Edward Carpenter (29 August 1844 – 28 June 1929) was an English socialist poet, socialist philosopher, anthologist, and early gay activist.
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 Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore, corresponding 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.
LIFE WITH GEORGE MERRILL
On his return from India in 1891, he met George Merrill, a working class man also from Sheffield, and the two men struck up a relationship, eventually moving in together in 1898. Merrill had been raised in the slums of Sheffield and had no formal education. 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.
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. 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.”