Edward Carpenter





In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

Carpenter believed that the liberation of women required both real economic freedom and a change of women's consciousness. 'Too long have women acted the part of mere appendages to the male, suppressing their own individuality and fostering their self-conceit.' It also necessitated 'her complete freedom as to the disposal of her sex'. The liberation of women was thus economic, social and sexual. He distinguished between the varied predicaments of the middle class woman brought up to devote and sacrifice herself to a man or to play the hypocrite and pander to male egotism, of the working class woman who faced exploitation at work and remorseless drudgery in the home, and of the prostitute who had to sell her body. His descriptions of their situations still ring true. Undoubtedly his influence at the time was partly because he was a most passionate describer and his ideas are brought home through these detailed cameos.

"Few men again realise or trouble themselves to realise, what a life this of the working housewife is. They are accustomed to look upon their own employment, whatever it may be, as "work" (perhaps because it brings with it "wages"), the woman's they regard as a kind of pastime. They forget what monotonous drudgery it really means, and yet what incessant forethought and care; they forget that the woman has no eight hours a day, that her work is always staring her in the face, and waiting for her, even on into the night; that the body is wearied, and the mind narrowed down "scratched to death by rats and mice" in a perpetual round of petty cares. For not only does civilisation and multifarious invention (including smoke) make the burden of domestic life immensely complex but the point is that each housewife has to sustain this burden to herself in lonely effort."

He calls upon women to declare themselves free women, 'to insist on her right to speak, dress, think, act and above all to use her sex as she deems best' and on 'every man who really would respect his counterpart' to encourage women to be free. 'Let him never by word or deed tempt her to grant as a bargain what can only be precious as a gift; let him see her with pleasure stand a little aloof, let him help her gain her feet.'

It was consistent with Carpenter's faith in the ideal to appeal to lofty sentiments rather than self-interest. He expected people to have the strength to will themselves into freedom. Conservative contemporaries saw the kind of freedom he wanted as synonymous with sexual and social chaos. Carpenter pointed out that in fact the reality of the existing dual standard of morality was hypocrisy at one side and devastation and degradation at the other. He was confident that the new morality would not be destructive in its effects. His idea of sexuality was not synonymous with freedom for sensuality. His note on ‘Preventative Checks to Population' in Love's Coming of Age  indicates that he saw physical sexuality dwindling as love became more diffused in society. He retained the Christian division of higher and lower love, spiritual and physical just as he saw masculine and feminine characteristics as fixed. His views of the women who became feminists reflected this. In his opinion, among the feminists there were many women whose sexual and maternal 'instincts' were not strong. He said they were 'mannish' in 'temperament', or 'homogenic', that is, 'inclined to attachments to their own, rather than the opposite sex; some are ultra- rationalizing and brain-cultured, to many, children are more or less a bore; to others man's sex-passion is a mere impertinence, which they do not understand, and whose place they consequently misjudge.'9

These stereotypes of feminism are similar to the fixed ideas he had about women generally. He tended to classify and idealize, presenting the free woman as a kind of spartan goddess striding athletically and asexually to liberation. These rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity affected not only his theories about women but also about homosexuals. He was influenced by Whitman's poetic assertions of homosexual comradeship as well as by the German writer, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who defined a male homosexual as a person with a female soul enclosed in a male body and a lesbian as someone with a male soul in a female body. Just as he challenged capitalism and civilization, he was also critical of male dominated culture. So by a peculiar combination of scepticism about dominant cultural values and a theory of fixed gender characteristics, he arrived at a theory of 'the intermediate sex' as a superior elite combining the best of both sexes and with a less sensual and more emotional nature than heterosexuals. Here again there were higher and lower types of homosexuals, the lower inclining towards sentimentality.10 This tendency to stereotype and generalise impressionistically is in direct contrast to his recognition that sexuality took various forms in different societies and that there was an immense potential for individual diversity in human sexual activity. Nonetheless, it was while pursuing this kind of thinking of higher and lower beings that he stumbled upon the significance of the separation between sexual pleasure and sex for procreation. For while disapproving of existing forms of contraception because of their inconvenience for women, he advocated sustained intercourse without male orgasm as a 'preventative check'. He followed here not only Eastern religious ideas but a strand of American sexual radicalism which sought new forms of sexuality rather than contraception. In the 1870s, J. H. Noyes, the leader of a community in the United States had advocated 'male continence' the diversion of sperm through the urethra. Similar techniques were suggested again in Alice B. Stockham's book Karezza in the early 1900s.

Edward Carpenter's courage in asserting the rights of the 'intermediate sex' in the 1890s and early 1900s and his interest in sex and society led him into the relatively new fields of anthropology and psychology. In 1911 he published two anthropological studies of homosexuality. His own homosexuality served as a case history anonymously for Havelock Ellis's studies and was frankly acknowledged in Carpenter's autobiography in 1916. He drew on the ideas of Lewis Morgan, and Bebel, characteristically giving the evolutionary anthropological account of the connection between property and power a psychological slant. His theories of psychology were based on Ellis, Ulrichs, Kraft Ebing and Moll, but peppered with his own observations and poetic licence. He retained from his Broad Church Anglicanism a rejection of materialism and an Arminian conviction that truth can be attained by many routes. Eastern religious thought seemed to provide an alternative which avoided materialism and the Christian hierarchical dualism of spirit and matter. In the East they seemed to have found a place for pleasure without shame and a more easy relationship between mystical ecstasy and physical eroticism than the West. His eclectic quest makes his thought something of a lucky-dip. It is easier to pull bits out than to understand the connections. But his struggle to make these connections was not merely theoretical, it was his whole life. The way he lived was a demonstration of what he thought and the two are inseparable. His influence, which was considerable, was less a matter of logic than of a cultural stance. He belonged to a radical and socialist milieu unhappy in late nineteenth century capitalism not only because things were unequal but because people were cut off from one another and from their own physical natures. His influence was at its height in the period before the First World War. It was international, going far beyond Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands. He continued to be read and discussed in the 1920s, but already in the 1930s, when his friends produced a collection of biographical essays in his memory, his writing and ideas appeared a little dated. In the socialist movement he was remembered certainly until the Second World War and the hymn-like strains of 'England Arise' wafted around labour halls and pubs for some years after. I have not heard it since the mid 1960s when the Young Communist League used to meet in the Dolphin pub at Kings Cross and 'England Arise' could be heard along with the 'Internationale' and folk songs.