The Edward Carpenter Forumec4a.jpg

In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

At school a small and serious group formed in the sixth form. We were seekers of truth and higher things - though my friend Lindsay thought I lowered the spiritual tone sometimes and told me off for my earthy enthusiasm. Among other things, we read Story of an African Farm. Dressed in black stockings and wearing luminous pink lipstick we gained a reputation for eccentricity which we cultivated with care.

You are fickle at that age and I deserted Ellis and Schreiner for Kerouac, Ginsberg and the beats. I suppose I was rebelling by then rather than escaping because sixteen to seventeen is an eternity of a year and the whole world changed when I left school. Seventeen to nineteen I was too busy to remember Ellis and Schreiner and by my last year at university I was apparently matter of fact, settling the world as a marxist, shedding the romantic chrysalis of ecstasy, but tending also towards dialectical loops of passion in the midst of order.

Edward Carpenter I had yet to meet really. He hadn't registered at all. But I was beginning to read about the history of the socialist movement. Initially this was the way I could understand marxism: as a relationship between me and people in the past. I wanted to know how all these people came to their ideas and what happened to them when they acted upon them. It's a terrible way to think; it means you are never satisfied.

Then came a flurry after my finals. What could I do? I drifted half-heartedly off for jobs in Welwyn Garden City. I finally got a research studentship at Chelsea College working on the history of University Extension. University Extension was a movement for adult education which started in the early 1870s with the hope of educating all classes together. It happened that Edward Carpenter went off as an Extension lecturer. So we met again. He has been flitting in and out of my life with a kind of ghostly insistence ever since.

I must have been about twenty-one when Edward Thompson showed me his 'Homage to Tom Maguire', the account he had written of the emergence of socialism in Leeds.³ Carpenter appears tangentially in this. He was a friend of Maguire's and of Alf Mattison, who helped Maguire organize the gas workers and was a frequent visitor to Millthorpe. Through Dorothy and Edward Thompson there was a living connection to those early days of West Riding socialism. Among others they had met Alf's wife Florence Mattison, still active in the Leeds labour movement. Edward Thompson started to tell me about that northern socialism, how for a time preoccupation with changing all forms of human relationships had been central in a working class movement. Somehow the connection had broken and people like Carpenter had drifted away, become slightly cranky and inturned. I didn't really understand what he was saying then but could feel from the way he said it that it was somehow important.

In the Thompsons' house I used to explore the collection of books that had been assembled in the writing of William Morris. Romantic to Revolutionary. There was Olive Schreiner again and thin hard-backed pamphlets of working class poetry including Tom Maguire's Machine Room Chants. There was a picture of Tom Maguire as a dark moustached young man. In his poems the touches of humour and affection, especially for women workers, made me imagine the twinkles of understanding he must have shared with them. His death through poverty and alcohol while still young was tragic. I read an illustrated edition of Edward Carpenter's My Days and Dreams with the carefully studied photographs of Carpenter dressed in Walt Whitman hats and of his lovers George Hukin and George Merrill.

I went to the Sheffield local history library. I remember arriving at the station, getting lost then tramping up the hill. Little did I realise that I'd still be visiting it over ten years later. I began to pursue Carpenter's acquaintances, not just Ellis and Schreiner but Henry Salt, a vegetarian opponent of vivisection, and his wife Kate Salt who loved Edward Carpenter with a hopeless passion.4 Carpenter appeared in a new dimension through his friendship with the Salts and Bernard Shaw. I felt I would have liked Kate Salt. She seemed to be even more overwhelmed than Olive Schreiner by the strain and effort of searching for freedom as a woman in the late nineteenth century. I was beginning to know Carpenter a little through his friends. There was a self-conscious grouping at King's College, Cambridge in the 1880s concerned with their love for one another and with the reconciliation of mysticism and social action.5 The group included Charles Ashbee, who later became an architect, designed art nouveau jewellery and formed a Guild and School of Handicraft under Morris's influence, but hoped that pride in workmanship could be substituted for social revolution. There was his friend Roger Fry, unconvinced even then of the virtues of social commitment. G. Lowes Dickenson was also among this group and E. M. Forster who wrote Dickenson's biography was to become a kind of junior member. They stayed with Carpenter at Millthorpe, met his friends and went to socialist meetings with him. They were to draw back from his politics but continued to feel an identity with his writing about homosexuality and the East. Carpenter seemed to have formed a means of reconciling the outer and inner life. Lowes Dickenson asked him once how he achieved this unity and he replied breezily that 'he liked to hang out his red flag from the ground floor and then go up above to see how it looked.'6 Also among his friends were the Walt Whitmanites of Bolton who included Charlie Sixsmith. They used to meet to honour Whitman, passing a loving cup between them. Carpenter went over to speak from the 1890s. He had quite a following in Bolton. I was beginning also to know his Sheffield friends in the Socialist club but they remained a little hazy still.

None of this was very relevant to a thesis on University Extension. Indeed in 1966 and '67 I was wondering quite how it was relevant at all. It did mean that I knew there had once been a strange kind of socialism which had not been like the Bolsheviks. But that was as far as it went. I drew back from the more personal part of Edward Carpenter's life out of a kind of shyness, a restraint I've come to recognize in my own desire to communicate immediately and directly all at once. It is partly a puritan suspicion of whatever most delights me; a fear of my own fascinations. It is also, too, some knowingness about experiences I cannot stretch towards. Whatever the reason, I felt I had no business to be there peeping and prying.

So he floated away again; except not quite, because by this time I had read some of his writing, and liked particularly Love's Coming of Age. True his style is waffly and impressionistic but he wrote about ways of behaving that I could still recognize around me. I was absorbing some of his ideas. I learned also the outlines of his extraordinary life.

He came from an upper middle class family in Brighton. His father was radical in his politics and Edward Carpenter was brought up within the tolerant tenets of Broad Church Anglicanism. Instead of consenting to a conventional future he left a safe position as a curate in Cambridge to go and teach in University Extension in the early 1870s. Carpenter had already questioned some aspects of Victorian society, while he was still at university. He moved in radical and feminist circles, was influenced by republicanism and troubled by class conflict, by the Commune and the First International. Undoubtedly aware of the pressure for women's colleges at Cambridge, he was a believer in higher education for women on a wider scale. Another of his interests, like other radicals of his day, was in ideas of land nationalisation. But most immediately, Carpenter was unhappy about the social relations of people of his class. As a homosexual he was forced by the restraints of Victorian society to conceal his feelings. In the writing of Walt Whitman he felt he could find recognition of open loving friendships. Carpenter wanted not just a political democracy but a personal democracy of feeling.