Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love

October 30, 2008

If the alternative leftist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries were to trace themselves back to a spiritual forefather, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) would be waiting there, philosophically, up the genealogical tree. Sporting handmade sandals with woolly socks, he is captured standing in the porch of his Derbyshire smallholding at Millthorpe in a photograph from 1905, emitting the charismatic gaze that made his experiment with vegetarianism, vegetable-growing, cross-country rambling, Eastern philosophies, anti-vivisectionism, sexual liberty and socialism such an alluring combination to his many, many visitors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But as the 20th century wore on, Carpenter's association with "cranky" communal farms, his resistance to centralised socialism, and, above all, his open homosexuality (at least in the context of the time) led to his legacy being sidelined in the story of the British socialist movement. By the 1930s, George Orwell, for instance, wanted to purge the Left of associations with fruit-juice-drinking nudists and, as Sheila Rowbotham notes in her definitive new biography of Carpenter, "singled out Carpenter's influence on middle-class socialists, 'the sort of eunuch type with a vegetarian smell, who go about spreading sweetness and light ... readers of Edward Carpenter or some other pious sodomite'". Carpenter's millenarian belief that all was somehow connected - that loving personal relationships could transform society wholesale - did indeed influence the novels of his younger friend E.M. Forster; but such beliefs had little purchase on socialist politics from the 1930s onwards. Despite this hiatus, Carpenter's work inspired the Gay Liberation movement later in the 20th century and the roots of current eco-politics.

Back in the mid-1870s, Carpenter turned away from a fellowship at the University of Cambridge and a career in the Church of England to involve himself in the University Extension movement, bringing knowledge, as he hoped, to the workers of the North of England. Carpenter's urge to connect with the masses of the people was one that, from the very outset, linked sexual desire and democracy. Reading the works of Walt Whitman, and then corresponding with and meeting the man himself, inspired Carpenter with a vision of a world in which men (and women) could be freed from the class system and could love and labour together, by casting off the falsities of polite middle-class Victorian society. This hope for a better world led to his extraordinary popularity as a speaker and writer during the 1880s and early 1890s, when the British socialist movement emerged. His prose poem Towards Democracy was circulated between followers and chanted at meetings; his vision of hope in a world of extreme inequality mattered more to them than any consistent analysis of the situation, despite sneers from the likes of George Bernard Shaw about the "noble savage" Carpenter.

Rowbotham's acute and captivating biography has the difficult task of trying to portray a man whose greatest gift was his sexy charisma - his ability to love and inspire love on a grandly social scale. She rises to the challenge with a sensitive reading of Carpenter's extensive correspondence; his love for the married razor-grinder George Hukin and the unmapped territory of three-way affection that resulted; his open, loving relationship with "rude" George Merrill, who followed Carpenter home from the Sheffield train one day in 1891 and stayed with him until Merrill's death in 1928.

While Rowbotham details how Carpenter's writings on "homogenic love" were rejected by publishers in the fraught few years following the trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895, what is more striking is how, despite the moral panic about homosexuality that followed, Carpenter and his friends continued to circulate their ideas internationally and live them out in a politics of intimacy. Rowbotham's highly readable study should bring the welcome attention of a general readership to Carpenter's works, while acting as an invaluable resource for scholars.

Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love

By Sheila Rowbotham. Verso, 548pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781844672950. Published 13 October 2008.

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