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In Search of Edward Carpenter by Sheila Rowbotham

We are pleased to be able to reproduce the following essay by Sheila Rowbotham.  The essay, first published in 1977, remains insightful and highly informative. It further provides an excellent introduction to Edward Carpenter for those new to the subject.

Within the essay Sheila reflects on her prolonged interest in Edward Carpenter and his circle, an interest that had stretched over almost two decades even in 1977. Fortunately that interest and research has continued, and now, 30 years later, Sheila, Professor of Gender and Labour History at Manchester University and Edward Carpenter Forum founding member,  is completing a new full-length Carpenter biography. Our thanks to her for agreeing that her essay could appear.

The original essay appeared in the History Workshop Journal (History Workshop Journal 3, Spring 1977, p121-133) and we are grateful to the Journal for their permission to reproduce it here. The History Workshop Journal retains all copyright for the essay. The Journal's website can be found at www.hwj.oxfordjournals.org.

In Search of Carpenter

by Sheila Rowbotham

The pub at Millthorpe near Sheffield was deserted with a 'For Sale' notice outside when I went there with friends on a grey March day in 1976. Just down the road there was 'Carpenter House' where Edward Carpenter had lived from the early 1880s until he moved to Guildford in 1922.

Going to visit Millthorpe, Dronfield and Totley was a geographical locating of a group of radicals, socialists and feminists who had lived in the area or visited while Carpenter was there. I have been and still am struggling with the more complicated social, political and personal placing of this group. They have had a curiously persistent fascination for me ever since I read a review of a biography of Havelock Ellis by Arthur Calder-Marshall when I was in my teens in the late 1950s. Carpenter, socialist and writer on sexual liberation, feminism and homosexuality; Ellis, pioneer sex psychologist; and Olive Schreiner, the South African feminist, author of 'Story of an African Farm', have all become important to me at different times rather like the kind of closeness you have with old friends. There is the waxing and waning of intimacy with the security of knowing they are always around. The friendship is getting on for being a twenty year relationship which is longer than with any of my real friends. Information has accumulated in a haphazard kind of way as it does with old friends. I've slowly introduced myself to more and more of their circle until it has become like having an address book of the past. So I had to pinch myself as I walked on that foggy March day down the road to Millthorpe to remember I wasn't going to find them sitting there. It is one of the sadnesses of history for me - this loving intimacy with ghosts.

I was attracted first by the picture of Ellis as a medical student which was printed with the review, and then intrigued by the description of his mystical experience when he was a young man, alone in Sparkes Creek in Australia. Ellis had somehow come across James Hinton's Life in Nature. Hinton's vision of reconciliation between religious feeling and materialism illuminated Ellis's own spiritual anguish. He said,

‘It acted with the swiftness of an electric contact; the dull aching tension was removed; the two opposing psychic tendencies were fused in delicious harmony, and my whole attitude to the universe was changed. It was no longer an attitude of hostility and dread, but of confidence and love."¹

I was educated at a Methodist school and so accepted the idea of religious grace as part of common experience. Heart-warming, the infusion of light, treading air are described by Methodists as salvation by grace. I was already uneasy about Christianity. Reading Ellis's account of his experience was exciting. It seemed there was a kind of secular grace outside the Methodist Church. The inner witness was not bounded by John Wesley.

‘In an instant the universe was changed for me. I trod on air',² Ellis had said. I recognised the simplicity of the language. I was tantalized by its familiarity with religious mystical statements. It is as if such experiences are so filled with feeling that there is no space for the detachment of language. Here were moments dissolving time and melting words until there was only light and ecstasy. I was torn by the longing to melt into the light and the longing to touch and shape the moment. I was already itchy with words, watching, describing, filled with nostalgic sadness for moments I could no longer enter. I knew even then the sadness of history, the final recognition that it is already the past. Only ecstasy eases this sadness.

Ellis appeared also to be something to do with sex. Now I was as interested in sex as I was in ecstasy and history, though unsure quite what it was. Perhaps this book would explain. So I pursued Ellis and the business of getting the book about him with great resolve. My mother, already accustomed to strange requests, bought me the biography for my sixteenth birthday. She did not know who Havelock Ellis was, but a friend of hers did, and let out a squeal of horror at my mother's innocence in buying me such a dirty book. My mother was a stubborn and thwarted lover of freedom and gave me Calder-Marshall's Havelock Ellis nonetheless. I read it, as I read everything then, searching for a total explanation of me, life, death and the universe.

In considered retrospect it is not a very good biography of Ellis but at the time it was revelatory. There were funny things in it about the relations between mothers and sons, the connections between urination and sexual pleasure, about infant sexuality and about lesbianism. It was the first time I realised that there as a psychological view of the world. Perhaps it seems remarkable that so many years after Freud it was possible to grow up in the English small-business northern middle class innocent of Oedipus. But it was so. Later I found a paperback edition of Ellis's Psychology of Sex and laboriously toiled through it in some bewilderment.

The picture of Olive Schreiner when she met Ellis was recognisable. There as a mixture of physical defiance and submission. You can feel her body at once pressing against her formal Victorian clothes, with no choice but to accept this outer confinement. When I read about her I felt close to her. Perhaps it was her loneliness and spiritual travail or her masochism or her idealism, or her vulnerability or her will - I wonder. When I read Story of an African Farm I remember feeling those floods of adolescent identification. Out there long ago and far away someone had felt like me and escaped. There must be others. Somewhere over the rainbow I might meet them.

 


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.


He did not find either through the University Extension Movement. The railway wanderings of the Extension lecturer were exhausting, the landladies' cooking indigestible and the structure of the Extension Movement reflected all too often the class hierarchies of the northern towns. By the late 1870s Carpenter was in urgent need of a calmer rhythm to his life. Through two of his students, a scythe-maker called Albert Fearnhough and Charles Fox, a small farmer, he went to live in the countryside at Bradway. He stayed for a time at Totley, at St. George's Farm, a communal farming venture backed by John Ruskin which had failed. A friend of Carpenter's, George Pearson, had taken the lease after the communitarian group disintegrated and worked the farm with a Christian socialist, John Furniss. In 1882 Carpenter moved to Millthorpe. Originally a rural retreat the house was to become a centre for dissidents of all varieties.

Carpenter finished with lecturing and wrote a long Whitmanesque poem called Towards Democracy. In the early 1880s he moved towards socialism influenced particularly by Hyndman's England for All, and it was he who provided the money to launch the Social Democratic Federation paper Justice. He also became involved with a group concerned about inner spiritual change as well as with external social relationships - the Fellowship of the New Life. Through the Fellowship he met Havelock Ellis, still under the influence of James Hinton and beginning his empirical studies of sexual behaviour. He also met Olive Schreiner who was involved in a long emotional love for Ellis. Because of his sexual inhibition this love could never be physically fulfilled. When Ellis eventually married another member of the Fellowship, Edith Lees, they lived apart and did not have sexual intercourse because Edith Lees was physically attracted by women. Ellis, Schreiner, Lees, along with the Salts and Shaw, Ashbee, Lowes Dickenson and later Forster, were frequent visitors to Millthorpe. As the socialist movement took roots in the north, working class visitors came too. Alf Mattison and Tom Maguire came from Leeds, others came from the Midlands and of course from Sheffield.

Carpenter had helped the socialist club to form in Sheffield. In the 1880s he spoke at meetings, going out on a bicycle to the smaller towns nearby. It was a very sociable politics. He used to play the harmonium at socialist meetings and he collected socialist songs together in a book called Chants of Labour. This was characteristic of organisation in this period. The socialist movement created a whole network of cultural forms. There were cafés, meals for schoolchildren, rambles in the countryside. From the 1890s the Clarion cycling club and the Clarion choir continued this tradition.

There were close personal as well as political connections. One example was Carpenter's love for George Hukin, a razor-grinder who tried to organize a union among workers in the scattered workshops. There was also love between Bob Muirhead and James Brown, a tailor. They had settled near Millthorpe and were from the Glasgow Socialist League.

Carpenter met George Merrill, who was to be his companion for the rest of his life, in the early 1890s. Merrill came from the slums of Sheffield from a poor working class family. He had led a wandering life and done a variety of jobs. Carpenter's manuscript account of Merrill's life gives a rare and fascinating glimpse into the existence of a working class homosexual in the nineteenth century. (Click here to read Carpenter's account of George Merrill's life.

Early in 1891 the Socialist club had split and an anarchist-communist grouping appeared. Some of the Sheffield anarchists became involved in the Walsall bomb 'plot'. A police spy, Coulon, came to Sheffield, befriended Fred Charles an idealistic-young anarchist who was attracted to Coulon's desperate enthusiasm for terrorism. Charles was later to be among those charged and imprisoned for making the plan of a bomb for Russian revolutionaries.

Carpenter was friendly with Charles but critical of his politics. He had become increasingly estranged from the socialist club and the fights within it partly because of the ascendency of the anarchist group, partly because of his visit to Ceylon and India in 1890-91 and his growing interest in Eastern religious experience. This, combined with his writing and his relationship with George Merrill, meant that he was no longer so active in local politics though he continued to speak for socialist groups all over the country and after the Independent Labour Party was formed he went again on propaganda outings particularly to mining communities. In the 1900s, he supported the Syndicalists, read the Guild Socialists' The New Age, and welcomed the suffrage movement. He continued to wear his sandals, take his sun baths and work in a shed by the brook in the garden.

Carpenter's advocacy of reducing needs by 'simplification of life' was undoubtedly serious and practically worked out. He outlined his ideas in an essay in 1886 published in England's Ideal the following year. In this he carefully explained how much it cost to maintain a person and how varnished floors upstairs and stone on the ground floor save housework. In the context of the later Victorian paraphernalia of large households with elaborate rituals and a complete chasm between life upstairs and life downstairs this streamlining of living was startling. 'Simplification of life' was at once a moral pursuit - it signified a better life - and a practical one - it was the means of ensuring some independence from the domestic labour of others. Carpenter's attempt to practise his own message appeared startling to contemporaries. It was after all unusual - in the 1880s and 1890s - to find a middle class man who wandered the streets in sandals and broad hats copied from the American poet Walt Whitman, who tried to live intimately with people of a lower social station and combine intellectual and manual work.

He was unusual too in the variety of intellectual strands which combined in his person. Influences upon him ranged through Shelley, Whitman, Thoreau, Ruskin, Lewis Morgan, Olive Schreiner, William Morris, Hyndman, Buddha, Havelock Ellis, J. H. Noyes, Ulrichs, to Kraft Ebing and Moll. A motley crew, some of whom would have been disconcerted to find themselves in the same company. Carpenter did not only respond to socialism in the 1880s, he went on to challenge other aspects of Victorian orthodoxy. He queried for example the superior benefit of 'civilisation' over other cultures, the superiority too of Christianity over Eastern religions. He questioned the mechanical basis of scientific thinking and Darwinism. If his conclusions were vague and mystical he was at least conscious of a real problem - how to connect the question of the social control of the external world with the needs of human biology. He was aware that much that was seen as natural in his culture was not 'natural' in other cultures. He pointed out that behaviour regarded as criminal in one context was not seen as criminal in other cultures.

His writing on sexuality which began to appear from the 1890s was consistent with these concerns and with his belief in the virtue of released natural emotion. His main preoccupation, as in his earlier writings, was with the theme of separation. Sin is described as 'the sundering of one's being' in Love's Coming of Age.7 His writings on the position of women were regarded as shocking in the 1890s but he went even further towards unrespectability when he touched upon the subject of homosexuality. The contract for Love's Coming of Age was abruptly cancelled by Fisher Unwin because of the publisher's fear that a pamphlet on 'Homogenic Love', Carpenter's term for homosexuality, would be included. Carpenter describes the fortunes of this pamphlet in his autobiography My Days and Dreams:

" I... had only a comparatively small number of copies struck off which were not sold but sent round pretty freely to those who I thought would be interested in the subject or able to contribute views or information upon it. My object in fact was to get in touch with others and to obtain material for future study or publication. Even in this quiet way the pamphlet created some alarm... but it is quite possible the matter would have ended there, if it had not been for the Oscar Wilde troubles. Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and from that moment a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex and especially of course questions of the 'intermediate sex'.8

It was not until the 1906 edition that Love's Coming of Age could include a plea for a freer homosexual as well as heterosexual love.

 


Carpenter believed that the liberation of women required both real economic freedom and a change of women's consciousness. 'Too long have women acted the part of mere appendages to the male, suppressing their own individuality and fostering their self-conceit.' It also necessitated 'her complete freedom as to the disposal of her sex'. The liberation of women was thus economic, social and sexual. He distinguished between the varied predicaments of the middle class woman brought up to devote and sacrifice herself to a man or to play the hypocrite and pander to male egotism, of the working class woman who faced exploitation at work and remorseless drudgery in the home, and of the prostitute who had to sell her body. His descriptions of their situations still ring true. Undoubtedly his influence at the time was partly because he was a most passionate describer and his ideas are brought home through these detailed cameos.

"Few men again realise or trouble themselves to realise, what a life this of the working housewife is. They are accustomed to look upon their own employment, whatever it may be, as "work" (perhaps because it brings with it "wages"), the woman's they regard as a kind of pastime. They forget what monotonous drudgery it really means, and yet what incessant forethought and care; they forget that the woman has no eight hours a day, that her work is always staring her in the face, and waiting for her, even on into the night; that the body is wearied, and the mind narrowed down "scratched to death by rats and mice" in a perpetual round of petty cares. For not only does civilisation and multifarious invention (including smoke) make the burden of domestic life immensely complex but the point is that each housewife has to sustain this burden to herself in lonely effort."

He calls upon women to declare themselves free women, 'to insist on her right to speak, dress, think, act and above all to use her sex as she deems best' and on 'every man who really would respect his counterpart' to encourage women to be free. 'Let him never by word or deed tempt her to grant as a bargain what can only be precious as a gift; let him see her with pleasure stand a little aloof, let him help her gain her feet.'

It was consistent with Carpenter's faith in the ideal to appeal to lofty sentiments rather than self-interest. He expected people to have the strength to will themselves into freedom. Conservative contemporaries saw the kind of freedom he wanted as synonymous with sexual and social chaos. Carpenter pointed out that in fact the reality of the existing dual standard of morality was hypocrisy at one side and devastation and degradation at the other. He was confident that the new morality would not be destructive in its effects. His idea of sexuality was not synonymous with freedom for sensuality. His note on ‘Preventative Checks to Population' in Love's Coming of Age  indicates that he saw physical sexuality dwindling as love became more diffused in society. He retained the Christian division of higher and lower love, spiritual and physical just as he saw masculine and feminine characteristics as fixed. His views of the women who became feminists reflected this. In his opinion, among the feminists there were many women whose sexual and maternal 'instincts' were not strong. He said they were 'mannish' in 'temperament', or 'homogenic', that is, 'inclined to attachments to their own, rather than the opposite sex; some are ultra- rationalizing and brain-cultured, to many, children are more or less a bore; to others man's sex-passion is a mere impertinence, which they do not understand, and whose place they consequently misjudge.'9

These stereotypes of feminism are similar to the fixed ideas he had about women generally. He tended to classify and idealize, presenting the free woman as a kind of spartan goddess striding athletically and asexually to liberation. These rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity affected not only his theories about women but also about homosexuals. He was influenced by Whitman's poetic assertions of homosexual comradeship as well as by the German writer, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who defined a male homosexual as a person with a female soul enclosed in a male body and a lesbian as someone with a male soul in a female body. Just as he challenged capitalism and civilization, he was also critical of male dominated culture. So by a peculiar combination of scepticism about dominant cultural values and a theory of fixed gender characteristics, he arrived at a theory of 'the intermediate sex' as a superior elite combining the best of both sexes and with a less sensual and more emotional nature than heterosexuals. Here again there were higher and lower types of homosexuals, the lower inclining towards sentimentality.10 This tendency to stereotype and generalise impressionistically is in direct contrast to his recognition that sexuality took various forms in different societies and that there was an immense potential for individual diversity in human sexual activity. Nonetheless, it was while pursuing this kind of thinking of higher and lower beings that he stumbled upon the significance of the separation between sexual pleasure and sex for procreation. For while disapproving of existing forms of contraception because of their inconvenience for women, he advocated sustained intercourse without male orgasm as a 'preventative check'. He followed here not only Eastern religious ideas but a strand of American sexual radicalism which sought new forms of sexuality rather than contraception. In the 1870s, J. H. Noyes, the leader of a community in the United States had advocated 'male continence' the diversion of sperm through the urethra. Similar techniques were suggested again in Alice B. Stockham's book Karezza in the early 1900s.

Edward Carpenter's courage in asserting the rights of the 'intermediate sex' in the 1890s and early 1900s and his interest in sex and society led him into the relatively new fields of anthropology and psychology. In 1911 he published two anthropological studies of homosexuality. His own homosexuality served as a case history anonymously for Havelock Ellis's studies and was frankly acknowledged in Carpenter's autobiography in 1916. He drew on the ideas of Lewis Morgan, and Bebel, characteristically giving the evolutionary anthropological account of the connection between property and power a psychological slant. His theories of psychology were based on Ellis, Ulrichs, Kraft Ebing and Moll, but peppered with his own observations and poetic licence. He retained from his Broad Church Anglicanism a rejection of materialism and an Arminian conviction that truth can be attained by many routes. Eastern religious thought seemed to provide an alternative which avoided materialism and the Christian hierarchical dualism of spirit and matter. In the East they seemed to have found a place for pleasure without shame and a more easy relationship between mystical ecstasy and physical eroticism than the West. His eclectic quest makes his thought something of a lucky-dip. It is easier to pull bits out than to understand the connections. But his struggle to make these connections was not merely theoretical, it was his whole life. The way he lived was a demonstration of what he thought and the two are inseparable. His influence, which was considerable, was less a matter of logic than of a cultural stance. He belonged to a radical and socialist milieu unhappy in late nineteenth century capitalism not only because things were unequal but because people were cut off from one another and from their own physical natures. His influence was at its height in the period before the First World War. It was international, going far beyond Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands. He continued to be read and discussed in the 1920s, but already in the 1930s, when his friends produced a collection of biographical essays in his memory, his writing and ideas appeared a little dated. In the socialist movement he was remembered certainly until the Second World War and the hymn-like strains of 'England Arise' wafted around labour halls and pubs for some years after. I have not heard it since the mid 1960s when the Young Communist League used to meet in the Dolphin pub at Kings Cross and 'England Arise' could be heard along with the 'Internationale' and folk songs.


I have become more and more curious about the diversity of Carpenter's influence, and also in trying to retrace the process in which it was dissipated. Finding out about Carpenter and what became of his attempt to connect personal and sexual relationships and feelings to the struggle to change the external world is part of a much wider search for a broken revolutionary tradition which is relevant to the feminist movement, to sexual politics and to the evident weaknesses in our understanding of socialism. For instance I've come across him and Ellis in reading about birth control and feminism; in the early twentieth century Carpenter helped found the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology and a determined young feminist member called Stella Browne gave a talk in 1915 on women's sexuality. Stella Browne was a campaigner for birth control and abortion in Britain, she was friendly with the American Margaret Sanger, and she tried to connect her demand for women's sexual self-determination to ideas of workers' control. Sanger, under Ellis's influence, broke away from the revolutionary syndicalism in which she had been involved and concentrated on birth control as a single-issue reform. Both Ellis and Carpenter were read by other young radicals in Greenwich Village who were trying to live by a new morality. In the early twentieth century there was - however implicit - a connection between sexual and personal life and socialism. This connection became more remote after the First World War. Carpenter's links both with D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster provide some clues about how this has happened.

There are striking similarities between Carpenter's ideas and Lawrence's and they have been described by Emile Delavenay in his D. H. Lawrence and Edward Carpenter. A Study in Edwardian Transition.11 Both men had a horror of capitalism and of its distortion of all human social relationships. The places where they part company are interesting. The ambiguities in Carpenter's thought between mystical experience and social action, between the loss of individuality and the creation of a new elite of 'uranians', the intermediate sex which he thought would combine the best of 'femininity' and 'masculinity', are resolved by Lawrence in his rejection of the left, of feminism and of politics. Although there is no evidence that they ever met there was a small group of advanced thinkers in Eastwood in the 1900s, some of whom knew Carpenter, or had read his books or heard him speak and Lawrence was friendly with some of them.

E. M. Forster did meet Carpenter and acknowledged his influence. In his 'Terminal Note' to Maurice Forster wrote that the book dated from 1913, and 'It was a direct result of a visit to Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe. Carpenter had a prestige that cannot easily be understood today'. Forster was drawn to him because 'he was a believer in the love of Comrades, whom he sometimes called Uranians. It was this last aspect of him that attracted me in my loneliness'. He met Carpenter through Lowes Dickenson and saw him briefly as a saviour.

" It must have been on my second or third visit to the shrine that the spark was kindled and he and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. George Merrill also 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. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back, into my ideas without involving my thoughts. If it really did this it would have acted in strict accordance with Carpenter's yogified mysticism, and would prove that at that precise moment I had conceived."12

 

There are echoes of Carpenter in Forster's other works, particularly in the Longest Journey.

So I've slowly and irresistibly been drawn back to Edward Carpenter and his circle over the last few years. I've started to track them down obsessively now with street plans and ordnance survey maps, down Rockingham Street, Sheffield, where the secularists and socialists spoke and distributed their literature in the Hall of Science, down Pinstone Street where the socialists and anarchists held a meeting for the men from the ironworks in 1889, to Fargate where the police attacked one of the socialist club's early meetings. In Holly Street and Scotland Street there were radical and socialist cafés. Then off down the Totley Brook Road where the first sinister semi-detached houses were noted in 1897. Through Totley railway station where the first intense look passed between George Merrill and Edward Carpenter and Merrill followed him down the footpath to Millthorpe. I did visit St. George's farm with my friends in March and we stood in the drizzle talking to George Pearson, grandson of the other George Pearson. He said there is an avenue named after John Furniss nearby but I didn't find it.

I will have to go back and wander down the lanes where Carpenter and his friends strode in their Indian sandals, look at the hills where city-bred Alf Mattison was overwhelmed by the sunset. There are too many names in my address book of the past, unfinished acquaintances I cannot abandon.

It has not been an affair of chance of course this slow reappearance of Edward Carpenter, Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner in my life, nor is my fascination with the socialists and anarchists in Sheffield just nostalgia. The women's movement made me realise the significance of Carpenter's writing on feminism and feel other people would be interested in Love's Coming of Age. Since then I have found more and more people trying to track down Carpenter, his immediate circle and the ramifications of his influence. Gloden Dallas became interested in Maguire, Mattison and Isabella Ford and began finding and listening to people who could remember the early socialist and feminist movements in Leeds. Slowly the interconnections have emerged for me as I've listened to her talking. Ann Scott and Ruth First are working on Olive Schreiner, looking both at her feminism and her role in South African radical politics. Over in America Linda Gordon has written about Margaret Sanger and sent me copies of letters Sanger wrote to Stella Browne. Jane Lewis, far away in Western Ontario, Canada, has written about the 'new feminism', Keith Nield has written about Carpenter in the Dictionary of Labour Biography. The echoes continue. I learn that Havelock Ellis was being read by South Wales members of the Plebs League, by Glasgow workers in the 1920s, and by a Communist Party branch in the 1930s. Carpenter is remembered by a woman in the Labour Party in Glasgow as one of those 'poetic socialists' whose songs she recited at Socialist Sunday School. When you mention Carpenter to people in Sheffield they all say you should go and talk to Rony Robinson. He seems to have been haunted by the same ghost for he wrote a play called Edward Carpenter Lives.

But I wouldn't have begun to try and write about him myself if it had not been for friends I met through the Gay Culture Society at the London School of Economics. They printed a short duplicated pamphlet by Graeme Woolaston, now out of print, which discussed his views on homosexuality. He is critical of Carpenter's stereo-typing of masculine and feminine, and of his elitist idealization of the 'Intermediate Sex'. Nonetheless he shows his significance as a pioneer theorist of homosexuality. So I started a few years ago to write a small pamphlet on Edward Carpenter. The small pamphlet grew and grew. There appears to be no end to it. As I learn more and think more, people begin to show me things I hadn't noticed. Friends in men's groups for instance have made me think about Carpenter's rebellion against the notion of what a man of his time was allowed to be, his love for a man called Beck in Cambridge for example and the influence of Whitman. And talking to people about radical therapy I am beginning to wonder too if all those electric currents, and sensations above the buttocks are not so odd after all. Carpenter makes sense because of sexual politics; not only because he wrote about feminism and homosexuality but because he sought a new way of life in which there would be no longer:

"The starving of human hearts, the denial of the human body and its needs, the huddling concealment of the body in clothes, the 'impure hush' on matters of sex, class-division, contempt of manual labour, and the cruel barring of women from every natural and useful expression of their lives."13

 

I want to find out what it was like to be a socialist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before the First War, before the Bolsheviks and before the Labour Party. I want to know what became of their concern to transform all aspects of relationships, and the preoccupation with living the new life in the present as well as the future. I want to learn about their emphasis upon a revolutionary culture, that lost practice of socialism which still carried a connection between personal life and external change.


I can see it was an idealist socialism which denied the material reality of class and sex and obscured conflict. It was a romantic socialism which nurtured the dream but had no strategy for its implementation. It was a gullible socialism too ready to believe the capitalist state was a neutral force for welfare and that if you waited long enough the Labour Party would bring you socialism. Where from indeed? It grew complacent in old age and took office or it was forced into bizarre nooks and communes making socialism in one parish. It was fearful of power, so accepted it on the terms of the governors. Or it fled. When anything nasty came along like fascism or Stalinism it did not know how to fight them or what to do. So it died a forgotten archaism, merely the occasion for an easy joke. All those voices raised,

‘The long long night is over . .

Arise O England for the day is here'1

But the day wasn't and isn't. Carpenter would still be complaining we're being a long time about it. He and his friends may have become a little odd as the years went by. When political hopes splinter and part company the fragments appear distorted.

The rediscovery of Carpenter's socialism is nonetheless a reminder that many of our present concerns have a past. There was for example an implicit understanding among them that the kind of society they were after involved not just redistribution of wealth, or a change in the ownership of production, not even just workers' control of production but a transformation of all human relationships. They did not reduce what they wanted to economics because capitalism had forced us all into the cash nexus. They were against not only exploitation but the waste of human creative capacity which is the result of exploitation. So they were not dismissive of artistic endeavour. They wanted not only justice but beauty too. Socialism was to release the creativity and artistry in everyone. It was to heal the breach between the heart, the body and the mind.

So they did not think that economics or politics had a priority over art and culture. They were without a strategy, which makes them Utopian; and the absence of a strategy made it easier for them to be absorbed within the gradualist politics of the Labour Party. However it also meant they developed a practice which has an increasingly contemporary relevance as modern capitalism invades more and more the personal, domestic domain. They understood that political commitment is not just a matter of education or even of experience through agitation. They saw socialism as an inner transformation which meant change in the here and now. They sought this new life in the everyday, in their stress on the warmth of fellowship and comradeship, in their clothes and furnishings, in a network of associations from cycling clubs to Socialist Sunday Schools, which could sustain them through isolation, hardship and despair. Carpenter was not alone in his desire to live more simply and directly, to be more open with others and closer to natural rhythms destroyed by industry and the city. Others shared his hope that

" People should endeavour (more than they do) to express and liberate their own real and deep-rooted needs and feelings. Then in doing so they will probably liberate and aid the expression of the lives of thousands of others; and so will have the pleasure of helping without the unpleasant sense of laying anyone under an obligation."15

We are rediscovering in a faltering way some of the understandings of this broken socialist tradition. It is not nostalgia for a cosy past or an archaism which would lift their politics intact, but because the present movement of capitalist society is pressing hard on our private consciousness, forcing intimacy into politics. Slowly and laboriously I can open my eyes and peer into that intense world of long ago with recognition. Those feelings in the small of the back seem no longer exclusive and private but part of a continuing opposition to capitalism. Even though it remains unclear quite how they fit into the agenda.

 

NOTES

1. Arthur Calder-Marshall, Havelock Ellis, London 1959, p. 71.
2. Marshall, Ellis, p. 74.
3. E. P. Thompson, 'Homage to Tom Maguire' in Asa Briggs and John Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History, London, 1960.
4. Kate Salt is described in Stephen Winsten, Salt and his Circle, London, 1951.
5.The friendship is mentioned in Charles Ashbee Memoirs mss. Victoria and Albert Museum; in Charles Ashbee, Journal, and in G. Lowes Dickenson, Correspondence, Kings College, Cambridge.
6. Ed. Gilbert Beith, Edward Carpenter An Appreciation, London, 1931, p. 36.
7. Edward Carpenter, Love's Coming of Age, 12th edition 1923, p. 22. The first edition of the book appeared in 1896.
8. Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, London, 3rd edition February 1918, pp. 195-6.
9. Carpenter, Love's Coming of Age, pp. 69-85.
11. I owe these comments on Carpenter's views of homosexuality to Graeme Woolaston, 'Edward Carpenter on Homosexuality', (Gay Culture Society, London School of Economics, duplicated paper). London,1971.
12. E. M. Forster, Maurice, Terminal Note, London, Penguin Ed., 1975, p. 217.
13. Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, p. 321.
14. England Arise, in Carpenter, Chants of Labour, A Song Book of the People. 6th edition 1922, pp. 18-19. The first edition of the book appeared in 1888.
15. Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, p. 322.