Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter.jpg

“Because you have, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart … For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is that which passes the love of women.”

— Edward Carpenter in letter to Walt Whitman

Often, the history of the queer community can only be found in whispers. When carefully kept records fail, by accident or malice, we must look for ourselves in between the lines of the world around us. Queer people leave a trail of breadcrumbs meant to speak only to others like them; symbols, side notes, carefully crafted sentences. And these breadcrumbs are what define the life of Edward Carpenter. 

On August 29, 1844, Edward was born into privilege that would fund his lifelong fight for equality. His start was far from a humble one; he was set up for success from the beginning and seemed to follow that place for a time. Educated at Brighton College, he moved on to Trinity Hall in Cambridge. It was there that Carpenter really began to make his mark, even becoming a fellow of Trinity Hall in 1867, following the resignation of Leslie Stephen. Stephen happens to be the father of another person we’ve covered: Virginia Woolf. In 1871, Edward was offered a tutor position for the royal family but declined. 

This is all, of course, to say that he was not lacking in options. In 1868, while living a conventional clerical life, he was given a copy of Walt Whitman’s book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. And though he had known he was gay for some time, though the conventional term was Uranian, Whitman’s work and the way he handled love between men marked a shift in how Carpenter saw himself. He would later write to Whitman:

“Because you have, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart … For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is that which passes the love of women.”

It also sparked a political interest, and soon socialism became a prominent topic in his life. He was forced deep into introspection, and in 1873 he resigned from his position in Cambridge. In changing his life, his first step, like the upper class before him, was to fetishize the working class. 

He would spend much of his life afterward focusing on the virtues of the working man, both morally and physically. As he explored the world, his own view of it began to change. He became a feminist, a socialist, and a vegetarian; when his parents died in 1881, leaving him a significant inheritance, he bought and built a house on 7 acres of land in Millthorpe. This house became an icon, a symbol of Edward’s shift toward labour and self-sufficiency, all of which was bought with his inheritance. 

The Millthorpe house was a place for Edward’s revolutionary ideas to develop and test themselves out in the real world. He was given the chance to fully immerse himself in the lifestyle he loved, and by all reports, he faired well. The place became a centre for socialist thought, nudity, sandal-wearing, and homosexuality. And though it faced mockery for the very same reasons, it not only seemed to suit the people who lived there perfectly, it drew in other like-minded people. Edward was happy with the life he was making, saying:

“We shall show in ourselves that the simplest life is as good as any. We will so adorn it that the rich and idle shall enviously leave their sofas and gilded saloons and come join hands with us in it.”

And it was during his time in Millthorpe that he met a man who became the love of his life, George Merrill. Merrill was significantly below Edward in social class. This, along with being two men, made their relationship a controversial one, but never one that Edward worked hard to hide. 

Though nearby the trial and subsequent persecution of Oscar Wilde was made very public, Edward was in many ways the antithesis to all that was happening. Instead of a man from a humble background pushing his way into upper class, Edward was an upper-class man pushing his way into a humble life, and the life that the two lived went in as different directions as they had started. 

Where Wilde’s community turned against him, Edward built one. In the town near to his home, he was able to keep good relations with most who lived there with little incident. In 1908, a man called O’Brien ranted against Edward’s “vices”, but little came of it. Edward was able to live up front and earnestly by associating with only people he trusted and charming the rest. Wilde’s double life betrayed him. Those he trusted turned their backs on him, and even his own charm was used against him.

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a close friend of Edward’s, said that “popular opinion hasn’t managed” to put Edward “into prison and murder him … We must be thankful for small mercies.”

And because of this small mercy, Edward was able to continue growing his community and began influencing artists such as W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke and D H Lawrence. Most notably, he began a close friendship with the author E.M. Forster. This is notable not because of the author himself, but because of Edward’s influence on him and his work.

George Merrill met E.M. Forster through Edward, and their meeting inspired the novel Maurice. Forster based characters on both George and Edward. Edward himself also wrote, and much of his work would later inform the growth of the queer movement. Prominent names in queer research such as George Ives, Havelock Ellis and even Magnus Hirschfeld would later be affected by Edward’s work and use it to inform their own. And in this, we find some kind of cycle completed. 

Just as he had been reached, he outstretched his hand. His life and his work, which would never have been possible without the work of Walt Whitman, inspired so much important work. In turn, the people who were affected by the work of Edward and those tied to him are now influencing the people around them today.  Maurice is an iconic book within the queer community that led many to a deeper understanding and love for their queerness.  Just as Edward’s life was changed as he picked up Walt Whitman’s book, today queer people all around the world are having their lives changed by work they may not even know Edward had a role in. Slowly, decade by decade, person by person, we teach each other. We grow into love, into happiness, into self-realization; all things that Edward might not have had without the work of Whitman, and other’s may not have had without the life of Edward Carpenter. 

Edward lived to the age of 84. On the 28th of June in 1929, only a year after the death of George Merrill, he passed. The two were together until the very end. Edward had friends, and though he eventually left Millthorpe, he loved his life there, and it treated him well. He was able to find love for himself and his community, and he was able to teach those around him to do the same. That’s all most people could ask for. 

[Disclaimer: Some of the sources may contain triggering material.]