The Long Happy Life of Edward Carpenter:
An Appreciation of Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, by Sheila Rowbotham
by Professor Michael Robertson
Reprinted from The Common Review by permission of author.
Not even his friends were certain that Edward Carpenter’s writing would survive him. E. M. Forster, whose pioneering gay novel Maurice was inspired by a visit to Carpenter and his partner George Merrill, dismissed Carpenter’s books as famous in their day but unlikely to live. Forster was more interested in Carpenter and Merrill as a couple; they touched a creative spring within him, he said. “George Merrill also touched my backside—gently and just above the buttocks,” Forster wrote. “I believe he touched most people’s. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth.”
To the extent that Carpenter is remembered now, it’s largely among gay historians and activists. He would not object to being a gay icon. Well into old age, he flirted with the young men who clustered around him; even in his eighties, if one colorful American memoirist is to be believed, he was not averse to taking handsome young visitors into his bed. However, it is reductive to remember Carpenter only as a pioneering defender of the love that, until he came along, dared not speak its name. As revealed in the long, sympathetic but shrewd new biography by Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love, he was at the center of every progressive movement in Victorian and Edwardian England. Gay rights, socialism, feminism, anti-colonialism, Eastern religion, animal rights, environmentalism—Carpenter lectured about them all, published books, issued pamphlets, wrote poems and song lyrics, started petitions, gave money, and marched. By the nineteenth century’s end, his name was instantly recognizable across England, connoting a combination of avant-garde poetry, mystical religion, and radical politics. To imagine his equivalent in the American counterculture of the 1960s, one would have to combine Daniel Berrigan, Tom Hayden, Robert Bly, Ram Dass, Gloria Steinem, Gary Snyder, Larry Kramer, and Wavy Gravy.
In many ways, Edward Carpenter was a New Ager ahead of his time. However, he deserves comparison not just to the flakiest of thinkers but to the best. He is, ultimately, in the tradition of the poet-prophets who sought a transformed society through a transformed human heart: Blake, Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.
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Carpenter’s own life testifies to the transformative power of the poet-prophet. Reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass turned Carpenter’s world upside down, though in the manner of most overnight changes, the transformation extended over several years.
Born in Brighton in 1844, Edward Carpenter was the grandson of an admiral in the Royal Navy and the son of an unambitious father who had given up careers in the navy and the law to live off his investments. When it came time to enter Cambridge, Edward chose Trinity Hall because of its rowing team. Rather to his surprise, he earned an honors degree in mathematics and was invited to remain at Cambridge on a clerical fellowship. Raised in the liberalism of Broad Church Anglicanism, he had no objection to being ordained, and he settled into what should have been a comfortable role as university don and curate at a local parish.
Yet perhaps not so comfortable after all. Reading Whitman shortly before his ordination stirred Carpenter intensely. The American poet celebrated unfettered individualism, a post-Christian mystical spirituality, and the beauty of working-class men, all of which appealed to Carpenter. He began to see his conventional upper-middle-class milieu through Whitmanesque eyes, and the sight made him recoil: the congregation in their sleek Sunday best dozing off during his sermons; the elderly women who, at the Reverend Mr. Carpenter’s knock on their door, would hastily shuffle a Bible or prayer book onto the table. He stuck it out for six years, then tendered his resignation. The dean tried to talk him out of it: they all knew Anglican doctrine was tomfoolery, why make such a bother about reciting a creed he did not believe? But Carpenter was adamant; he had to find a more authentic mode of existence.
For the moment, that took the form of a move to the industrial north of England and a position as a university extension lecturer. He imagined that he would be plunged into the life of the common people; instead he found himself lecturing on abstruse topics to uncomprehending middle-class women. In 1877 Carpenter made a pilgrimage to Camden, New Jersey, where Walt Whitman had moved into his brother’s house following a serious stroke. Carpenter trailed Whitman around the city, where the old poet seemed to know everyone: tram conductors, fish sellers, loafers on the pavement. Bucked up by the visit, Carpenter eventually threw over the university extension position, and in 1880 he moved to a farm in rural Derbyshire. He would remain in Derbyshire for the next forty years; he bought a wagon, painted “Edward Carpenter, Market Gardener” on its side, and used it to take vegetables into Sheffield to sell.
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With his highly Romantic move to the countryside, the former clergyman and don was materially and psychologically poised to begin a new life. He began supplementing his reading of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu religious texts then circulating in colonial-era England. Unsurprisingly, this mixture of American transcendentalism and Indian spirituality resulted in an experience that Carpenter called Cosmic Consciousness, a mystical apprehension of the unity of nature and humankind. Fired by the new revelation, he began writing a lengthy poem that would be published in 1883 as Towards Democracy. While at Cambridge, Carpenter had published a volume of conventional verse, but Towards Democracy was nothing like his earlier work. Its form was Whitmanesque free verse, its content a combination of ecstatic mysticism (“Joy, joy arises—I arise. The sun darts overpowering piercing rays of joy through me, and the night radiates it from me”), praise of the common man, and attacks on “the puppet dance of gentility” that Carpenter experienced at Brighton and Cambridge.
Carpenter was hailed by Edward Aveling, the partner of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, as “the English Walt Whitman.” Not that Towards Democracy was Marxist—the poem is vague about the nature of the democracy towards which it points, a strategic ambiguity that gained it readers across a broad spectrum of the British left. When he published the first edition of Towards Democracy, Carpenter was a political neophyte, and his conception of democracy involved little more than fellow-feeling: “Of that which exists in the Soul, political freedom and institutions of equality, and so forth, are but the shadows (necessarily thrown); and Democracy in States or Constitutions but the shadow of that which first expresses itself in the glance of the eye or the appearance of the skin.” If this is dreadful as poetry, it appealed to the idealistic, non-Marxist strain of British socialism that was taking shape in the 1880s. With the publication of Towards Democracy, Carpenter was drawn into left-wing politics and soon became celebrated as the premier spokesman for a movement that he later dubbed the Larger Socialism.
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Trade unionists may have been concerned with the clash of labor and capital, Fabians with infiltrating the parliamentary system, but Larger Socialists saw socialism as a religious crusade. The industrial north of England was the movement’s epicenter; not coincidentally, it was also home to Britain’s most fervent evangelical Christians. The children of mid-Victorian lower-middle-class evangelicals, turned away from conventional religion by the discoveries of Darwin and the critiques of biblical scholars, were not suddenly transformed into modern secularists. Instead, thousands of them transferred their evangelical fervor to socialism. William Morris, himself a nonbeliever, nevertheless spoke frequently about the “religion of socialism.” J. Keir Hardie, a former miner and the first socialist representative to Parliament, said that socialism aimed “to resuscitate the Christianity of Christ” and that it was simply “the embodiment of Christianity in our industrial system.”
Edward Carpenter was the guru of the Larger Socialism. His lyric “England, Arise!” became a socialist hymn, sung at services of the Labour Church—founded in Manchester in 1890, the movement included over fifty congregations by 1895. Towards Democracy was the new Bible. “We read it aloud in the summer evenings,” one prominent socialist reminisced. “We read it at those moments when we wanted to retire from the excitement of our Socialist work, and in quietude seek the calm and power that alone gives sustaining strength. We no longer believed in dogmatic theology. Edward Carpenter gave us the spiritual food we still needed.”
Hundreds of true believers in the new movement made the pilgrimage to Carpenter’s home Millthorpe, near Sheffield, where Carpenter had settled in 1883. His inheritance from his father left him a wealthy man; he used much of the money to subsidize various socialist organizations and publications, a portion to buy a seven-acre farm and build Millthorpe cottage. There he wrote, gardened, made sandals (he regarded boots as “leather coffins”), and received visitors eager for instruction in the Simple Life.
Carpenter had little interest in the communal living experiments that proliferated in Great Britain during the 1880s and 1890s, yet his life at Millthorpe was itself a utopian experiment, a countercultural alternative to repressive, materialistic late-Victorian society. Invited to address the Fabian Society in London in 1888, Carpenter delivered a lecture that made him notorious among scientific socialists. Demonstrating his intellectual debt to Rousseau, Carpenter declared civilization to be a disease, advocated vegetarianism and nudism, and envisioned a future in which humanity, “on the high tops once more gathering,” would “celebrate with naked dances the glory of the human form and the great processions of the stars.” Following this remarkable speech, George Bernard Shaw began referring to Carpenter as the Noble Savage. H. M. Hyndman, head of the Social Democratic Federation, grumbled that he did not want the socialist movement to become “a depository of old cranks, humanitarians, vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists, arty-crafties and all the rest of them.” Rowbotham, in contrast, sagaciously notes the conviction of Carpenter and the thousands who admired him that “theorising social change involved living some part of the future in the here and now.”
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Throughout his career, Carpenter courageously insisted that men’s love for one another was central to the utopian future he envisioned. In his several books of sexual theorizing, he argued that homosexuals would form the vanguard of the coming egalitarian society. For those who imagine that the gay rights movement began in Greenwich Village in 1969, Rowbotham’s account will come as a revelation.
When Carpenter began writing about sexuality in the 1890s, he had virtually no predecessors to draw on. English-language writing about homosexuality was restricted to police reports and medical cases, which labeled homosexuals as either criminals or diseased perverts. The only exceptions were essays by Carpenter’s contemporary John Addington Symonds, who furtively published his works in editions of ten or a hundred copies, and the young Australian physician Havelock Ellis’s book Sexual Inversion, which was banned in Britain. The most prominent sex researcher of the era was the German Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who classed homosexuality with bestiality and other perversions.
In this unpropitious climate, Carpenter seized on the sexual theorizing of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, an Austrian civil servant who avoided Krafft-Ebing’s term homosexual—using an obscure passage in Plato, Ulrichs came up with the terms Uranians and Urnings to describe himself and other man-lovers—and, resorting to Latin when the going got juicy, declared that they possessed anima muliebris in corpore virili inclusa: a woman’s soul in a man’s body. Carpenter had his doubts about this formulation—he declared that “anything effeminate in a man . . . repels me”—but it offered a non-pathological way of viewing his sexual temperament. Drawing upon Ulrichs’ ideas about androgyny, Carpenter coined the term “intermediate sex,” and he used the label throughout his career to make remarkably progressive and politically astute arguments for homosexual rights, basing his theories in the pervasive gender inequality of Victorian society.
Growing up in genteel Brighton, Carpenter watched his unmarried sisters, trapped in enforced virginity, turn into frail recluses. Most men of the era would have dismissed them as spinsters, but Carpenter identified with his sisters—his sexual confusion and ignorance as a young man had isolated him as well. Once he encountered socialist ideas, he quickly connected capitalism, patriarchy, and sexual repression. He wrote that “Man’s craze for property and individual ownership . . . culminated in the enslavement of woman.” From Carpenter’s socialist perspective, men had split into the classes of rapacious capitalist and exploited worker; women had only the options of the lady, the household drudge, or the prostitute.
Into this unequal, unhappy social landscape strode the heroic deliverer, the Urning. Men’s love for men, or women’s for women, was, Carpenter believed, inherently more egalitarian than heterosexual unions, given the gender inequality in capitalist society. Uranian love pointed the way to the socialist future, and Urnings served as models for the more androgynous, spiritually evolved human beings to come. As he wrote in his poem “O Child of Uranus”:
Free of conventional gender limitations, intermediate types were uniquely capable of contributing to gender equality. They had an equally important role to play, Carpenter believed, in ending economic inequality. “Eros is a great leveller,” he wrote.
He should know. “My ideal of love is a powerful, strongly built man, . . . preferably of the working class,” Carpenter wrote in the autobiographical case study he contributed to Ellis’s Sexual Inversion. The love of his life was George Hukin, a Sheffield razor-grinder whom Carpenter met in 1886 at the local Socialist club. Unfortunately, at that moment Hukin was courting a young woman named Fannie, whom he married less than a year later, despite having become Carpenter’s lover. Carpenter saved every letter Hukin wrote him, including a painful one sent shortly after Hukin’s marriage: “I do wish you could sleep with us sometimes Ted, but I don’t know whether Fannie would quite like it yet and I don’t feel I could press it on her anyway. Still I often think how nice it would be if we three could love each other so that we might sleep together sometimes without feeling that there was anything at all wrong in doing so.” Carpenter’s socialist circle anticipated by decades the complicated romantic and sexual lives of the modernist bohemians.
Carpenter’s turbulent romantic life smoothed out as he approached fifty, when George Merrill, a working-class man twenty-five years his junior, picked him up on a train. Merrill eventually moved into Millthorpe and remained with Carpenter for the rest of his life. Unlike the refined, bisexual, morally fastidious Hukin, Merrill was coarse, humorous, and sexually bold; on hearing that Jesus had spent his last night at Gethsemane, he smartly replied, “Who with?” Merrill’s flamboyant behavior occasionally threatened Carpenter’s Derbyshire respectability, but Carpenter’s service on the parish council and his friendship with the vicar rendered him immune to serious attack. The locals knew him as a prominent writer who “had a remarkable number of gentlemen to visit.”
Carpenter was able to publish works like The Intermediate Sex with impunity partly because he did not declare himself in print to be an Urning, partly because he couched radical ideas in a mild, surely-we-can-all-agree tone. Carpenter may have revolted against virtually every aspect of Victorian society, but his protests are pitched in the sweetly reasonable key of the Broad Church parson he started out as. It may be Carpenter’s rosy optimism that all differences of opinion can be reconciled that, as much as anything, is responsible for his twentieth-century eclipse. “If anyone will only think for a minute of his own inner nature,” he wrote in an 1897 essay, “he will see that the only society which would ever really satisfy him would be one in which he was perfectly free, and yet bound by ties of deepest trust to the other members.” It seems never have occurred to Carpenter that some people, consulting their own inner nature, might find there not the desire to live in a harmonious socialist utopia but rather deep distrust of others, or self-critical insecurity, or unreasoning rage.
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Following the Great War, the rise of Stalinism, the triumph of Nazism in Germany, and the destruction of Hiroshima, leftists had little use for Carpenter’s earnest poetry and sweetly reasonable essays. With the triumph of consumer capitalism following World War II, few progressives regarded Carpenter’s retreat to the countryside as a model to be emulated. It took the utopian energies released by the 1960s for Carpenter to be rediscovered. Gay British historians recovered his writings on sexuality, and Sheila Rowbotham, one of Britain’s most prominent feminist historians, circled around Carpenter for years, publishing essays and, at last, this definitive biography.
Does Carpenter have anything to offer us now, eighty years after his death? Rowbotham, a lifelong activist as a well as an academic, believes that he does. Carpenter anticipated virtually every social movement of the sixties—gay rights, women’s liberation, anti-colonial protest, back-to-the-land communes, New Age spirituality, environmentalism, animal rights—and he has a message for each: look beyond your own interest, form alliances with others, and keep your eyes on the prize, which, according to Carpenter, is the utter transformation of society.
George Orwell dismissed Carpenter as a “pious sodomite.” But as Martin Green pointed out in Prophets of a New Age, Orwell’s caustic rejection of Carpenter and other utopian reformers contained an element of self-betrayal, a rejection of his tenderest and most vulnerable hopes. Carpenter was unafraid to expose his own tender, vulnerable hopes in print and, with considerable rigor and courage, he sought to live out his beliefs. To discard one’s formal dinner clothes, as Carpenter did after leaving Cambridge, may have been a highly Romantic gesture, but it was also an act of great resolve. At the height of late-Victorian self-satisfaction, Carpenter abandoned his class privilege, threw in his lot with farmers and working-men, and lived a life close to the earth, surrounded by friends and lovers. Tending his market garden in rural Derbyshire, Edward Carpenter was miles away, in every sense, from his contemporary Oscar Wilde, and the two men never crossed paths. Yet Carpenter surely knew and approved Wilde’s epigram that “a map of the world that does not contain Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”
Wilde, who was ignored for years following his imprisonment, underwent a twentieth-century renaissance; Rowbotham’s biography opens the possibility that Edward Carpenter may have his own rebirth in the twenty-first. E. M. Forster may have coolly appraised Carpenter’s legacy after his death, but when the two first met, the young man was overwhelmed. Carpenter seemed to the emotionally constrained novelist to be living out everything he admired but had not, in his own life, realized: unashamed sensuality, democratic comradeship, a deep connection to nature. Rushing home to write in his diary, the supremely articulate Forster could only burble: “Forward rather than back, Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter!”
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Michael Robertson received the B.A. from Stanford, the M.A. from Columbia, and the Ph.D. from Princeton. His research and teaching interests are focused on 19th- and 20th-century trans-Atlantic literary and cultural studies. He is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships and author of two award-winning books: Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton UP, 2008) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature (Columbia UP, 1997). He is co-editor with TCNJ colleague David Blake of Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present (U of Iowa P, 2008). His book in progress, “The Last Utopians,” is a group biography of utopian socialists in the U.S. and U.K. during the period 1880-1915.