1980s >> 1987 >> no-991-march-1987

Edward Carpenter — a talent wasted

Edward Carpenter was an author, poet and fellow-traveller of the political left-wing and anarchist movement for some thirty or forty years during the Victorian and Edwardian era. His numerous books and essays have been periodically neglected and rediscovered both during his lifetime and since his death in 1929.

Carpenter was born into a well-to-do family in Brighton in August 1844 and educated at Brighton college, France. Switzerland and Germany before going to Cambridge, becoming an Anglican priest in 1870. But Carpenter’s beliefs changed as a result of the influence of F D Maurice’s “Christian Socialist” ideas and he was increasingly drawn towards socialism while starting to have doubts about his religious convictions. Carpenter’s health suffered due to the crisis of conscience he experienced and although a two months’ holiday in Italy in 1873 partially restored his health, he resigned from the ministry in 1874.

From 1874 to 1881 Carpenter worked as a lecturer for the University Extension Scheme in the North of England. Although he found that work uncongenial he became acquainted with the manufacturing centres where he was to settle for the greater part of his life and where most of his writing and political activities took place. In 1882 he bought a smallholding of seven acres in the tiny hamlet of Millthorpe in Derbyshire, situated between Sheffield and Chesterfield, with money inherited from his father. With his independence he started to put into practice his ideas of self-sufficiency and living by manual labour. Carpenter was to write later:

  It had come to me with great force that I would go and throw in my lot with the mass-people and the manual workers. From the first I was taken with the Sheffield people. Rough in the extreme, twenty or thirty years in date behind other towns, and very uneducated, there was yet a heartiness about them, not without shrewdness, which attracted me. I felt more inclined to take root here than in any of the Northern towns where I had been. (My Days and Dreams, 1916).

This self-conscious search for the working-class and romantic view of their qualities was also indulged in by Leo Tolstoy in Russia and fifty years later by George Orwell, also in the North of England. But Carpenter, although just as sentimental in his approach to the workers was neither a philanthropic, titled landowner like Tolstoy nor a mere visitor to the North like Orwell; he spent forty years living by manual labour — admittedly with the security of his £6,000 inheritance.

Carpenter’s growing interest in socialist ideas led him to join the Democratic Federation, having been inspired by reading Hyndman’s England for All, and he donated £300 to launch Justice, the organisation’s journal, in 1884. For a period of about twenty years Carpenter belonged to, or was associated with, a prodigious number of organisations: he was a member of the Fellowship of the New Life, a fore-runner of the Fabian Society and in 1885 he joined the Socialist League and helped William Morris with its paper Commonweal in competition against Justice.

In 1886 Carpenter was one of the founders of the Sheffield Socialist Society and in the same year associated with Freedom Press which produced Freedom, the anarchist newspaper. Charlotte Wilson, the first editor of Freedom and Peter Kropotkin were guests at Millthorpe and addressed the Sheffield Socialist Society. Carpenter was an occasional writer for Freedom and provided some of the material for Kropotkin’s anarchist classic Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899). From the late 1870s onward Carpenter began to develop homosexual relationships (the suppression of which had probably contributed to his ill-health earlier in his life) and to write extensively about the subject.

After a number of relationships Carpenter finally lived openly with George Merrill, whom he had first met in 1890, on his smallholding at Millthorpe from 1898 and later in retirement at Guildford until Merrill’s death in 1928. Carpenter’s courage in living openly with a male lover and continuing to write about homosexuality has to be seen in the context of Victorian attitudes to homosexuality; Oscar Wilde had been sentenced to two years’ hard labour in 1895, although Noel Greig suggests.- “. . . it was the act of treason of taking working-class boys to upper-class clubs which sealed his fate”. (Introduction to Edward Carpenter: Selected Writings 1984. Gay Modem Press), and Havelock Ellis had been prosecuted for writing Sexual Inversion in 1898.

Carpenter was undoubtedly protected by living quietly in the North of England. He avoided serious difficulties although his regular publisher withdrew his books after Oscar Wilde’s trial and a smear campaign in 1909 by a political opponent caused him to lose his seat on the local council. Carpenter was a spokesman for women’s rights, anticipating the women’s liberation movement of this century. Love’s Coming of Age appeared in 1896 and contained some essays which had previously been published. He showed some insight into the nature of sexual relationships under capitalism when he wrote-.

  Yet it must never be forgotten that nothing short of large social changes, stretching beyond the sphere of women only, can bring about complete emancipation of the latter. Not till our whole commercial system, with its barter and sale of human labour and human love for gain, is done away, and not till a whole new code of ideals and customs of life has come in will women really be free. They must remember that their cause is also the cause of the oppressed labourer over the whole earth, and the labourer has to remember that his cause is theirs.

It is surprising that despite realisation that human relationships are debased by capitalism. Carpenter persisted in taking part in single-issue campaigns and to belong to reformist organisations, some of which were in opposition to each other.

In 1886 Carpenter wrote England Arise! which was included in his song-book The Chants of Labour in 1888 and was for several years a rallying song for the labour movement until it was overtaken in popularity by The Red Flag and the Internationale. The passionate nature of Carpenter’s feelings for the poor can be seen in the second verse:

By your young children’s eyes so red with weeping.
By their white faces aged with want and fear.
By the dark cities where your babes are creeping
Naked of joy and all that makes life dear;
From each wretched slum
Let the loud cry come;
Arise. O England, for the day is here!

Although sexual themes, and homosexuality in particular, tended to dominate Carpenter’s writing he remained active in a number of organisations until well into the twentieth century. In 1887 he gave evidence on behalf of some of the demonstrators at the Bloody Sunday riots in London and in 1892 gave evidence for, and mustered support to help, the Walsall Anarchists by publicising the case in Freedom. In court Carpenter described himself as an anarchist; a courageous statement to make when it is almost certain that the police used agent provocateurs to secure convictions in the case.

But in contradiction of his public declaration of anarchist principles Carpenter helped in the foundation of the Independent Labour Party in the following year and in 1895. when attempts were made to obtain an amnesty for the Walsall Anarchists, he wrote for the Labour Leader, the ILP’s journal.

Carpenter was also a champion of animal rights, penal reform, religious toleration and progressive schooling, having been involved in the founding of the progressive school Abbotsholme in 1889. He was interested in dress reform, having abandoned formal attire and popularised the wearing of sandals. But despite calling himself an anarchist on occasions, he had a seat on his local council and supported syndicalism and the parliamentary Labour Party at the same time. And having lost his Christian beliefs he nevertheless became a devotee of oriental mysticism. William Morris was a close friend of Carpenter’s and on several occasions stayed with him at Millthorpe, which became a model for News from Nowhere. Morris wrote:

  I listened with longing heart to his account of his patch of ground, seven acres: he says that he and his fellow can almost live on it: they grow their own wheat, and send flowers and fruit to Chesterfield and Sheffield markets: all that sounds very agreeable to me. (E P Thompson. 1955 William Morris: From Romantic To Revolutionary Merlin Press).

Carpenter continued to write about political topics, editing and contributing to Forecasts of the Coming Century (1897) and a collection of essays: Towards Industrial Freedom in 1917 but he considered his most important work to be Towards Democracy which was published in four instalments from 1883 to 1905 and comprises a series of Whitmanesque prose poems expressing his affinity for oriental mysticism with an occasional, and often moving, declamation against capitalism. In many ways Carpenter epitomises the futility of reformist activity. His participation in reformist movements was neither tactical nor an attempt to gain power or personal advantage but a sincere wish to change society for the better. But society cannot be changed piecemeal: discrimination against different minorities is inherent in capitalism which thrives on weakening workers’ power by creating scape-goats and divisions.

Much of Carpenter’s work is readable, and some of his poetry is quite moving, although some of his ideas about sexual relationships appear dated. He had some insight into the nature of capitalism from the exploitation he had seen for himself in the Sheffield factories but his political ideas were often confused. He was sincere and courageous and devoted his time, talent and money in the fight for a just society but like all reformists he squandered his gifts fighting the symptoms of capitalism instead of wholeheartedly trying to abolish the system itself and replace it with socialism. Nevertheless it is fitting that one of the most neglected of Victorian writers and workers in the cause of labour should be rediscovered.

Carl Pinel