Edward Carpenter by Victoria Roskams
Illustration by Jon McCormack
Victoria C. Roskams is a writer from the Midlands who is mainly interested in literature, music, and pop culture, or ideally anything combining all three. She has recently been researching the role of music in queer writing of the fin de siècle.
A touch on the buttocks was how I first heard about Edward Carpenter. Not my own, but E.M. Forster’s. Immersed in Forster’s gay classic Maurice, I read at the end how the author had been, miraculously, impregnated with the idea for the novel’s cross-class fantasy by a touch on the buttocks he had – we must assume innocuously on both sides – received from one George Merrill, lover of Edward Carpenter. A quick flick to the glossy photo pages in the middle of a biography presented me with a photo of the couple: Merrill, blithe and vigorous-looking, one hand thrust in his pockets, the other holding Carpenter’s arm quite casually; Carpenter, perhaps less relaxed, with his suit and watch-chain; both shooting warmly challenging looks down the lens, eyes glinting. (I would later learn that the beard and wide hat worn by Carpenter in this photo were adapted in imitation of Walt Whitman, and if there was something of the Messiah in the way the American poet gathered like-minded disciples around him, Carpenter’s effect over the pond was not too far off).
It seems unreasonable to reduce the impact of so prolific a figure as Carpenter to this mere biographical detail: his career, spanning the Victorian and Edwardian periods, saw him leave his large, affluent Brighton family to study at Cambridge, becoming a priest, mathematician, astronomer, lecturer, poet, social reformer, and farmer (he even, I found out to my joy, dabbled in composing – unpublished but not unenjoyable piano tunes). To an extent, his importance as a gay figure can be gleaned from looking at many of his works – for instance, Homogenic Love, a frank and reasoned discussion of homosexuality, written in 1894 and published privately in 1896 at Carpenter’s insistence, despite the repressive atmosphere following the infamous trials of the yet-more infamous Oscar Wilde. By 1908 he managed to bring his ideas into the public sphere with the publication of The Intermediate Sex, again making cases in favour of acceptance of homosexuality that are remarkable in predating its legalisation by nearly 60 years. His work is full of ideas I’d never expected to find in writing from over a century ago. It’s humblingly similar to the way we think now. Like many today, Carpenter saw sexuality and gender as fluid, and binaries as socially constructed (incidentally, his impatience with the social constructs governing Victorian women’s lives made him an advocate of women’s rights too). Like us, he saw that labelling and self-identification could be freeing and fulfilling, but also futile and frustrating, leading to misconceived stereotypes and narrow definitions which curbed individuality. I’d even go so far as to say he thought along similar lines to our modern concept of intersectionality. He understood that many – though by no means all – of the same systems oppressed gay people as oppressed women, as oppressed the working class. Freedom, for Carpenter, was not just sexual but social.
Happily, Carpenter put his utopian ideas into practice very literally, and this is why, as fantastic as his writing is, he’s an inspirational figure: purely for the life he lived. The image of him with his working-class lover Merrill might prompt cries of sexploitation and class tourism, but the couple lived a deeply equal, committed life together. Setting up in Millthorpe, a hamlet in Derbyshire, they devoted themselves to farming and the local community, though Carpenter still worked on his writing, and they attended to their home’s burgeoning status as a place of gay pilgrimage. Think Ladies of Llangollen, the late-eighteenth-century couple who eschewed noble marriages to set up in the Welsh countryside, attracting poets and society figures from across the country to marvel at their domestic bliss: only Carpenter and Merrill were even more engaged with their literary visitors (imagine how the world might have been had one of the Ladies patted Byron on the backside).
Not everyone was so tangibly affected by Carpenter and Merrill as Forster. Siegfried Sassoon, war poet, closeted homosexual, and closeted socialist, found Carpenter’s writing eye-opening, and while in recuperation in 1917 kept up a correspondence with him. After reading The Intermediate Sex aged 24, Sassoon described the author as “the leader and the prophet” (a Whitman parallel which must surely have delighted Carpenter). In some ways, Sassoon’s reaction to finding these incredible writings is very of its time – he speaks of growing up blinded by prejudice, assuming it wasn’t even possible to be attracted to his own sex – but in other ways, his reaction feels a lot like mine. He is amazed and delighted at someone setting out his views in a time which had seemed so repressive. Carpenter was fond of naturalistic, almost spiritual imagery about light bursting forth, and that seems apt here: clear light illuminating the fog of the society in which he insisted on making himself known. What’s more, Sassoon sees clearly how Carpenter’s attitude towards sexual liberation comes from a fervent socialist feeling. No doubt Sassoon’s anti-war stance derived almost wholly from the atrocities he witnessed on the front lines of World War One, but in Carpenter he found a fellow pacifist, a writer who had already given voice to Sassoon’s ideas before they became known to him. Likewise, Sassoon’s feelings for other men developed within him over time, and Carpenter provided a parent-like figure, someone who had already experienced and made sense of his situation. The joy of his writing, his unrelentingly productive perseverance, is that he can continue to cut such a figure long after his death.
For many of us now, it’s difficult to grasp the enormity of Carpenter and Merrill’s daring in openly living together as lovers when relationships like theirs were still illegal. Of course, London could never have stood them – they had to make their statement from the relative obscurity of Millthorpe – but I find something sweetly idyllic in the image of their country life together: rolling hills and open air, when so much of homosexual life at this time took place in the subterfuge of public toilets and known ‘spots’ in cities’ underbellies. I find it remarkable that they could live this way, peacefully, lovingly (after Merrill’s death, Carpenter lived only another year, as if their time on earth really had been devoted to one another). In photos of Carpenter, I am always drawn to his eyes: alert, profound, ever-seeking and yet content – those of a visionary, and one whose vision remains astounding in its prescience and relevance.
Jon McCormack is an Irish illustrator and storyboard artist based in Barcelona, Spain. His work focuses on surreal imagery, queer identity and absurd humour.