish population: one to the Spanish People and another to the Women of Spain. Were women not people in 1908?!? (Wait, don’t answer that…) In his defense, though, Ellis does also set Velázquez off in his own chapter instead of discussing the renowned painter in the section on  Spanish Art, which might actually be considered complimentary. In any case, I want to discuss a bit more of what I read in the chapter on Spanish women, since it most closely relates to my general research focus on gender and women’s representations.

This chapter dedicated to Spanish women is preceded by a late 18th-century painting by Francisco de Goya (above), La marquesa de las Mercedes. This is a fitting illustration, as Goya and other Spanish artists “created an image of the native woman that projected an Iberian ‘authenticity’” (Zanardi n.p.). Moreover, a woman’s dress was often the primary means by which Goya conveyed her particularly Spanish persona (Zanardi). In his search for the “Soul of Spain”, Ellis also focuses his observations on the Spanish woman’s appearance – both her physical beauty and her wardrobe. As he notes, “The distinguished qualities of Spanish women can scarcely be questioned. Their beauty and grace are a theme for rhapsody to every tourist” (65). He begins the chapter with through descriptions of the beautiful Spanish women in traditional dress who populate the city of Sevilla during the annual Feria de Sevilla (65-69). Ellis emphasizes her hair, adorned with combs and flowers, as well as her mantilla (lace shawl), folded and worn in an oblong (not triangular) shape. His praise of the Spanish woman’s distinctly feminine beauty is expressed in terms of her difference from other European women, notably the “fashionable” French women of Paris: “…for a Spanish woman in a Parisian costume is nearly always badly dressed, while in her native costume her distinction is perfect” (66). He goes on to “eloquently” describe the entire ensemble as “a kind of coquettish war-paint, the appanage of youth and vigour” (67). Below is an image of modern Spanish women donning this traditional attire for 2016’s Feria de Sevilla.

Embed from Getty Images

It is in this chapter on women that I found Ellis’ interest and expertise in modern eugenics to be most evident in his discourse, as words and phrases such as “better-bred,” “racial Iberian trait, “dignified, silent, and intense race” appear on nearly every page. While such vocabulary is evident in many parts of the book, it is especially prominent here as he details Spanish women’s “interesting peculiarities” – their stature, the shape of their chests and breast (including a footnote on nipple size!), the curvature of her spine, the manner in which she walks, her face, complexion, nose, and mouth – in over 15 pages (69-84)! His male gaze was clearly working overtime during his visits to Spain, as he provides no such meticulous physical descriptions of Spanish men… I  mean, Spanish people.

Below are a few of the most notable quotes regarding “the soul of Spain” as Ellis perceives it in Spanish women – I’ve divided them into six general categories:

(1) Regarding the “heightened” curves of the Spanish woman’s spine (what he terms an “Iberian saddle-back”) and the way they impact her movement:  “This gait… is the erect dignified carriage, with restrained movement, of a priestess who is bearing the sacred vessels. At the same time, the walk of Spanish women, while not lacking in proud human dignity, has in it something of the gracious quality of a feline animal, whose whole body is alive and in restrained movement, yet without any restless or meaningless excess of movement” (72-73).


In this image, film star Gene Tierney (c. 1946) is shown posed as the notorious 19th century Irish cabaret dancer Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, Countess of Landsfeld, who reinvented herself and her history under the stage name Lola Montez. Tierney plays up the coquettish spirit for which the “Spanish Dancer” was known, thus illustrating the most performative aspects of physical feminine beauty on which Ellis focuses in his book. Image via Grapefruit Moon Gallery:

(2)  Regarding her face: “The face varies greatly in outline… the lower part of the face, though often as beautiful as could be desired, is the part  most liable to be unsatisfactory; it may become somewhat coarse and thick. The nose also is sometimes defective” (73-74).

(3) Her hair: “The hair, again, thought sometimes considered a special beauty of the Spanish woman, does not, to me at least, stand in the first rank of her charms; it is not comparable, for instance, to the beautiful and abundant hair which one sees so often among Polish women in the streets of Warsaw” (74).

(4) Her eyes:  “It is usual to say that the Spanish woman’s eyes are large and black, sometimes, it is added, and bold… but it is by no beans the ‘black’ eye which is in chief honour. The black eye is plebeian, and it is usually associated with a plebeian style of beauty. The Spaniard, whatever region of the country he belongs to, has nearly always admired the ‘mixed’ eye, that of medium pigmentation… green. Calderon, it is true, associated black eyes with beauty, but in the Celestina green eyes with long lashes are one of the chief markers of supreme beauty…” (74-76). Ellis goes on to cite Don Quixote’s description of Dulcinea’s eyes as “green emeralds”, and similar references in the the literature of Juan Valera and Vicente Blasco Ibañez. In fact, throughout the book he uses literary references to buttress his observational claims, demonstrating his familiarity with Spanish literary and cultural history. In the chapter on women, he impressively references Calderón, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, La Celestina), Franciso Delicado, Santa Teresa (St. Theresa), Valera, Blasco Ibañez, Concepción Arenal, Emilia Pardo Bazán, and Benito Pérez Galdós .

mujeres del quijote

Image via Casa del Libro

(5) Regarding women’s complexion, Ellis again employs literature to support his claim that “the Spanish skin is the most perfect in Europe, and there is no need to hide it, as was once the Spanish custom, by rouge, and now by the unpleasant use of powder” (76). He continues: “There is a quality about the skin of a beautiful Spanish woman which always instinctively suggests… the quality of the finest and most exquisitely wrought metals. This had not escaped Cervantes. ‘Senor Don Quixote,’ asked the duenna, ‘ have you observed the comeliness of my lady the Duchess, that smooth complexion of hers like a burnished polished sword?'” (77).

(6) Finally, Ellis observes the Spanish woman’s general attitude towards men: “[Her] manner towards a man, gracious as it may be, is always cool and self-possessed… All the old Spanish traditions show that the women of this race required much wooing; a certain chastity corresponding to their extreme sobriety seems to lie in the temperament of the people. This proud reticence, the absence of any easy erethic response to masculine advances, is the probable source of that erotic superiority of women, the sexual subjection of men, which has often been noted as characteristic of Spain, and is indeed symbolised in the profound Spanish adoration for the Virgin Mary. It is probably very primitive” (83-84).

This connection of Spanish womanhood to the Virgin Mary is a perfect place to continue including images from The Soul of Spain – starting with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “Madonna and Child (1638), a prime example of Spanish Baroque painting.  In his discussion of Spanish art, Ellis suggests that Murillo was “once counted as more than the peer of Velázquez, [but] has fallen from his high estate in critical estimation… Murillo was lacking in original force… He was an artist of feminine and receptive temperament, a realist indeed, but with no virile force, inapt to express the vigorous dramatic qualities which most natively find expression in Spanish art” (125).

Madonna and Child_Murillo-wikiart

“Madonna and Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1638). Image via Wikiart.

In the above quote on Murillo’s “feminine” temperament that lacked “virile force”, we can clearly see the way in which Ellis genders the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish people, whether discussing talented Spanish artists of the past or ordinary citizens of his present-day. Feminine traits are associated with weakness and deference; masculine traits with strength and authority. Yet paradoxically, Ellis justifies his dedication of an entire chapter to Spanish women as a consequence of their superiority to men: “The Spaniards, if we take their history as a whole, have been a peculiarly virile people, yet at the present day one is tempted to think that the women of Spain are on the average superior to the men” (61).  He notes three causes of this purported “depletion of manhood” in Spain, or three factors that have “tended to crush Spain’s manhood”: centuries of war, the Inquisition, and the vast colonial empire (64). War, he declares, eliminated the most energetic and virile soldiers; the Inquisition the most intellectual thinkers; and the colonial empire the most entrepreneurial spirits.

Overall, The Soul of Spain is a fascinating read for (1) the elements of its discourse that today seem rather antiquated (i.e., racist, sexist, and classist!) and (2) for the manner in which a physician/scientist is so willing to engage with art, literature, and cultural history. The 1908 New York Times review highlighted the cross-disciplinary nature of the resulting study, referring to Ellis as “that rare combination, a scientist who is also a poet”.  Below, I’ve included a sample of the images that appear in the 1937 edition of the text.  The first image included in the book is the Frontispiece, a black and white photograph of a dramatic mural painted by American artist John Singer Sargent in 1882 – “El jaleo. I was not familiar with this painting or artist, so it was a welcome discovery.


“El jaleo” (1882), by American artist John Singer Sargent. Image via wikipedia.

“Jaleo” is the name of a popular Andalusian dance, Jaleo de Jerez, and the word itself can be translated as “boisterous amusement or fun,” or “din, commotion, ruckus.” The full color images available online today are stunning, and the stark contrasts between the light and dark make Sargent’s depiction of the Spanish gitano  (gypsy) dancers especially compelling. At 12-feet wide, the large scale of the mural was meant to suggest a “stage” to the viewer, thus emphasizing the performative aspect – the theatricality –  inherent in the Spanish Gypsy’s dancing (see wikipedia for a fairly detailed analysis).

Segovia-alcazar For two images, I was actually able to find digital copies of the identical photographs  in the book, which seem to date from the 1920s.

To the left is an image of the Alcázar (Castle) at Segovia, a small, medieval town about an hour northwest of Madrid. Ellis poetically describes it as a “‘dead city,’ still serenely sleeping, in a dream of which the spell has been broken neither by… the tourist crowd, nor… commercial activity, nor by any native anxiety for self-exploitation. How deeply Segovia sleeps…” (322).

Below is a photograph of the great Cathedral in Sevilla/Seville, which Ellis affirms is “the largest of all Gothic churches, and indeed, after St. Peter’s at Rome, the largest church in Christendom” (355).


Now that I’ve spent some time reading through The Soul of Spain, I’m anxious to get back to work on an article dealing with print literature in early 20th-century Madrid. I also want to make time to visit The Dusty Bookshelf more frequently, as their inventory is constantly changing and I’ve been impressed with what I have found so far.

What vintage books have you found in libraries or local bookstores? Have you come across any unusual discoveries?



Ellis, [Henry] Havelock. The Soul of Spain(New Edition with an Introductory Essay on the Spanish Civil War). Boston: Houghton Mifflin [The Riverside Press, Cambridge], 1937.
Online version of first edition via Hathi Trust Digital Library (and the University of Michigan) – this edition does not contain illustrations:;view=1up;seq=19

Review: Havelock Ellis’s Soul of Spain.New York Times. 9 May 1908.
Online via New York Times TimesMachine:

Sinclair, Alison. Sex and Society in Early Twentieth-Century Spain. Hildegart Rodriguez and the World League of Sexual Reform. Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2007.

Zanardi, Tara.Framing Majismo: Art and Royal Identity in Eighteenth-Century Spain.” University Park: Penn State U P, 2016. Google Books preview here.

Zubiaurre, Maite. Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939. Nashville: Vanderbilt U P, 2012.
—. A Virtual Wunderkammer. Early Twentieth Century Erotica in Spain. Companion site with image gallery and PDFs of Spanish essays from the 1920s-30s:
(See my post on this book and its “Virtual Wunderkammar” here).

About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in Art, History, Literature, Spain, Women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Discovering “The Soul of Spain”… in Kansas!

  1. ensondeluz says:

    No te digo nada nuevo, pero las teorías seudo-científicas de “Biología de las Razas”, y las prácticas resultantes de lo que se llamaba la Eugenesia, que estuvieron en boga desde fines del siglo XIX hasta bien entrados los años 70 (en Suecia se esterilizaron miles de personas hasta fines de los años 50 y la esterilización forzosa -90% mujeres- fue legal hasta 1976) a pesar de los horrores y genocidios que justificaron, no sólo en la Alemania nazi sino también por parte de sus discípulos, como Antonio Vallejo-Nágera en España (“Eugenesia de la Hispanidad. Regeneración de la Raza”, Editorial Española, 1937).

    El caso de ese psiquiatra es particularmente sangrante por el modo en el que dirigió la represión no sólo contra los hombres sino, muy especialmente, contra las mujeres republicanas en la España de la posguerra y con su organización de los servicios de las maternidades y de la represión psicológica en los campos de concentración y prisiones franquistas.

    Sobre la mujer escribía aquel seudo-intelectual e ideólogo de raigambre nazi: “A la mujer se le atrofia la inteligencia como las alas a las mariposas de la isla de Kerguelen, ya que su misión en el mundo no es la de luchar en la vida, sino acunar la descendencia de quien tiene que luchar por ella”.

    Por cierto, hay una curiosa referencia a Havelock Ellis en la correspondencia de George Orwell con su amiga Brenda Salked: el 15 de febrero de 1935 le escribe que ha examinado la dedicatoria de Ellis en uno de sus libros y no le ha parecido buena ni su caligrafía ni su pluma (George y Brenda eran aficionados a los libros dedicados).

    • rebeccambs says:

      Gracias, Ramon, por esta informacion. A mi me fascinan los estudios hechos por eso (pseudo)cientificios a finales del siglo XIX y a principios del siglo XX, sobre todo en cuanto a la mujer (o sea, el genero y la sexualidad). ?Conoces “La inferioridad mental de la mujer” por P.J.Moebiue? Fue traducida al espanol por Carmen de Burgos, una mujer/aurtora bastante feminista, su edicion y sus comentarios dentro del texto revelen que ella no confiaba tanto en los metodos supuestamente cientificos de este medico/cientifico…y de otros como el. No tiene tanto que ver con la eugenesia, pero si con los discursos pseudo-cientificos que se promulgaban

  2. ensondeluz says:

    Hola Rebecca,
    A Carmen de Burgos la he conocido a través de tu blog, pero no he leído la obra de J.P. Moebius, que por lo que he visto en el Diccionario Ideológico Feminista de Victoria Sau, continúa las concepciones de la tradición patrística cristiana, por cierto concentradas en la obra de Juan Luis Vives (1523) De Institutione Feminae Christianae (hay traducción en la colección Austral: Educación de la Mujer Cristiana), quien, a pesar de estar a favor del acceso a la escuela de las niñas y adolescentes en paridad con los varones, escribía que “est animal femina imbecillum”(“la hembra es débil”).
    Me he permitido citar y enlazar este magnífico post tuyo en mi post de ayer domingo 19 de junio:
    Espero que te parezca oportuno.
    Un saludo cordial

  3. Pingback: In Praise of “Real Books”: Velázquez and the “Filtered” Reality of Spain’s Siglo de Oro | Rebecca M. Bender, PhD

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