A Uranian among Edwardians
Edward Carpenter’s visionary sexual radicalismBy John Ryle • 25 January 1985 • The Times Literary Supplement • Selected Writings Volume 1 by Edward Carpenter • Expanded and annotated • Posted 2015 • 3,886 words
1. Invisible foundations
Carpenter came one evening. I remember him vividly. His head and features were of extraordinary beauty, his face a chiselled statue, clear-cut and of perfect outline, his eye bright and kindly, there was refinement in his every movement and in the tone of his voice. One admired and loved him at once.
It was in 1929, the year of Edward Carpenter’s death, that Fenner Brockway—later to become one of Britain’s first Labour peers—published this star-struck recollection of the seventy-year old Carpenter’s arrival, fifteen years earlier, at a young socialists’ gathering in southern England. In politically progressive circles at the time the tone of hero-worship was not unusual. Carpenter was a godfather to the new-born Labour Party, the author of several best-selling and much translated works of radical social theory. He was a recognized poet—composer of the Socialist hymn, “England Arise!”—and a public speaker of renown. For two decades in the 1890s and 1900s he had electrified audiences in the popular Owenite Halls of Science with talks on the inequities of Victorian and Edwardian society and his own millennial vision of the new life to come. This future life, he asserted, was one where men and women would be bound together not by work, nor by commodity relations, but by the force of love.
More remarkable than Carpenter’s political radicalism, however, was the fact that he lived, openly, in a ménage with a working man from Sheffield, George Merrill. And that he had published, at a time when public discourse in England largely precluded unveiled discussion of any aspect of sex, several books advocating the recognition and acceptance of those he termed (following the pioneering Hanoverian writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs) “Uranians”, that is to say—to use a term then recently invented—men such as himself. Further than this, in subsequent writings, Carpenter was to develop a position that was simultaneously more radical and more conservative, arguing, inter alia, that prevailing social conditions dictated that homosexual relationships actually held a greater potential for moral good than those between men and women.
Carpenter’s relationship with George Merrill, which endured until the latter’s death in the 1920s (they are buried together in Guildford), and his attachments to other male companions are the invisible foundations of his three book-length essays on erotic love: Love’s Coming of Age (1896), The Intermediate Sex (1908), and Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk (1914). These essays are collected in the volume under review, which is the first of four planned to cover the whole spread of Carpenter’s work. This welcome project is vitiated only by the omission of the second section of Intermediate Types, a book which is arguably the most interesting and original of Carpenter’s works. (This is the section that covers the homosexual aspect of military life in Ancient Sparta and among the Samurai of Japan.)
2. The dear love of comrades
Born in 1844, Carpenter was a former clerical fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, an academic apostate who sought to escape the clutches of gentility and lead the life of the heart among working men in the Northern towns. Merrill, some years younger, was a barefoot youth from the underclass, an unemployed jack-of-all trades. They met on a train in the winter of 1889-90. Merrill had had a previous sexual relationship with a priest from Aberystwyth, but he remained, by Carpenter’s account, an unlettered innocent. (On one occasion, Carpenter recalled, when he mentioned the Garden of Gethsemane, Merrill asked where such a place might be. Carpenter told him it was the place where Jesus spent his last night on earth. Merrill’s response to this, Carpenter reported, was “Who with?”)
The full story of Carpenter’s relationships with Merrill and other male companions has Noël Grieg, the author of an enthusiastic introduction to the present collection, had a shot at it in his play, The Dear Love of Comrades. Usefully included in the present collection are a fragment of Carpenter’s autobiography, My Days and Dreams, and the anonymous case history he contributed to Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion. (The story could be rounded out with Carpenter’s unpublished account of Merrill’s life, the source of some of the biographical details above, which is in the Carpenter Archive in Sheffield Public Library)., although
It is arguable that Carpenter’s life—and the force of his example—had more significance for his contemporaries than his writings did. E. M. Forster, who testified to Merrill and Carpenter’s role in his own moral development—and who wrote, in Maurice, a novel that has some elements of the life that Carpenter and Merrill lived, remarked shortly after Carpenter’s death that “his books were famous in their day and did much good”. But, he added, they were “unlikely to live many years”. Carpenter’s greatness, according to Forster, was not in his writing but in his life: “He gave the gift of gifts, life itself, the transference of vitality…these things cannot be chronicled”.
Forster’s prediction concerning the fate of Carpenter’s literary oeuvre was accurate in the short term. By the 1940s most of his twenty books were out of print. The TLS referred to him in 1944, his centenary year, as “a problem in literary criticism.” In the early 1970s came the first attempts to claim Carpenter for gay liberation, but it was only in the 1980s, with the revival of interest in questions of sex and gender on the part of socialist thinkers and historians of culture, that his work began to attract the wider scholarly attention it has gained now.
Carpenter’s books surely merit a place in the gender studies curriculum, but they are not quite at ease there. A number of the causes he championed have been fought for and won; and some of his ideas have become part of the climate of opinion. Yet, despite the transformation in our notions of sexual ethics, the moral world we inhabit in the West is not one where Carpenter would have been at home. He abhorred sexual promiscuity and materialism and looked to a future beyond industrial civilization—the “new life” of his public lectures. It is a recurrent strain in his thinking that springs, in part, from the English Christian visionary tradition exemplified by William Blake:
“I can conceive a millennium on earth”, he announced, “a millennium not of riches nor of intellectual facilities, nor absolutely of immunity from pain; but a time when men and women all over the earth shall ascend and enter into a relation with their bodies, shall attain freedom and joy.”