Edward Carpenter (29 August 1844 – 28 June 1929) was an English socialist poet, mystic, philosopher, anthologist, and early LGBT activist. Carpenter has also been known as the “Saint in Sandals”, the “Noble Savage” and, more recently, the “gay godfather of the British left”. A leading figure in late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party. A poet and writer, he was a close friend of Rabindranath Tagore, and both friend and lover of Walt Whitman. He corresponded with many famous figures such as Annie Besant, Isadora Duncan, Havelock Ellis, Roger Fry, Mahatma Gandhi, James Keir Hardie, J. K. Kinney, Jack London, George Merrill, E D Morel, William Morris, E R Pease, John Ruskin, and Olive Schreiner.
As a philosopher he is particularly known for his publication of Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure in which he proposes that civilisation is a form of disease that human societies pass through. Civilisations, he says, rarely last more than a thousand years before collapsing, and no society has ever passed through civilisation successfully. His ‘cure’ is a closer association with the land and greater development of our inner nature. Although derived from his experience of Hindu mysticism, and referred to as ‘mystical socialism’, his thoughts parallel those of several writers in the field of psychology and sociology at the start of the twentieth century, such as Boris Sidis, Sigmund Freud and Wilfred Trotter who all recognised that society puts ever increasing pressure on the individual that can result in mental and physical illnesses such as neurosis and the particular nervousness which was then described as neurasthenia.
An early advocate of sexual freedoms, he had a profound influence on both D. H. Lawrence and Aurobindo, and inspired E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice. Carpenter was a pioneering socialist and radical prophet of a new age of fellowship in which social relations would be transformed by a new spiritual consciousness. The way he lived his life, perhaps even more than his extensive writings, was the essence of his message. It is perhaps not surprising that his reputation faded quickly after his death, as he lived much of his life modestly spreading his message by personal contact and example rather than by major literary works or through a national political career. He has been described as having that unusual combination of qualities: charisma with modesty. His ideas became immensely influential during the early years of the Socialist movement in Britain: perhaps Carpenter’s most widely remembered legacy to the Socialist and Co-operative movements was his anthem England Arise! but it is his writings on the subject of homosexuality and his open espousal of this identity that makes him unique.
Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton into a comfortable, middle-class family. There were 10 children in total: six girls and four boys; by the time Edward was in his teenage years he was the only boy along with his six sisters in the house. The family took a year abroad in Versailles in 1857 and the other boys took up careers in the armed services.
Edward’s path was more academic and he took the orthodox path to University, entering Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1864. Academically successful, Carpenter had the opportunity in 1867 to become a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, following the resignation of Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father. As was required then, he was ordained into holy orders of the Anglican Church. He adopted the clerical life as a convention rather than out of deep conviction, but conscientiously carried out his duties as curate at St. Edward’s Church, Cambridge.
In 1868, he received a copy of Walt Whitman’s poems Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s democratic poetry provided the spark that set Carpenter on the path of socialism and which led to the extraordinary changes in his life. In 1873, while returning from Cannes, a vision of a different life flashed before him:
“I would and must somehow go and make my life with the mass of the people and the manual workers”.
He resigned from his clerical fellowship at Cambridge, rejecting the comfortable way of life that it provided, and set off to work for the University Extension movement in the North of England. There followed several years of travelling, lecturing on scientific subjects, but the work he did for that idealistic movement still did not satisfy Carpenter’s desire for an immersion in the life of working people and striving for the transformation of their lives.
His lifelong connection with Sheffield had begun during his lecturing days, and strengthened when he met Albert Fearnehough, a working class man in whose house Carpenter lodged (as well as Fearnehough’s wife and family). The death of his parents in 1881/82 left Carpenter with a considerable inheritance with which he bought a 7 acre smallholding at Millthorpe, in the countryside near Sheffield. Soon after, a house was built there and in 1883 Carpenter moved in with Fearnehough and his family.
The country retreat at Millthorpe became home for Carpenter, his friends and lovers, and eventually became a place of pilgrimage for large numbers of admirers during the following 40 years. Millthorpe and its inhabitants became a symbol for the new way of life that Carpenter developed there: a ‘simplification of life’, manual work on the land, sandal-making, vegetarianism and the breaking down of class distinctions.
That same year (1883) also saw other significant events in Carpenter’s life: the publication of the epic poem cycle called Towards Democracy, which became his most well known work, and his first contact with the nascent Socialist movement. Throughout the rest of his life, Carpenter supported a broad Socialist movement without ever being committed to a parliamentary political party or any narrow doctrine. His aspirations were always more inclined to Anarchism than to the Labour Party. In the early days of British Socialism, he took the side of William Morris when he left the Social Democratic Federation in 1884 to form the Socialist League. The League saw the task of socialism in terms of creating a new inner consciousness for all people rather than the more strictly economic doctrines and struggles which the SDF began to focus on.
Another important strand of Carpenter’s thought also had its roots in these years: his study of eastern religions, particularly the Bhagavad-Gita. During the 1880’s there was much discussion of Eastern mysticism, particularly with the rise of the Theosophical movement. Carpenter became determined to discover more about Hindu thought, direct from its source, and in 1890 he fulfilled a long-held ambition and travelled to Ceylon and India to spend time with the Hindu teacher called Gnani, who he describes, along with his Indian travels, in the book Adam’s Peak to Elephanta.
Carpenter’s synthesis of Eastern religion and Socialism, produced a special brand of “mystic socialism” which became the vehicle for a whole series of idealistic campaigns, some of which seem absolutely up-to-date in their concerns (for example campaigns against air pollution, promoting vegetarianism and opposing vivisection ), whereas other concerns have become so much a part of everyday life now that the campaign for them is a quaint reminder of long-gone, Victorian days (the adoption of ‘rational dress’ including the making and wearing of sandals). Vegetarianism, air pollution, ‘rational dress’, the ‘simplification of life’, sandal-making and wearing and nudism were eventually to be rejected by many in the Labour Party as cranky beliefs.
Above all, the aspect of his life and writings for which Edward Carpenter has achieved lasting fame, and which caused him the most problems with the more conventional section of the Labour movement, was that of sexuality, in particular his own homosexuality. Carpenter had been aware of his own ‘affectional nature’ almost all his life, but the strong forces of conventional morality prevented their expression until comparatively late in his life. At University, he had a close friendship with Andrew Beck (later Master of Trinity Hall) which had ‘a touch of romance’. Beck eventually ended the friendship and denied the attachment, causing Carpenter great emotional anguish. Later years saw a series of close friendships with men, usually with an unexpressed undercurrent of sexual longing. On occasions Carpenter would resort to visiting male prostitutes in Paris.
It was only after settling at Millthorpe that Carpenter really felt able to express his emotional attachments to men. He had a relationship with George Adams, who lived with his wife Lucy at Millthorpe, but this came to an end when George Merrill finally came there to live permanently in 1898.
Carpenter had met Merrill on a train journey in 1891, shortly after his return from India. Merrill came from a poor working-class family in Sheffield and the two rapidly developed a romance that was to last for nearly 40 years. Two men, of different classes, living together openly as a couple, was almost unheard of in the 1890’s and it was often assumed that George was ‘just’ the servant: indeed, he was legally registered as exactly that.
It is clear that Merrill was a very different character to Carpenter: plain speaking, flirtatious and fond of a drink, their association caused much comment in the early days. But despite the atmosphere of legal persecution following the Wilde trials of 1895, they lived a life together in their rural retreat largely undisturbed.
Their relationship endured and they remained partners for the rest of their lives, a fact made all the more extraordinary by the hysteria about homosexuality generated by the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895 and the Criminal Law Amendment Bill passed a decade earlier “outlawing all forms of male homosexual contact”. Their relationship not only defied Victorian sexual mores but also the highly stratified British class system. Their partnership, in many ways, reflected Carpenter’s cherished conviction that same-sex love had the power to subvert class boundaries. It was his belief that at sometime in the future, gay people would be the cause of radical social change in the social conditions of man. Carpenter remarks in his work The Intermediate Sex:
“Eros is a great leveller. Perhaps the true Democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society. It is noticeable how often Uranians of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way, which although not publicly acknowledged have a decided influence on social institutions, customs and political tendencies.”
(Note: The term “Uranian”, referring to a passage from Plato’s Symposium, was often used at the time to describe someone who would be termed “gay” nowadays.)
Despite their unorthodox living arrangement, Carpenter and Merrill managed to escape scandal and arrest in the hostile social climate due to the seclusion afforded them in Millthorpe and Carpenter’s notable literary diplomacy. In his writings Carpenter was keen to downplay the physical side of same-sex partnerships, emphasizing the emotional depth of such relationships. To bolster such a portrayal, Carpenter drew a great deal of inspiration from Plato’s idealised view of same-sex love, popular with Victorian gay men, who used classical allusions to ‘Greek Love’ as a coded language to discuss their sexual orientation. Their remoteness from society allowed Carpenter to indulge in naturism which he believed was a symbol of a life at one with nature. Carpenter also began to cultivate a philosophy which argued for a radical simplification of life, focusing on the need for the open air, rational dress and a healthy diet based on “fruits, nuts, tubers, grains, eggs, etc… and milk in its various forms”.
It is also perhaps this seclusion that allowed Millthorpe to become a focal-point for socialists, humanitarians, intellectuals and writers from Britain and abroad. Carpenter included among his friends the scholar, author, naturalist, and founder of the Humanitarian League, Henry S. Salt, and his wife, Catherine; the critic, essayist and sexologist, Havelock Ellis, and his wife, Edith; actor and producer Ben Iden Payne; Labour activists, John Bruce and Katharine Glasier; writer and scholar, John Addington Symonds and the writer and feminist, Olive Schreiner. E. M. Forster was also close friends with the couple, who on a visit to Millthorpe in 1912 was inspired to write his gay-themed novel, Maurice. Forster records in his diary that, Merrill, “…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. He made a profound impression on me and touched a creative spring.”
The relationship between Carpenter and Merrill was the template for the relationship between Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper in Forster’s novel. Carpenter was also a significant influence on the author D. H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover can be seen as a heterosexualised Maurice. Carpenter was a prolific letter writer and corresponded with a number of gay men on questions relating to “homogenic type”. One such man was Siegfried Sassoon, who came across Carpenter’s work at Cambridge, which had a profound influence on his attitude towards his own sexuality, giving him both answers and personal peace of mind
John Addington Symonds had already privately published his pioneering books on homosexuality in the 1880’s which were distributed among a small, selected group of people, including Carpenter. On Symonds’ death in 1893, Carpenter perhaps saw the mantle passing to him and within a couple of years made his first attempt to publish on the subject with the pamphlet entitled Homogenic Love, also privately published. But the timing was unfortunate: it coincided with Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and resulted in the pamphlet’s exclusion from his 1896 collected writings on sex and marriage called Love’s Coming-of-Age. As Carpenter later wrote: ‘the Wilde trial had done its work…’
By 1908 a new milestone was reached with Carpenter’s publication of a collection of his essays entitled The Intermediate Sex which was the first generally available book in English that portrayed homosexuality in a positive light rather than as purely a medical or moral problem. It was regularly reprinted and remained for decades as the crucial text in English that gave information, hope and support for homosexuals. In the final essay in the book, entitled ‘The Place of the Uranian in Society’‘, Carpenter makes this remarkable statement, almost dislocated out of its time, a full 60 years before the modern gay liberation movement came into existence:
“The Uranian people [LGBT] may be destined to form the advance guard of that great movement which will one day transform the common life by substituting the bond of personal affection and compassion for the monetary, legal and other external ties which now control and confine society”.
A prophet, indeed, of a gay identity which then had hardly even begun to form. Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, published in 1911, was another important book on homosexuality which took a cross-cultural approach to the subject and remains a pioneering book on the role of the ‘intermediate sex’ in non-European cultures. Influenced by his study of Eastern philosophy, Carpenter emphasises the special spiritual role that many cultures reserve for homosexual or transgendered people, such as:
“the priest, medicine-man or shaman, the prophet and the diviner, the artist and craftsperson and the true scientist, successor to the tribal observer of the stars and seasons, medicine and the herbs.”
It is remarkable that Carpenter always avoided any public scandal or disgrace of the sort that overtook Oscar Wilde at that time. Although Carpenter made no secret of his relationship with George Merrill, he remained circumspect in his writings and lived in the relative isolation of the Derbyshire countryside. His books avoided prosecution despite having been investigated by the police on more than one occasion.
Carpenter’s later years were characterised by his continued writings on pacifism, socialism, and trade unionism and he became a hero to the first generation of Labour politicians. During the short-lived Labour government in 1924, Carpenter’s 80th birthday was marked by a commemorative greeting signed by every member of the Cabinet. For reasons which have never been clear, Carpenter left his beloved Millthorpe in 1922 (where he had expressed a wish to be buried) and moved with George to Guildford in Surrey. George Merrill died in 1928 and Carpenter himself a year later. They are buried together in a grave in the Mount Cemetery, Guildford.
Carpenter was involved in the early days of the first ‘progressive’ school in England at Abbotsholme in Derbyshire with Dr. Cecil Reddie, which in turn inspired the foundation of schools such as Bedales and Gordonstoun. Another strand of influence is on 20th century town planning: Raymond Unwin, the architect remembered as father of garden cities, who was an associate of Carpenter’s in the early days of the Sheffield socialists.
During the depression of the 30’s and the triumph of the Labour Party after the Second World War, Carpenter’s brand of socialism became deeply unfashionable, and eventually embarrassing. It is quite clear who George Orwell was thinking of, when in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) he condemns ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer and sex maniac’ in the Labour Party. It was not until the emergence of the modern feminist and gay liberation movements of the 60s and 70s that Carpenter’s ideas began to appear more relevant again. ‘The personal is political’ was one of the essential phrases of those movements and one that was also central to Carpenters’ philosophies.
Sexual education for Carpenter also meant forwarding a clear analysis of the ways in which sex and gender were used to oppress women, contained in Carpenter’s radical work Love’s Coming-of-Age. In it he argued that a just and equal society must promote the sexual and economic freedom of women. The main crux of his analysis centred on the negative effects of the institution of marriage. He regarded marriage in England as both enforced celibacy and a form of prostitution. He did not believe women would truly be free until a socialist society was established. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, however, this led him to conclude that all oppressed workers should support women’s emancipation, rather than to subordinate women’s rights to male worker’s rights. He remarked, “…there is no solution except the freedom of woman – which means, of course, the freedom of the masses of the people, men and women, and the ceasing altogether of economic slavery. There is no solution which will not include the redemption of the terms free women and free love to their true and rightful significance. Let every woman whose heart bleeds for the sufferings of her sex, hasten to declare herself and to constitute herself, as far as she possibly can, a free woman.”
By the late 1970s, the rediscovery of Carpenter led to feminist Sheila Rowbotham publishing the book Socialism and the New Life and gay playwright Noel Grieg writing a Gay Sweatshop play on Carpenter entitled The Dear Love Of Comrades. Nevertheless, Carpenter’s works remained largely out of print and knowledge of his influence confined to a relatively small circle. By the mid 1980s a group of radical gay men, inspired by ideas of community and personal growth, formed a national gay network, naming it the Edward Carpenter Community; this now has about 800 members.
Carpenter’s influence on the early development of the gay liberation movement has been profound, if not always well recognised. Through the ‘silence’ that descended on the subject for more than 60 years after the Wilde trial, Carpenter’s books remained a lifeline for many isolated gay people who found no other public representation or acknowledgement of themselves. The pioneer of gay liberation in the USA, Harry Hay, was deeply affected by his discovery of a copy of Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex in a library in 1923, when he was eleven. Hay describes reading the book as an ‘earthshaking revelation’, which had a profound effect on his life. In 1950 Hay founded the first modern gay political group, the Mattachine Society. In the 1920s, the black American poet Countee Cullen obtained a copy of Carpenter’s poetical work Ioläus. He wrote:
“It opened up for me soul windows that had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it.”
Throughout his life, Carpenter never ceased to express his esteem for, and indebtedness to, the American democratic poet Walt Whitman, who had provided him with his first great inspiration with Leaves of Grass. In 1888 Whitman wrote about Carpenter in a letter to Horace Traubel:
“Edward was beautiful then — is so now: one of the torch-bearers, as they say: an exemplar of a loftier England: he is not generally known, not wholly a welcome presence, in conventional England: the age is still, while ripe for some things, not ripe for him, for his sort, for us, for the human protest: not ripe though ripening. O Horace, there’s a hell of a lot to be done yet: don’t you see? A hell of a lot: you fellows coming along now will have your hands full: we’re passing a big job on to you.”
Carpenter’s interests were not confined to what his detractors may have termed fringe political subjects, but included the pressing international issues of the time. His left-wing pacifism led him to become a vocal opponent of the Second Boer War and then World War I. In 1919, he published The Healing of Nations and the Hidden Sources of Their Strife, where he argued passionately that the source of war and discontent in western society was class-monopoly and social inequality. He termed this social injustice “class-disease”, where each class acts only in its own interests. To Carpenter’s mind, a radical social and economic restructuring needed to take place in order to end social fragmentation. In his later years, he remarked that:
“I can see only one ultimate way out of the morass in which we are engulfed. The present commercial system will have to go, and there will have to be a return to the much simpler systems of co-operation be-longing to a bygone age . . . To that condition, or something very like it, I am convinced we shall have to return if society is to survive. I say this after a long and close observation of life in many phases. . . This is what the miners, I think, in a dim, subconscious way, have already perceived, for they retain in their minds much of the primitive mentality of pre-civilization days.”
Carpenter’s later years were characterised not only by continued writings on pacifism, but also activity in the trade-union movement. He was a hero to the first generation of Labour politicians. During the short-lived Labour government in 1924, his 80th birthday was marked by a commemorative greeting signed by every member of the Cabinet.
After the First World War he had moved to Guildford, Surrey, with George Merrill. In January 1928, Merrill died suddenly, leaving Carpenter devastated. Carpenter’s state of mind is described vividly by the noted political activist G Lowes Dickinson,
“Edward’s grief when that occurred was overwhelming. I remember him walking on my arm to the cemetery at Guildford where they had buried George a few days before, and where he himself was to lie a year or so later. It was a day of pouring rain, and we stood beside the grave, while Carpenter [cried] again and again, ‘They have put him away in the cold ground’.”
In May 1928, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He lived another 13 months before he died on Friday 28 June 1929, aged 84. On 30 December 1910 Carpenter had written:
“I should like these few words to be read over the grave when my body is placed in the earth; for though it is possible I may be present and conscious of what is going on, I shall not be able to communicate…”
Unfortunately the existence of his request was not discovered until several days after his burial. The closing words form the epitaph engraved on his tombstone:
“Do not think too much of the dead husk of your friend, or mourn too much over it, but send your thoughts out towards the real soul or self which has escaped — to reach it. For so, surely you will cast a light of gladness upon his onward journey, and contribute your part towards the building of that kingdom of love which links our earth to heaven.”
Excerpts from his writings:
“Of all the hard facts of science, I know of none more solid and fundamental than the fact that if you inhibit thought (and persevere) you come at length to a region of consciousness below or behind thought, and different from ordinary thought in its nature and character — a consciousness of quasi-universal quality, and a realization of an altogether vaster self than that to which we are accustomed. And since the ordinary consciousness, with which we are concerned in ordinary life, is before all things founded on the little local self, and is in fact self-conscious in the little local sense, it follows that to pass out of that is to die to the ordinary self and the ordinary world.
It is to die in the ordinary sense, but in another sense, it is to wake up and find that the “I,” one’s real, most intimate self, pervades the universe and all other beings — that the mountains and the sea and the stars are a part of one’s body and that one’s soul is in touch with the souls of all creatures…..
So great, so splendid is this experience, that it may be said that all minor questions and doubts fall away in face of it; and certain it is that in thousands and thousands of cases the fact of its having come even once to a man has completely evolutionized his subsequent life and outlook on the world.”
“Anyone who realises what Love is, the dedication of the heart, so profound, so absorbing, so mysterious, so imperative, and always just in the noblest natures so strong, cannot fail to see how difficult, how tragic even, must often be the fate of those whose deepest feelings are destined from the earliest days to be a riddle and a stumbling-block, unexplained to themselves, passed over in silence by others.”
“That men of this kind [Gay] despise women, though a not uncommon belief, is one which hardly appears to be justified. Indeed, though naturally not inclined to ‘fall in love’ in this direction, such men are by their nature drawn rather near to women, and it would seem that they often feel a singular appreciation and understanding of the emotional needs and destinies of the other sex, leading in many cases to a genuine though what is called ‘Platonic’ friendship. There is little doubt that they are often instinctively sought after by women, who, without suspecting the real cause, are conscious of a sympathetic chord in the homogenic which they miss in the normal man.”
“[A]s people are beginning to see that the sexes form in a certain sense a continuous group, so they are beginning to see that Love and Friendship which have been so often set apart from each other as things distinct are in reality closely related and shade imperceptibly into each other. Women are beginning to demand that Marriage shall mean Friendship as well as Passion; that a comrade-like Equality shall be included in the word Love; and it is recognised that from the one extreme of a ‘Platonic’ friendship (generally between persons of the same sex) up to the other extreme of passionate love (generally between persons of opposite sex) no hard and fast line can at any point be drawn effectively separating the different kinds of attachment. We know, in fact, of Friendships so romantic in sentiment that they verge into love; we know of Loves so intellectual and spiritual that they hardly dwell in the sphere of Passion.”
“In its various forms, so far as we know them, Love seems always to have a deep significance and a most practical importance to us little mortals. In one form, as the mere semi-conscious Sex-love, which runs through creation and is common to the lowest animals and plants, it appears as a kind of organic basis for the unity of all creatures; in another, as the love of the mother for her offspring—which may also be termed a passion—it seems to pledge itself to the care and guardianship of the future race; in another, as the marriage of man and woman, it becomes the very foundation of human society. And so we can hardly believe that in its homogenic form, with which we are here concerned, it has not also a deep significance, and social uses and functions which will become clearer to us, the more we study it.”
“Every human being grows up inside a sheath of custom, which enfolds it as the swathing clothes enfold the infant.”
“Plato in his allegory of the soul—in the Phaedrus—though he apparently divides the passions which draw the human chariot into two classes, the heavenward and the earthward—figured by the white horse and the black horse respectively—does not recommend that the black horse should be destroyed or dismissed, but only that he (as well as the white horse) should be kept under due control by the charioteer. By which he seems to intend that there is a power in man which stands above and behind the passions, and under whose control alone the human being can safely move. In fact if the fiercer and so-called more earthly passions were removed, half the driving force would be gone from the chariot of the human soul. Hatred may be devilish at times—but after all the true value of it depends on what you hate, on the use to which the passion is put. Anger, though inhuman at one time is magnificent and divine at another. Obstinacy may be out of place in a drawing-room, but it is the latest virtue on a battlefield when an important position has to be held against the full brunt of the enemy. And Lust, though maniacal and monstrous in its aberrations, cannot in the last resort be separated from its divine companion, Love. To let the more amiable passions have entire sway notoriously does not do: to turn your cheek, too literally, to the smiter, is (pace Tolstoy) only to encourage smiting; and when society becomes so altruistic that everybody runs to fetch the coal-scuttle we feel sure that something has gone wrong. The white-washed heroes of our biographies with their many virtues and no faults do not please us. We have an impression that the man without faults is, to say the least, a vague, uninteresting being—a picture without light and shade—and the conventional semi-pious classification of character into good and bad qualities (as if the good might be kept and the bad thrown away) seems both inadequate and false.”