Edward Carpenter: the sexual revolutionary

Cathy Nugent reviews Edward Carpenter: A life of liberty and love by Sheila Rowbotham.

Originally published in Workers’ Liberty’s Solidarity.

Sheila Rowbotham’s biography of the gay socialist writer, pioneering “homosexual activist” and poet Edward Carpenter, is (by her own description) a rambling account of  someone who deserves to be better remembered. It is rambling in a good way. If you want to know lots lots more about the British left — radical, socialist, anarchist — in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries read this book. You will introduced to the many wonderful and not so wonderful people, groups, networks, intellectual ideas and cultural fads and fancies of the time.

Edward CarpenterCarpenter was born in Brighton in 1874 into a bourgeois family living off inherited income. Carpenter made a valiant attempt in his long life (he died in 1929) to break from his bourgeois background — the stifling conventional morality of it. Yet he was, much like his father; his family’s material wealth bought leisure time. Time for Carpenter spent in pleasurable “work” — of reading and writing. He remained also, according to Rowbotham, his mother’s son — inheriting her a strong sense of duty. Carpenter transformed his mother’s particular conscientiousness, that of a Victorian matriarch, and became a sort of one-man “gay switchboard” helping friends and strangers, but especially those who were confused, tormented even, by their sexual identity.

Perhaps Carpenter’s dissatisfaction with his bourgeois background and his subsequent trajectory towards radical, and then socialist politics (of an eclectic type), was due to his sense as a boy of being an “outsider”. In his early years he may have been aware of his sexual feelings, but as there was no public acknowledgement of homosexuality of any kind, there could be no “scripts”, no words, with which to describe such feelings. Perhaps fortunately, Carpenter managed to avoid adolescent homosexual encounters by not being sent to one of the big public schools. Fortunately, because such public school experiences often involved an enforcement of power by older  boys and could be brutal and brutalising.

Carpenter began to be more conscious of his homosexual feelings while at Cambridge University. He also became political. For instance he became interested in the ideas of radical Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini — whose followers made up one stream of the “First International”.

A little later Carpenter discovered the gay American poet Walt Whitman who was enormously influential, inspirational and “comforting” to gay men and women in this time. Whitman’s “philosophy” also shaped Carpenter’s view of human existence — that, putting it simply, reality can and should be accessed by “intuition” as well as by empirical facts.

Through Whitman Carpenter also found a way to live his life. Whitman had a life-long public denial of his sexuality, yet he helped Carpenter to be an openly gay man. He was passionately taken with Whitman’s idealised concept of “comradeship” between men, using it as a template for his own relationships. Whitman’s words: “Intense and loving comradeship, the personal and passionate attachment of man to man”.

Carpenter was attracted to working-class men – his longest relationships were with working-class men. According to Rowbotham Carpenter believed relationships such as his own, forged across a class divide, could help create a less class-ridden, more democratic society. A “noble ideal”? Well Rowbotham is rightly bemused by an unwitting double standard — Carpenter’s lack of interest and understanding for the lives of the working-class women who surrounded him — the wives of his friends, the often silent and unseen workers for “the cause”. That this was a feature of his class background, rather than sexism, is clear.

After Cambridge, Carpenter became a curate in the Church of England. He seems to have been one of those wishy washy Anglicans we athiests like to poke fun at. Let’s just say he “struggled” with establishment religion. He soon fled to the north,  taking up a job for the Cambridge University Extension Movement — a project set up in 1875 by the Christian socialist FD Maurice. For the university, worried about democratic reform, such as the extension of the franchise and the development of universal education, it was a way to preserve elite status for themselves — at very little cost. Peripatetic lecturers such as Carpenter would turn up to manufacturing towns to spread “civilised knowledge”. Carpenter believed in the ideal — bringing education to the working class, or the Whitmanite ideal of union with “the people”. But not many working class people turned up to the lectures. They were, however, very popular with young middle class women — at the time also generally excluded from higher education.

When touring the north, around Sheffield, Carpenter came into contact with all kinds of progressive people — old Chartists, and a group of “Owenites” who had made a “settlement”, a little utopian farming community, people intoxicated with the idea of manual labour and a simple life.

With money inherited from his father in 1882 Carpenter bought some land. He was, by now, also interested in the idea of setting up a utopian community. The three fields and house at Millthorpe in the Cardwell Valley, was never exactly that, but it did become a base for all kinds of “projects” and a place for his widening, diverse, circle of socialistic and radical friends to go.

Rowbotham describes Carpenter as someone who liked to, and was able to, move in each and every socialist political circle of the time. In the early 80s his natural home was with the Fellowship of the New Life. This was a “philosophical” society which rather airly believed in the “subordination of material things to the spiritual”. Fellowship people, impatient with the task of attaining personal perfection, decided to set up the Fabian Society — out of which other long-term political projects would develop (but that is another story). Carpenter remained on good terms with both groups. Carpenter remained throughout his life above all an eclectic thinker, someone who, as Rowbotham argues, did not therefore leave behind a coherent set of writings.

Carpenter was like many others introduced to the ideas of Karl Marx through Henry Hyndmann’s “popularisation”, England for All. He read Capital in French (Capital was not available in English until 1886). But Marx’s political economy did not really “stick” with Carpenter. For a time he aligned himself with Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, and he also associated with William Morris’ Socialist League (which split from the SDF at the end of 1885).

Carpenter’s socialist activities mainly centred on the area around Sheffield and in the 1880s with the Sheffield Socialist Society. Rowbotham’s account of these local activities, set against the development of the socialist movement in England, is really excellent.

In 1889 Carpenter published Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, a critique of modern life the relentless competition and alienation of industrial capitalism. Carpenter’s cure was a more “natural”, simple way of living.

It would easy to dismiss this idealistic “cure” for capitalism as the “life-style politics” of a bourgeois “rebel”. That would be wrong; it would be to superimpose a modern dislike of “hippy” and “alternative” culture for its shallowness and lack of connection to a proletarian movement to reorganise society. But the late-Victorian age was a time of huge social change; these are post-Darwin times and Victorian morality and culture is breaking up. And the reality of capitalist exploitation and British imperialism is being exposed. Such changes affected many middle class people profoundly and many became life long socialists as a result.  Katherine St John Conway (later a founding member of the Independent Labour Party) recalls reading Carpenter’s England’s Ideal, how it convinced her to be a socialist and what that meant: “ I vaguely realised that every value life had previously held for me had been changed as if by some mysterious alchemy. I was ashamed of the privileges and elaborate refinements of which I had previously been so proud.”

Rowbotham admires Carpenter’s socialism and there is no doubt he was utterly sincere, an effective advocate for socialism and a brave pioneer. But Rowbotham’s approving description of his general approach is unconvincing because it so vague: “For Carpenter, civilisation’s cure rested in a form of consciousness which united thought, understanding, yearning and revealation.” What exactly does “revealation” mean here? “Revealation suggests connection with something supernatural and I’m afraid I just can’t do supernatural. The point is that Carpenter had a life-long interest in eastern philosophies and religions. That was quite common in socialist circles. On the other hand Rowbotham is spot on about how Carpenter’s concern with the politics of the “personal” prefigures future political movements in a quite remarkable way.

By the beginning of the 1890s Carpenter had started a long-term relationship with George Merrill – they later lived as an openly gay couple at Millthorpe. He had also made the equally brave decision to write about sexuality. Carpenter began discussing a “theory” of homosexuality with his friends, the doctor Havelock Ellis and the American writer J A Symonds. Ellis and Symonds had began a writing project on, in the terminology of the time, “sexual inversion”. Ellis, whose wife Edith was a lesbian, was appalled by the legal treatment of homosexuals. He wanted to show that homosexuality was a common, in his words, “psychic abnormality”, over which an individual had no control. He hoped to work for greater public sympathy.

Symonds was opposed to Ellis’ idea of “psychic abnormality” but he thought the scientific approach was useful, i.e. could potentially win influence. He thought homosexuality was potentially an “elevated form of human love”. Carpenter tended to concur with Symond’s approach. Symonds died suddently in 1894, but the discussions the three men had entered into, drove Carpenter to produce his own work. In the event he wrote four pamphlets, linking the issue of general sexual repression to women’s “oppression” as well as homosexual “oppression”. Of these pamphlets the one entitled Homogenic Love was only printed for private circulation at the time of writing. In 1908 it was published together with the other three pamphlets in a book, Love’s Coming of Age. (Available online at http://www.archive.org/details/lovescomingagea02carpgoog.)

Love’s Coming of Age is still worth reading though it’s description of homosexuality veers from a passionate appeal for tolerance and belief in human “diversity” to more apologetic descriptions of homosexual “types”. Yet, in their time, these ideas were revolutionary.

These then were the main themes of Carpenter’s life: Whitman, socialism, local politics, homosexual rights, women’s rights (he was a stronger supporter of the suffrage movement), philosophy. Later in life he became involved with the British syndicalist movement — and one perculiar strand of it, “guild socialism”.

I can fully understand why Rowbotham so admires Carpenter’s “larger socialism”, his inquisitiveness about issues beyond the “bread and butter”. Too much admiration? Well, she does not cover up his flaws (e.g. his casual anti-semitism, of the type then common among socialists; that is hostility towards “Jewish” capitalists).

But Carpenter was the product of the intellectual and political movements of the time and these were often wanting. And it the lack of critical analysis of these politics which is a disappointment with the book. I would not  say that Rowbotham is “wrong” about Carpenter, just that she is not very concerned with “nailing” the political ideas which Carpenter flirted with, took up and adhered to. This is a problem when she writes about Carpenter’s attitude to the First World War.

Like many socialists Carpenter did not initially oppose the war. He expressed a Clare Short-style wretched inability to face up to reality, by opposing conscription, but not the war itself. To his credit Carpenter was later convinced to fully oppose the war. Rowbotham lists the people who took different stances but she makes very little comment or attempt to explain the hard politics on which people made their decisions.

Rowbotham’s attempts to wind her subject’s emotional life into her account of his decisions and choices is also a bit hit and miss.  Sometimes it is very convincing and moving. I was impressed by her description of how Carpenter’s mother’s death would have enabled him to better understand himself. But sometimes Rowbotham make little sumations about people’s feelings though they must have been unrecorded. This is a bit too “touchy feely” for my taste.

But none of this gets in the way too much of a fantastically good read.


About esthertownsend

Socialist feminist

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