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In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

We are pleased to be able to reproduce the following essay by Sheila Rowbotham.  The essay, first published in 1977, remains insightful and highly informative. It further provides an excellent introduction to Edward Carpenter for those new to the subject.

Within the essay Sheila reflects on her prolonged interest in Edward Carpenter and his circle, an interest that had stretched over almost two decades even in 1977. Fortunately that interest and research has continued, and now, 30 years later, Sheila, Professor of Gender and Labour History at Manchester University and Edward Carpenter Forum founding member,  is completing a new full-length Carpenter biography. Our thanks to her for agreeing that her essay could appear.

The original essay appeared in the History Workshop Journal (History Workshop Journal 3, Spring 1977, p121-133) and we are grateful to the Journal for their permission to reproduce it here. The History Workshop Journal retains all copyright for the essay. The Journal's website can be found at www.hwj.oxfordjournals.org.

In Search of Carpenter

by Sheila Rowbotham

The pub at Millthorpe near Sheffield was deserted with a 'For Sale' notice outside when I went there with friends on a grey March day in 1976. Just down the road there was 'Carpenter House' where Edward Carpenter had lived from the early 1880s until he moved to Guildford in 1922.

Going to visit Millthorpe, Dronfield and Totley was a geographical locating of a group of radicals, socialists and feminists who had lived in the area or visited while Carpenter was there. I have been and still am struggling with the more complicated social, political and personal placing of this group. They have had a curiously persistent fascination for me ever since I read a review of a biography of Havelock Ellis by Arthur Calder-Marshall when I was in my teens in the late 1950s. Carpenter, socialist and writer on sexual liberation, feminism and homosexuality; Ellis, pioneer sex psychologist; and Olive Schreiner, the South African feminist, author of 'Story of an African Farm', have all become important to me at different times rather like the kind of closeness you have with old friends. There is the waxing and waning of intimacy with the security of knowing they are always around. The friendship is getting on for being a twenty year relationship which is longer than with any of my real friends. Information has accumulated in a haphazard kind of way as it does with old friends. I've slowly introduced myself to more and more of their circle until it has become like having an address book of the past. So I had to pinch myself as I walked on that foggy March day down the road to Millthorpe to remember I wasn't going to find them sitting there. It is one of the sadnesses of history for me - this loving intimacy with ghosts.

I was attracted first by the picture of Ellis as a medical student which was printed with the review, and then intrigued by the description of his mystical experience when he was a young man, alone in Sparkes Creek in Australia. Ellis had somehow come across James Hinton's Life in Nature. Hinton's vision of reconciliation between religious feeling and materialism illuminated Ellis's own spiritual anguish. He said,

‘It acted with the swiftness of an electric contact; the dull aching tension was removed; the two opposing psychic tendencies were fused in delicious harmony, and my whole attitude to the universe was changed. It was no longer an attitude of hostility and dread, but of confidence and love."¹

I was educated at a Methodist school and so accepted the idea of religious grace as part of common experience. Heart-warming, the infusion of light, treading air are described by Methodists as salvation by grace. I was already uneasy about Christianity. Reading Ellis's account of his experience was exciting. It seemed there was a kind of secular grace outside the Methodist Church. The inner witness was not bounded by John Wesley.

‘In an instant the universe was changed for me. I trod on air',² Ellis had said. I recognised the simplicity of the language. I was tantalized by its familiarity with religious mystical statements. It is as if such experiences are so filled with feeling that there is no space for the detachment of language. Here were moments dissolving time and melting words until there was only light and ecstasy. I was torn by the longing to melt into the light and the longing to touch and shape the moment. I was already itchy with words, watching, describing, filled with nostalgic sadness for moments I could no longer enter. I knew even then the sadness of history, the final recognition that it is already the past. Only ecstasy eases this sadness.

Ellis appeared also to be something to do with sex. Now I was as interested in sex as I was in ecstasy and history, though unsure quite what it was. Perhaps this book would explain. So I pursued Ellis and the business of getting the book about him with great resolve. My mother, already accustomed to strange requests, bought me the biography for my sixteenth birthday. She did not know who Havelock Ellis was, but a friend of hers did, and let out a squeal of horror at my mother's innocence in buying me such a dirty book. My mother was a stubborn and thwarted lover of freedom and gave me Calder-Marshall's Havelock Ellis nonetheless. I read it, as I read everything then, searching for a total explanation of me, life, death and the universe.

In considered retrospect it is not a very good biography of Ellis but at the time it was revelatory. There were funny things in it about the relations between mothers and sons, the connections between urination and sexual pleasure, about infant sexuality and about lesbianism. It was the first time I realised that there as a psychological view of the world. Perhaps it seems remarkable that so many years after Freud it was possible to grow up in the English small-business northern middle class innocent of Oedipus. But it was so. Later I found a paperback edition of Ellis's Psychology of Sex and laboriously toiled through it in some bewilderment.

The picture of Olive Schreiner when she met Ellis was recognisable. There as a mixture of physical defiance and submission. You can feel her body at once pressing against her formal Victorian clothes, with no choice but to accept this outer confinement. When I read about her I felt close to her. Perhaps it was her loneliness and spiritual travail or her masochism or her idealism, or her vulnerability or her will - I wonder. When I read Story of an African Farm I remember feeling those floods of adolescent identification. Out there long ago and far away someone had felt like me and escaped. There must be others. Somewhere over the rainbow I might meet them.