Edward Carpenter





In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

He did not find either through the University Extension Movement. The railway wanderings of the Extension lecturer were exhausting, the landladies' cooking indigestible and the structure of the Extension Movement reflected all too often the class hierarchies of the northern towns. By the late 1870s Carpenter was in urgent need of a calmer rhythm to his life. Through two of his students, a scythe-maker called Albert Fearnhough and Charles Fox, a small farmer, he went to live in the countryside at Bradway. He stayed for a time at Totley, at St. George's Farm, a communal farming venture backed by John Ruskin which had failed. A friend of Carpenter's, George Pearson, had taken the lease after the communitarian group disintegrated and worked the farm with a Christian socialist, John Furniss. In 1882 Carpenter moved to Millthorpe. Originally a rural retreat the house was to become a centre for dissidents of all varieties.

Carpenter finished with lecturing and wrote a long Whitmanesque poem called Towards Democracy. In the early 1880s he moved towards socialism influenced particularly by Hyndman's England for All, and it was he who provided the money to launch the Social Democratic Federation paper Justice. He also became involved with a group concerned about inner spiritual change as well as with external social relationships - the Fellowship of the New Life. Through the Fellowship he met Havelock Ellis, still under the influence of James Hinton and beginning his empirical studies of sexual behaviour. He also met Olive Schreiner who was involved in a long emotional love for Ellis. Because of his sexual inhibition this love could never be physically fulfilled. When Ellis eventually married another member of the Fellowship, Edith Lees, they lived apart and did not have sexual intercourse because Edith Lees was physically attracted by women. Ellis, Schreiner, Lees, along with the Salts and Shaw, Ashbee, Lowes Dickenson and later Forster, were frequent visitors to Millthorpe. As the socialist movement took roots in the north, working class visitors came too. Alf Mattison and Tom Maguire came from Leeds, others came from the Midlands and of course from Sheffield.

Carpenter had helped the socialist club to form in Sheffield. In the 1880s he spoke at meetings, going out on a bicycle to the smaller towns nearby. It was a very sociable politics. He used to play the harmonium at socialist meetings and he collected socialist songs together in a book called Chants of Labour. This was characteristic of organisation in this period. The socialist movement created a whole network of cultural forms. There were cafés, meals for schoolchildren, rambles in the countryside. From the 1890s the Clarion cycling club and the Clarion choir continued this tradition.

There were close personal as well as political connections. One example was Carpenter's love for George Hukin, a razor-grinder who tried to organize a union among workers in the scattered workshops. There was also love between Bob Muirhead and James Brown, a tailor. They had settled near Millthorpe and were from the Glasgow Socialist League.

Carpenter met George Merrill, who was to be his companion for the rest of his life, in the early 1890s. Merrill came from the slums of Sheffield from a poor working class family. He had led a wandering life and done a variety of jobs. Carpenter's manuscript account of Merrill's life gives a rare and fascinating glimpse into the existence of a working class homosexual in the nineteenth century. (Click here to read Carpenter's account of George Merrill's life.

Early in 1891 the Socialist club had split and an anarchist-communist grouping appeared. Some of the Sheffield anarchists became involved in the Walsall bomb 'plot'. A police spy, Coulon, came to Sheffield, befriended Fred Charles an idealistic-young anarchist who was attracted to Coulon's desperate enthusiasm for terrorism. Charles was later to be among those charged and imprisoned for making the plan of a bomb for Russian revolutionaries.

Carpenter was friendly with Charles but critical of his politics. He had become increasingly estranged from the socialist club and the fights within it partly because of the ascendency of the anarchist group, partly because of his visit to Ceylon and India in 1890-91 and his growing interest in Eastern religious experience. This, combined with his writing and his relationship with George Merrill, meant that he was no longer so active in local politics though he continued to speak for socialist groups all over the country and after the Independent Labour Party was formed he went again on propaganda outings particularly to mining communities. In the 1900s, he supported the Syndicalists, read the Guild Socialists' The New Age, and welcomed the suffrage movement. He continued to wear his sandals, take his sun baths and work in a shed by the brook in the garden.

Carpenter's advocacy of reducing needs by 'simplification of life' was undoubtedly serious and practically worked out. He outlined his ideas in an essay in 1886 published in England's Ideal the following year. In this he carefully explained how much it cost to maintain a person and how varnished floors upstairs and stone on the ground floor save housework. In the context of the later Victorian paraphernalia of large households with elaborate rituals and a complete chasm between life upstairs and life downstairs this streamlining of living was startling. 'Simplification of life' was at once a moral pursuit - it signified a better life - and a practical one - it was the means of ensuring some independence from the domestic labour of others. Carpenter's attempt to practise his own message appeared startling to contemporaries. It was after all unusual - in the 1880s and 1890s - to find a middle class man who wandered the streets in sandals and broad hats copied from the American poet Walt Whitman, who tried to live intimately with people of a lower social station and combine intellectual and manual work.

He was unusual too in the variety of intellectual strands which combined in his person. Influences upon him ranged through Shelley, Whitman, Thoreau, Ruskin, Lewis Morgan, Olive Schreiner, William Morris, Hyndman, Buddha, Havelock Ellis, J. H. Noyes, Ulrichs, to Kraft Ebing and Moll. A motley crew, some of whom would have been disconcerted to find themselves in the same company. Carpenter did not only respond to socialism in the 1880s, he went on to challenge other aspects of Victorian orthodoxy. He queried for example the superior benefit of 'civilisation' over other cultures, the superiority too of Christianity over Eastern religions. He questioned the mechanical basis of scientific thinking and Darwinism. If his conclusions were vague and mystical he was at least conscious of a real problem - how to connect the question of the social control of the external world with the needs of human biology. He was aware that much that was seen as natural in his culture was not 'natural' in other cultures. He pointed out that behaviour regarded as criminal in one context was not seen as criminal in other cultures.

His writing on sexuality which began to appear from the 1890s was consistent with these concerns and with his belief in the virtue of released natural emotion. His main preoccupation, as in his earlier writings, was with the theme of separation. Sin is described as 'the sundering of one's being' in Love's Coming of Age.7 His writings on the position of women were regarded as shocking in the 1890s but he went even further towards unrespectability when he touched upon the subject of homosexuality. The contract for Love's Coming of Age was abruptly cancelled by Fisher Unwin because of the publisher's fear that a pamphlet on 'Homogenic Love', Carpenter's term for homosexuality, would be included. Carpenter describes the fortunes of this pamphlet in his autobiography My Days and Dreams:

" I... had only a comparatively small number of copies struck off which were not sold but sent round pretty freely to those who I thought would be interested in the subject or able to contribute views or information upon it. My object in fact was to get in touch with others and to obtain material for future study or publication. Even in this quiet way the pamphlet created some alarm... but it is quite possible the matter would have ended there, if it had not been for the Oscar Wilde troubles. Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and from that moment a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex and especially of course questions of the 'intermediate sex'.8

It was not until the 1906 edition that Love's Coming of Age could include a plea for a freer homosexual as well as heterosexual love.