Sheila Rowbotham offers the comprehensive, critical, contextualized biography Edward Carpenter deserves
A LIFE OF LIBERTY AND LOVE
By Sheila Rowbotham
565 pages, $39.95
When Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) broke free of the stifling world of upper-class Victorian England into which he was born, his rejection of its cosseted, impossibly mannered life was total. In his time, he became the most famous apostle of a wide-ranging revolt against sexual hypocrisy and the straightjacket of class divisions in human interpersonal relations. And Carpenter’s courageous contributions over a long life made him one of the most important precursors of gay liberation, one whose influence spanned countries and continents.
Carpenter and his working-class lover of 37 years, George Merrill, became one of history’s most celebrated same-sex couples, on a par with Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais or with Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Yet despite his well-known defense of homosexuality, Carpenter was one of the most beloved figures of British socialism, so much so that on his 80th birthday in 1924, 43 years before same-sex relations were legalized in the United Kingdom, the entire Cabinet of the first Labour Party government, led by Carpenter’s old friend Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, signed a profuse tribute to him.
A poet, essayist, and philosopher, a pioneer environmentalist and feminist, the most generous of humanitarians, an advocate of alternative democratic lifestyles who eschewed the bourgeois accumulation of possessions, and a tireless and skilled propagandist for social change, Carpenter is primarily remembered today for his writings on homosexuality.
But it is one of the great merits of Sheila Rowbotham’s superb new biography, the first in-depth account of his life and work, that she restores the remarkable Carpenter to his proper place as one of the most significant figures in the rise of the British cultural left and in the creation of the shifts in attitudes that made the election of the first Labour government possible.
When Carpenter was born, "sodomy" was still a capital crime technically subject to the death penalty, a sanction that was only changed to life imprisonment in 1861 when Carpenter was 17, and although aware from an early age of his intense attraction to his own sex he did not have his first sexual experience with a man until he was 20. His first love occurred while he was an increasingly radical and egalitarian university student at Cambridge, but it was fleeting, painful, and an apparent single carnal episode with the love object — Edward Beck, a somewhat younger student who later became a conservative Cambridge dean — was not repeated, because as Rowbotham writes, "the ambiguity of strong friendships in the 1870s blurred any explicit expression of sexual passion [and] the equivocal attitudes to homosexual desire in Cambridge… created a perplexing kind of freedom which had to be intimated within bounds which could never be clearly marked out."
After Beck broke off their brief romantic friendship, leaving a lasting wound, Carpenter visited Paris in search of male prostitutes in a country in which homosex was not illegal, but his sexual experiences there left him emotionally empty, unfulfilled, and unhappy.
Carpenter’s sense of alienation from his sexual self only really began to dissipate when he read Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass," for "Whitman’s advocacy of an ‘adhesive’ democratic, manly comradeship was attractive to Carpenter because it provided a new homoerotic possibility, and at the same time touched a political nerve. Whitman’s ‘Democratic Vistas’ (1871) presented ‘adhesiveness’ as the complement to individualism, a brotherhood in which all races fused as comrades."
Carpenter became a confirmed Whitmanite, but it was not until 1874 as he was about to graduate from Cambridge that Carpenter worked up the courage to write "a long letter" to Whitman. "Because you have… given me a ground for the love of men, I thank you continually in my heart," Carpenter wrote the bard, "and others thank you though they do not say so. For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful, but to some there is that which surpasses the love of women."
Whitman loved the letter, and there ensued a correspondence that would only end with Whitman’s death.
Using a trip to America on behalf of his wealthy family’s financial entanglements there as an excuse, Carpenter — who after a brief stint as a cleric had joined the Cambridge University Extension program to teach the working classes in northern England — finally met Whitman and spent a week in his house with him. (He also sought out and met Ralph Waldo Emerson.)
One of Carpenter’s young gay disciples in later years, Chester A. Arthur III (1901-1972), the grandson and namesake of the US president, recalled in his old age that Carpenter had told him he had "slept" with Whitman, and that Whitman "thought people should ‘know’ each other on the physical and emotional plane as well as in the mental. And that the best part of comrade love was that there was no limit to the number of comrades one could have."
Meeting Whitman, writes Rowbotham, "clarified new ways of seeing, feeling, and being for Carpenter, giving him a different means of denoting significance. It was the start of an alternative outlook on the world." Moreover, "Carpenter’s visit to Whitman… made him more bold sexually: he embarked on exploratory encounters with working-class men, ‘railway-men, porters, clerks, signalmen, ironworkers, coach-builders, Sheffield cutters,’ discovering he could ‘knit up more alliances more satisfactory to me than any I had before known… I felt I had come into, or at least in sight of, the world to which I belonged, my natural habitat.’"
His Whitman visit had also awakened a deepening love of nature, and on his return Carpenter moved first to the working-class industrial city of Sheffield, then to a farm in a nearby village where he worked at market gardening and wrote his first book, "Towards Democracy" (1883), a long prose poem greatly influenced by Whitman and the influential Christian Socialist art critic and social essayist John Ruskin.
The book "contains Carpenter’s observations of the poverty he saw in the streets of the northern cities, the crushing, destructive working conditions, and the lack of human contact between people of different classes. These are mixed together with Ruskinian diatribes against commercialism… and a romantic Whitmanite embracing of all humanity, however despised or outcast." Politics was a means to an end, for the "democracy" Carpenter sought was "a new way of being human, a new manner of encountering others," flecked with homosensual accents. The book attracted a growing audience of socialists and sexual rebels over the ensuing decades and converted many to the radical cause.
By this time Carpenter had inherited considerable wealth on the death of his father, and bought three fields at Millthorpe, a "tiny, remote settlement in the Cordwell Valley" not too far from Sheffield, where he had a gray stone house built and set up to live a simpler life as a market gardener with the aid of a local farming family.
Having been converted to socialism after reading "England for All" (1881) by the pioneer of British socialism, Henry Hyndman, he began attending meetings of Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and gave ₤300 to Justice, the first and longest-surviving Marxist newspaper in England, which Hyndman started that year. And Carpenter began criss-crossing English towns and cities to lecture where "little networks of heresy," from utopians to hard-headed municipal reformers, "coalesced to become the cores of the new [Socialist] movement." He continued to keep a heavy lecture schedule until he was nearly 80.
He helped found the Sheffield Socialist Society, and in 1885 helped the Working Men’s Radical Association put up one of the first independent labor candidates for Parliament.
As Rowbotham puts it, "Carpenter’s unusual circumstances as a Millthorpe market gardener endowed him with a certain mystique among the newly radicalized intelligentsia earnestly debating poverty, class inequality, sexual relations, new ethical codes…" and he gained renown as a practitioner of an alternative style of living even as his lectures, constant stream of books, and never-ending series of articles in the new socialist and radical publications made him well-known.
In all his speeches and writings, he "stressed, as he had in ‘Towards Democracy,’ that the moral elements in historical movements were the key to change because they caused men and women to desire an alternative." Carpenter’s libertarian brand of socialism had a strong anarchist tinge, but he had an entirely ecumenical view of the left that saw all its factions as working toward a common goal, and envisioned a labor "movement" that would unite them all.
For Carpenter, "Socialism was not merely a movement for industrial emancipation, it ‘meant the entire regeneration of society in art, in science, in religion, and in literature, and the building up of a new life in which industrial socialism was the foundation,’" as he put it in 1887.
However, Carpenter’s simple, alternative lifestyle, which included rejection of traditional bourgeois dress, a sometimes backsliding vegetarianism, and his fondness for sandals (which he eventually began to make at Millthorpe as a supplement to his income) was not to the taste of all leftists; his Socialist comrade George Bernard Shaw dryly nicknamed Carpenter "the Noble Savage."
In one of his most successful books, "Civilization: Its Cause and Cure" (1889), which went through 18 editions in English in the ensuring four decades and was widely published in translation, including Japanese, Carpenter flayed class divisions, "Panglossian Victorian complacency," and "faith in automatic progress as a result of external changes in science, technology, productivity, and material prosperity." Deploying references to Plato, Carpenter "wanted to validate physical desires denigrated by Christianity, and homosexuality peeps out gingerly from [its] pages, smuggled in under cover of the classics."
Carpenter met the man who was to become his partner for the rest of his life, 25-year-old George Merrill, in 1892 as they were descending from a train at Sheffield. They briefly and wordlessly cruised each other, and Merrill followed Carpenter at a distance as he walked off toward Millthorpe in the company of waiting friends. Eventually Carpenter stopped and turned, the two exchanged names and addresses, and a relationship that would last for the next three and a half decades was born. Their life together at Millthorpe entered into legend.
Rowbotham relates that "After meeting Merrill, Carpenter was seeking a more outright way of expressing male-male love than was possible under Whitman’s cloak of comradeship." In 1893 and 1894, Carpenter set to work on four pamphlets — "Woman and Her Place in a Free Society," "Marriage in a Free Society," "Sex-love and its Place in a Free Society," and "Homogenic Love and its Place in a Free Society."
"The decision to write about sexuality in general," notes Rowbotham, "was consistent with Carpenter’s tendency to seek out broad alliances rather than to isolate himself. Moreover the other pamphlets gave ‘Homogenic Love’ a degree of cover, for he could appear as a writer on sexual topics in general rather than as a homosexual pleading a case."
The first three pamphlets, which took an advanced feminist position arguing that women deserved full social and economic freedom, that marriage was a form of prostitution, and that housework was real work, were all published, and eventually collected as "Love’s Coming of Age" in 1896. But the publisher refused to bring out "Homogenic Love," so Carpenter paid to have it privately printed, and "the first British statement by a homosexual man, linking emancipation to social transformation, was destined only for friends and acquaintances."
Drawing on the works in German of the pioneer German homosexual liberationist Karl Ulrichs (Carpenter was fluent in German, French, and Italian), "Homogenic Love" argued that same-sex desire was congenital and that private sexual behavior should be no concern of the law, which could not stop "natural" feelings, only persecute those individuals caught expressing them, while offering fertile terrain for blackmailers.
In the wake of the imprisonment and trial of Oscar Wilde — who had admired Carpenter’s "Towards Democracy" — the following year, an event which "left a vortex of fear in its wake," Carpenter’s attempts to find a publisher for "Homogenic Love" were universally rejected, and his attempts to publish articles based on his privately printed plea for homosexual liberation were repeatedly rejected, even by journals on the left which normally welcomed him. But "Homogenic Love" was published in German in 1895, in the French journal La Societé Nouvelle the next year, and copies made their way into the hands of sympathetic American sex radicals, particularly in the anarchist movement, which greatly admired Carpenter and Whitman.
In 1897 Carpenter finally managed to get his article on same-sexers, "An Unknown People," published in the freethinkers’ magazine The Reformer, arguing for sexual education for lonely young "Urnings" (he’d adopted Ulrichs’ term for homosexuals) and insisting that they were not the "decadents" of popular imagination but "fine, healthy specimens."
In an 1899 article in the International Journal of Ethics on "Affection in Education," Carpenter argued that "intense and romantic" friendships between pupils, and between teachers and pupils, played a vital part in education. And when the scientific study "Sexual Inversion" by the pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis, a longtime friend and admirer of Carpenter who was married to a lesbian, was crucified in the press and pursued by the censors, Carpenter did not hesitate to spring publicly to its defense.
In 1902 Carpenter edited "Ioläus," an anthology celebrating same-sex love which drew its title from the name of Hercules’ warrior comrade, and in which is chronicled, as Rowbotham puts it, "a great crowd of historical ‘friends.’ Greek and Spartan warrior lovers and shepherd boys appear in the procession along with Sir Thomas Browne, Michelangelo and the Persian poet Hafiz. From more recent times, Richard Wagner, King Ludwig II of Prussia, Walt Whitman, Byron and Shelley present themselves in its pages. Nor were the women forgotten; Carpenter included Queen Anne and Lady Churchill as well as the resolute Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby who eloped to live in Wales and became known as the ‘Ladies of Llangolen’ during the 18th century."
Over the years, Millthorpe and the Carpenter-Merrill ménage acted as a magnet for young men troubled about their same-sex attractions, both those from the working classes Carpenter favored — and whom he often bedded, sometimes arousing temporary fits of jealousy from the equally promiscuous Merrill that soon subsided — and a stream of younger, disconsolate would-be writers and intellectuals who were homosexual.
Among those whom the charismatic Carpenter served as sexual therapist and literary counselor were the budding poet Siegfriend Sasson, who wrote in requesting an audience that Carpenter’s writings had helped him understand the antipathy he felt to young women; and the even younger Robert Graves, a schoolmaster dismissed for an affair with a schoolboy, who wrote in a thank you note that Carpenter had "absolutely taken the scales" from his eyes. Graves eventually gained worldwide fame as the author of "I, Claudius."
Even the already well-known author E.M. Forster benefited from his 1914 Millthorpe pilgrimage. "Merrill," Rowbotham relates, "who was familiar with the syndrome of nervous devotees, intuitively broke through Forster’s self-conscious reticence."
As Forster later recalled, "George Merrill touched my backside — gently and just above the buttocks — I believe he touched most people’s. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-lost tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought."
On Forster’s return home, he immediately sat down and wrote his novel "Maurice," a homosexual story of love across the class divide for which the Carpenter-Merrill couple was the template, and in which the character of Alec Scudder the servant gamekeeper was loosely based on Merrill. Forster regarded Carpenter as "a saviour" and noted ecstatically in his diary, "Forward rather than back, Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter!"
But Carpenter’s home also was a magnet for a never-ending stream of radicals — working-class trade unionists, Socialist and Labour Party leaders, rebellious aristocrats, emancipated women (who numbered among his most important friendships), environmentalists, land reformers, leaders of cooperatives, freethinking spiritual seekers, and delegations en masse from Socialist youth walking clubs all trouped to Carpenter’s door and enjoyed his warm and bountiful hospitality.
Merrill died suddenly in 1928, and, shattered by the loss, Carpenter soon followed a year later. They are buried next to each other.
In Rowbotham, Carpenter has at long last found the biographer he deserves. A disciple of the great English historian E.P. Thompson and a socialist feminist historian and essayist whose writings over the last three decades have made her a revered figure in the women’s movement, Rowbotham has always insisted on the importance of grassroots social movements from below.
And in her massive book on Carpenter, Rowbotham details his tireless activism and its incredible impact in fostering and nurturing the British left and the labor movement. Tens of thousands of workers who never read Carpenter had heard him lecture, or speak at open-air public meetings which attracted crowds in the thousands, whether he was appearing in support of strikers, arguing for women’s suffrage, calling for the curtailment of pollution by industry, opposing the Boer War and World War I, or demanding that the privileged aristocracy’s control of the land be ceded to the people who worked it.
Many more knew Carpenter, a talented musician who entertained Millthorpe visitors by playing his beloved Beethoven on the piano, as the composer and lyricist of the popular socialist hymn "England, Arise!," which was one of the frequently-sung anthems of the labor left.
Rowbotham is a felicitously vivid, witty, and evocative writer who captures Carpenter’s magnetic personality and makes him come alive. But this is no undiluted hagiography, for Rowbotham neatly picks apart Carpenter’s failings, foibles, and blind spots, including his unfortunate tendency to an ideological anti-Semitism (although he had close friends who were Jews) and a certain condescension, typical of Cambridge men of the era, toward Third World peoples — this despite his outspoken opposition to British colonialism and imperialism and his early and then-controversial support of the movement for independence in India, which he’d visited and written about.
Carpenter’s legacy includes a direct, linear connection to the modern American homosexual rights movement, for it was when a young Harry Hay in 1925 stumbled across a restricted library copy of Carpenter’s influential 1916 book "The Intermediate Sex," with its visions of same-sexers organizing to demand their rights, that Hay grasped the principals of homosexual emancipation which, two and half decades later, would lead him to found the Mattachine Society.
As brilliantly researched and told by Rowbotham, "Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love" has lessons for same-sexers, and for the left, which are invaluable in considering how we got to where we are and whither we should go. If you think you know Carpenter, this book’s revelations will nonetheless surprise you, as they did me. And if you don’t know him, you owe it to yourself to add this important and entertaining work, illustrated with numerous photos, to your bookshelf.
Carpenter’s most important writings, including "Toward Democracy," "Ioläus," "The Intermediate Sex," and his word-portrait of his lover George Merrill are all available online at edwardcarpenter.net/. The music and lyrics to Carpenter’s working-class anthem, "England, Arise!" are at strawberrythieveschoir.org.uk/music/EnglandArise!.pdf. And the Edward Carpenter Forum provides a wide range of Carpenteriana at edwardcarpenterforum.org/.
Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.