Edward Carpenter





In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

I have become more and more curious about the diversity of Carpenter's influence, and also in trying to retrace the process in which it was dissipated. Finding out about Carpenter and what became of his attempt to connect personal and sexual relationships and feelings to the struggle to change the external world is part of a much wider search for a broken revolutionary tradition which is relevant to the feminist movement, to sexual politics and to the evident weaknesses in our understanding of socialism. For instance I've come across him and Ellis in reading about birth control and feminism; in the early twentieth century Carpenter helped found the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology and a determined young feminist member called Stella Browne gave a talk in 1915 on women's sexuality. Stella Browne was a campaigner for birth control and abortion in Britain, she was friendly with the American Margaret Sanger, and she tried to connect her demand for women's sexual self-determination to ideas of workers' control. Sanger, under Ellis's influence, broke away from the revolutionary syndicalism in which she had been involved and concentrated on birth control as a single-issue reform. Both Ellis and Carpenter were read by other young radicals in Greenwich Village who were trying to live by a new morality. In the early twentieth century there was - however implicit - a connection between sexual and personal life and socialism. This connection became more remote after the First World War. Carpenter's links both with D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster provide some clues about how this has happened.

There are striking similarities between Carpenter's ideas and Lawrence's and they have been described by Emile Delavenay in his D. H. Lawrence and Edward Carpenter. A Study in Edwardian Transition.11 Both men had a horror of capitalism and of its distortion of all human social relationships. The places where they part company are interesting. The ambiguities in Carpenter's thought between mystical experience and social action, between the loss of individuality and the creation of a new elite of 'uranians', the intermediate sex which he thought would combine the best of 'femininity' and 'masculinity', are resolved by Lawrence in his rejection of the left, of feminism and of politics. Although there is no evidence that they ever met there was a small group of advanced thinkers in Eastwood in the 1900s, some of whom knew Carpenter, or had read his books or heard him speak and Lawrence was friendly with some of them.

E. M. Forster did meet Carpenter and acknowledged his influence. In his 'Terminal Note' to Maurice Forster wrote that the book dated from 1913, and 'It was a direct result of a visit to Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe. Carpenter had a prestige that cannot easily be understood today'. Forster was drawn to him because 'he was a believer in the love of Comrades, whom he sometimes called Uranians. It was this last aspect of him that attracted me in my loneliness'. He met Carpenter through Lowes Dickenson and saw him briefly as a saviour.

" It must have been on my second or third visit to the shrine that the spark was kindled and he and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. George Merrill also 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 vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back, into my ideas without involving my thoughts. If it really did this it would have acted in strict accordance with Carpenter's yogified mysticism, and would prove that at that precise moment I had conceived."12


There are echoes of Carpenter in Forster's other works, particularly in the Longest Journey.

So I've slowly and irresistibly been drawn back to Edward Carpenter and his circle over the last few years. I've started to track them down obsessively now with street plans and ordnance survey maps, down Rockingham Street, Sheffield, where the secularists and socialists spoke and distributed their literature in the Hall of Science, down Pinstone Street where the socialists and anarchists held a meeting for the men from the ironworks in 1889, to Fargate where the police attacked one of the socialist club's early meetings. In Holly Street and Scotland Street there were radical and socialist cafés. Then off down the Totley Brook Road where the first sinister semi-detached houses were noted in 1897. Through Totley railway station where the first intense look passed between George Merrill and Edward Carpenter and Merrill followed him down the footpath to Millthorpe. I did visit St. George's farm with my friends in March and we stood in the drizzle talking to George Pearson, grandson of the other George Pearson. He said there is an avenue named after John Furniss nearby but I didn't find it.

I will have to go back and wander down the lanes where Carpenter and his friends strode in their Indian sandals, look at the hills where city-bred Alf Mattison was overwhelmed by the sunset. There are too many names in my address book of the past, unfinished acquaintances I cannot abandon.

It has not been an affair of chance of course this slow reappearance of Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner in my life, nor is my fascination with the socialists and anarchists in Sheffield just nostalgia. The women's movement made me realise the significance of Carpenter's writing on feminism and feel other people would be interested in Love's Coming of Age. Since then I have found more and more people trying to track down Carpenter, his immediate circle and the ramifications of his influence. Gloden Dallas became interested in Maguire, Mattison and Isabella Ford and began finding and listening to people who could remember the early socialist and feminist movements in Leeds. Slowly the interconnections have emerged for me as I've listened to her talking. Ann Scott and Ruth First are working on Olive Schreiner, looking both at her feminism and her role in South African radical politics. Over in America Linda Gordon has written about Margaret Sanger and sent me copies of letters Sanger wrote to Stella Browne. Jane Lewis, far away in Western Ontario, Canada, has written about the 'new feminism', Keith Nield has written about Carpenter in the Dictionary of Labour Biography. The echoes continue. I learn that Havelock Ellis was being read by South Wales members of the Plebs League, by Glasgow workers in the 1920s, and by a Communist Party branch in the 1930s. Carpenter is remembered by a woman in the Labour Party in Glasgow as one of those 'poetic socialists' whose songs she recited at Socialist Sunday School. When you mention Carpenter to people in Sheffield they all say you should go and talk to Rony Robinson. He seems to have been haunted by the same ghost for he wrote a play called Edward Carpenter Lives.

But I wouldn't have begun to try and write about him myself if it had not been for friends I met through the Gay Culture Society at the London School of Economics. They printed a short duplicated pamphlet by Graeme Woolaston, now out of print, which discussed his views on homosexuality. He is critical of Carpenter's stereo-typing of masculine and feminine, and of his elitist idealization of the 'Intermediate Sex'. Nonetheless he shows his significance as a pioneer theorist of homosexuality. So I started a few years ago to write a small pamphlet on Edward Carpenter. The small pamphlet grew and grew. There appears to be no end to it. As I learn more and think more, people begin to show me things I hadn't noticed. Friends in men's groups for instance have made me think about Carpenter's rebellion against the notion of what a man of his time was allowed to be, his love for a man called Beck in Cambridge for example and the influence of Whitman. And talking to people about radical therapy I am beginning to wonder too if all those electric currents, and sensations above the buttocks are not so odd after all. Carpenter makes sense because of sexual politics; not only because he wrote about feminism and homosexuality but because he sought a new way of life in which there would be no longer:

"The starving of human hearts, the denial of the human body and its needs, the huddling concealment of the body in clothes, the 'impure hush' on matters of sex, class-division, contempt of manual labour, and the cruel barring of women from every natural and useful expression of their lives."13


I want to find out what it was like to be a socialist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before the First War, before the Bolsheviks and before the Labour Party. I want to know what became of their concern to transform all aspects of relationships, and the preoccupation with living the new life in the present as well as the future. I want to learn about their emphasis upon a revolutionary culture, that lost practice of socialism which still carried a connection between personal life and external change.