Urning

Colm Tóibín

  • Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham
    Verso, 565 pp, £24.99, October 2008, ISBN 978 1 84467 295 0

‘On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf noted, ‘human character changed.’ It was hard in or about March 1977 in Barcelona not to feel that human character had changed again, or had changed back, or might change more. Franco was less than 18 months dead, and many of the sights and images in the city were puzzling. One day, as I stood watching a newly formed Communist group march by, I saw in the middle of the marchers a barman whom I had grown to love for his winning smile and general meekness. His fist was raised; he was roaring out some radical slogan. He was not simply looking for better wages for barmen, but wanted, it seemed, something new for all mankind.

Another night, as I wandered in the Plaza Real, I set about enticing two nice Catalan boys back to my flat. As we had a drink, they explained that they had joined the Socialist Party and were going to meetings twice a week and putting up posters. They had joined, they said, because they were demanding rights for homosexuals and believed that the socialists would deliver these rights. Everyone should join, they said, there were not just going to be better wages and freedom of expression and the right to speak Catalan in public now the dictator was dead, but there was going to be equality for gay people, and it was going to be won not by cruising in squares at night and sneering at the authorities by day, but by joining together the ideas of socialism and sexual freedom.

And then there were others who were moving out of the city, who wanted to start communes in half-dead villages in the mountains, or in empty houses close to the coast. They were talking about vegetarianism and India and the right not to work if you didn’t want to. And others who became diehard nationalists and gathered in Plaza San Jaime on a Sunday evening, proudly doing their national dance in the same space where their parents and grandparents had danced. The police would often come to break this up, and the battle would become much more exciting because suddenly from one side of the square a group of long-haired youths would emerge waving black flags and black handkerchiefs. They were the first anarchists to appear in the city for forty years, the ideological descendants of those who had briefly taken and held it in 1936, as well as those tortured and executed at the end of the 19th century for throwing bombs.

In 1897 Edward Carpenter, among others, had joined a small group outside the Spanish Embassy in London to protest against the treatment of the anarchists in Barcelona. Carpenter wrote the preface for a leaflet called ‘Revival of the Inquisition’, which argued, perhaps incorrectly, that the bomb they were accused of throwing was in fact thrown by an agent provocateur.

Woolf’s view that human character had changed arose from a similar set of circumstances as those in Barcelona. Not only had the queen died, but so had her son, Edward VII. Not only were the lower orders less meek as each day went by, but they were reading books and pamphlets, slowly getting ideas about improving their own lot and the lot of mankind. Not only was a new movement growing which supported equality among the classes, and wanted to see mass literacy and powerful trade unions, but it also had ideas about equality for women, and for men who liked having sex with other men, or wearing sandals, or going around naked. Change involved the sudden right of people brought up on roast beef to eat only raw carrots and brown rice, or people raised in the Church of England and the old Empire to talk freely to mad old Indians. Change involved the right of George Bernard Shaw to say that the long lying-in-state of the dead queen was a danger to public health, and for the slow emergence of figures such as D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster, who would dramatise in novels the end of restriction and the beginning of new possibilities for human freedom. In the middle of all this wandered the poet, socialist, free-thinker and sexual rebel Edward Carpenter, who became one of the most influential figures of the age because of a mixture in his personality of considerable energy, fearlessness, an ability not to make enemies, an innocence and an openness to new ideas about social and spiritual progress.

Carpenter was born in 1844 and attended Cambridge, where he took orders and had sexual dreams about his fellow students. Having left Cambridge, unhappy with its stuffiness, he began to give lectures to working men and women in the North of England. Eventually he moved to Sheffield where, having inherited capital on the death of his father, he built a house, Millthorpe Cottage, near the village of Holmesfield, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.

In 1874 he wrote to Walt Whitman, whose work he had first read six years earlier. ‘Because you have,’ he wrote, ‘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.’ What was strange about Carpenter in these early years was that his homosexuality did not make him timid or fearful; instead, with the help of Whitman’s poetry, it lit a fire in him which made him interested in all kinds of freedom and progress, made him eloquent, outspoken and spiritually curious. It made him seek allies and draw people towards him, including those who had more interest in socialism or trade unionism than in homosexuality. He managed all his life to defeat, or at least to defuse, that tendency in left-wing movements to view homosexuality with more rigid disapproval than any church ever has. In The Road to Wigan Pier, written after Carpenter’s death, Orwell wrote in exasperation about the left’s tendency to attract every ‘fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England’. In a letter, he attacked ‘the sort of eunuch type with a vegetarian smell, who go about spreading sweetness and light … readers of Edward Carpenter or some other pious sodomite’.

Carpenter met Whitman in person when he travelled to America in 1877. This first meeting with the poet and the 19-year-old farm-boy who was his companion inspired Carpenter not only in his homosexuality and his poetry – he wrote some bad poetry – but in his view that there was a new class of ‘working artisans’ rising, and that ‘there is undoubtedly an entirely new (social) state of affairs coming about through their rise, and I hail it with delight.’ His increasingly open homosexuality came hand in glove with socialism. He liked the working class both in practice and in theory, by night and by day. Just as he pursued young men with energy and abandon, so too he wrote copious articles for journals and gave many lectures promoting radical causes.

For Carpenter and men like him, including Forster, fellows of their own class were stiff and filled with phobias. Carpenter and his kind longed for the strong arms and unselfconscious attentions of young men from the lower classes. John Addington Symonds, who was, with Carpenter, the bravest and most outspoken among homosexual writers in England in these years, held what he called ‘the wolf’ at bay until 1877, when he met a ‘strapping young soldier with … frank eyes and a pleasant smile’ in a male brothel in London. He was intrigued by the fact that his partner seemed to feel no guilt.

As a socialist Carpenter followed no party line; he had been more affected by the writings of Thoreau and, indeed, Whitman about how mankind should share the fruits of its work and of the world than by, say, Marx. He believed in leisure more than he believed in work, he believed in free thinking more than he believed in doctrine, he believed in the spirit as much as he believed in the material world, he believed in the personal as much as he believed in the political. He offered questions rather than solutions. And while he was uneasy about offering his own lifestyle as a paradigm, it was taken as one by those who followed him or sought his advice.

It would be easy to read Carpenter as a crank, a soft-hearted nuisance. Sheila Rowbotham’s book is immensely valuable because she understands the wide range of left-wing ideas about progress in Victorian society and its aftermath, which is the context in which Carpenter lived, and thus can see how original and influential Carpenter sometimes was, and how brave, far-seeing and often intelligent. And also how funny and strange.

‘I have not founded any community,’ Carpenter said, ‘nor have any intention of founding one.’ Nonetheless, his open house and novel habits meant that his alternative lifestyle, in its mixture of pure simplicity and vast complexity, was widely discussed. He made the rules up as he went along. Having fallen in love with George Hukin, a handsome skilled craftsman, he then wondered what to do when Hukin got married. Hukin wrote to him with one possible solution:

I do wish you would sleep with us sometimes, Ted, but I don’t know whether Fannie would quite like it yet and I don’t feel I could press it on her anyway. Still I often think how nice it would be if we three could love each other so that we might sleep together sometimes without feeling that there was anything wrong in doing so.

Carpenter’s ‘own sense of sexual alienation’, Rowbotham writes, ‘made him prepared to question established moral assumptions’. He was an early and enthusiastic supporter of prison reform in Britain. As a result of a journey to India, he became a critic of the empire and its values and sense of superiority. He made this clear both in lectures and in his travel book From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta: Sketches in Ceylon and India. He was also deeply opposed to vivisection and believed it was Labour’s duty ‘to defend the dumb animals and creatures weaker than itself against the horrible exploitation of so-called Science’. He became, as the 1890s went on, a tireless lecturer with a wide range of topics; crowds of a thousand people would come to hear him. He enjoyed lecturing more than he did listening. ‘While he staunchly supported humanitarian causes,’ Rowbotham writes, ‘he found some humanitarians terrible bores.’ He was an early supporter of the Independent Labour Party because he saw it as a broad church of left-wing supporters, trade unionists and reformers; he urged it to ‘keep broad’. ‘It was always the movement rather than the party itself that he cherished,’ Rowbotham writes. ‘All those years of fissile sects with their inviolable certainties had bred in Carpenter, and in many other socialists, a yearning for a broad labour movement connected by a shared mentality rather than by strict doctrine.’

In 1891 Carpenter met the love of his life, George Merrill. He spotted Merrill on a train, where they ‘exchanged a few words and a look of recognition’. Merrill got off at the same station as Carpenter and shadowed him and his companions as they walked in the countryside – Carpenter was a great walker. Carpenter moved away from his friends to speak to Merrill, and secured his address. Merrill was 22 years younger than Carpenter and from a working-class background. He had had a number of homosexual relationships with older, wealthier men before he met Carpenter. He knew what he was looking for. Merrill, Carpenter saw, was ‘at ease and quite himself in any society, aristocratic or vagabond’. He delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’ and loved the fact that his new companion appeared not to know too much about Christianity. (On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night at Gethsemane, Merrill asked: ‘Who with?’) The relationship between the two, which lasted almost four decades, is one of the best-charted versions of homosexual life in this period, rivalling in its documentary value the lives of Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement, and differing from them in its calm, domestic bliss and lack of a tragic ending.

Soon after meeting Merrill, Carpenter began a correspondence with Symonds, The question for both of them was how to explain their own homosexuality to the English public: how much to use ancient Greek homosexuality as the basis for demanding tolerance, for example, or whether to employ biological, physiological or psychological explanations for their sexual feelings. There was something so earnest in Carpenter’s make-up, so innocent and almost foolish, that there was no question, once the subject began to preoccupy him, of leaving it alone. He saw it in the larger context of sexual and social freedom. ‘Carpenter,’ Rowbotham writes, ‘was intervening in an arena which was busy, confused and potentially explosive.’

Between 1893 and 1894 he wrote four pamphlets about sexuality. They included Homogenic Love, which was about homosexuality; the others had titles like Woman and Her Place in a Free Society (Carpenter was a passionate supporter of women’s suffrage). This was consistent, as Rowbotham points out, with his ‘tendency to seek out broad alliances rather than to isolate himself. Moreover the other pamphlets gave Homogenic Love a degree of cover.’ While the pamphlets not dealing with homosexuality were published by the Labour Press in Manchester, Homogenic Love was privately printed and circulated. In it, Carpenter dealt with homosexuality in Greece and outlined contemporary research in Europe on the matter. ‘He derived,’ Rowbotham writes, ‘two broad conclusions … attraction to one’s own sex was congenital, and far more common than was popularly assumed.’

He sent the pamphlet off in bundles early in 1895, which was unfortunate timing, being just before the Wilde trial. The spectre of Wilde would haunt men like Carpenter. It was profoundly mysterious even to one of Carpenter’s closest friends, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, that ‘popular opinion hasn’t managed’ to put Carpenter ‘into prison and murder him … We must be thankful for small mercies.’ But there were enormous differences between Carpenter and Wilde. While Carpenter made his own homosexuality clear, he was careful with whom he associated. He once went to a brothel in Paris, but does not seem to have done so in England. He liked sleeping with men he knew, whose company he enjoyed; he had many long-lasting relationships. He does not seem to have liked paying for sex or associating with figures who might later blackmail him. Or portraying his sexuality as an affront to decency. He was careful in his village to maintain warm relations with his neighbours, including the vicar. This was upset somewhat in 1908 by a local man called O’Brien, who accused Carpenter of ‘vice’ and ranted a great deal. But Carpenter survived this. By behaving openly and earnestly, he managed somehow not to seem a dangerous outsider. His eccentricities were tinged with innocence rather than arrogance. Thus, in general, no one seemed to mind him or bother much reporting him to the police.

Carpenter presented homosexuality to the world with considerable care and ambiguity. Although he sought its decriminalisation, he was interested not merely in demanding rights but in suggesting that he and people like him aspire to something noble and beautiful to which all mankind should aspire. At the end of his book The Intermediate Sex, which he published in 1908, Carpenter wrote:

I have said that the Urning men in their own lives put love before money-making, business success, fame and other motives which rule the normal man. I am sure that it is also true of them that they put love before lust … I believe it is true that Uranian men are superior to the normal man in this respect – in respect of their love-feeling – which is gentler, more sympathetic, more considerate, more a matter of the heart and less of mere physical satisfaction than that of ordinary men. All this flows naturally from the presence of the feminine element in them, and its blending with the rest of their nature.

‘Urning’ men and ‘Uranian’ men are his terms for homosexuals.

As Rowbotham makes very clear, Carpenter was skilful at avoiding trouble, or even argument; he tended to make connections rather than enemies. He did not enjoy the spirit of confrontation within the trade-union movement, for example, and became interested in the eight-hour day because he believed in free time and the new energies it might release among workers, not because he saw it as a right workers must wrest from their employers. In meetings in the late 1880s he ‘set out to construct a broad highway between the gradualist statism of the Fabians and the “midsummer madness” of the anarchists’. Carpenter, Rowbotham writes,

was an impressive synthetic thinker, and, indeed, this was how he had reached a wide readership among workers as well as the educated middle class. One of his skills lay in engaging with what constituted the current common sense and then steering what was assumed deftly leftwards. He possessed a redoubtable knack too of sliding subversion through the narrowest slits, a cunning diplomatic ability that Harold Picton [an associate] noted him applying when arguing the case of the intermediate sex.

Slowly, Carpenter became known as someone who could be written to by lonely young gay men in England. As Rowbotham writes, he became

the visible figure challenging conventional morality in a period when such alternative approaches were under siege. As a result, Carpenter’s personal life became ineradicably connected to his politics. This had problematic and burdensome implications for a free spirit … Being a homosexual man and a left-wing sexual rebel in a period of moral panic, he had limited space in which to manoeuvre. Yet manoeuvre he did.

One of his assets was a lack of certainty or of dogmatic views on homosexuality. ‘In his writing on homosexuality,’ Rowbotham points out,

Carpenter oscillated between congenital approaches and appeals to culture, nor could he decide for a case for explicit difference and theories of a shared bisexuality. While being emotionally sure of his own congenital attraction to men rather than women, his politics led him to believe that very particular experience of oppression carried an alternative possibility for universal enfranchisement and intellectually he inclined to a dynamism without boundaries.

One of the problems Carpenter had was how to integrate George Merrill into his life. Merrill was not just a bit of rough, but a needy, intelligent and often melancholy bit of rough, who could feel jealous when Carpenter’s affections and attentions wandered. Although he was not educated, and did not read Carpenter’s work, Merrill was happy to go to plays by Ibsen and Maeterlinck and read novels by Hardy and Lawrence. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, it was hard to know what to do with him. He worked at various jobs, but none successfully. As Millthorpe Cottage was becoming a haven for free-thinkers, sandal wearers and stray homosexuals, Merrill had to be kept apart. It took until 1898 for Carpenter to decide that Merrill should come and live there and share his life in full.

Merrill was not made for country life; he decamped to the village pub most evenings. Soon, however, he began to enjoy the domesticity, and devoted himself to cooking and cleaning. (Forster claimed that Merrill’s much praised cooking always made him ill.) He also enjoyed travelling with Carpenter and slowly became accepted by most of Carpenter’s friends, while being disliked by a few others. In his autobiography, My Days and Dreams, Carpenter wrote:

Merrill from the first developed quite a talent for housework. He soon picked up the necessary elements of cookery, vegetarian or otherwise, he carried on the arts of washing, baking and so forth with address and dispatch, he took pride in making the place look neat and clean, and insisted on decorating every room that was in use with flowers … Thus we settled down, two bachelors keeping the mornings intact for pretty close and rigorous work, and the afternoons and evenings for more social recreation.

Among those who wrote to Carpenter and sought him out were Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Forster, who became a close friend. By the time he made contact in 1913, Forster was already a well-known writer. He regarded Carpenter as ‘a saviour’. It is not hard to imagine how Merrill viewed all these adoring new arrivals, many of them posh, nervous and self-conscious. He seems to have known what to do with them and how to make himself useful to them. Forster later wrote in the afterword to Maurice, his posthumously published novel about what had happened to him at Millthorpe:

George Merrill – 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 any thought.

Soon afterwards, Forster exclaimed in his diary: ‘Forward rather than back. Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter! Edward Carpenter!’ When he went home, he sat down and wrote Maurice, which he sent to Carpenter in August 1914. He was admitted into the inner circle. Forster compared Carpenter’s personality to that of a religious teacher, a guru perched in Sheffield: ‘It depended on contact and couldn’t be written down on paper, and its effect was to increase one’s vitality, so that one went away better able to do one’s work. One’s own work not his; it was an influence, not a doctrine. It suggested the direct transference of power.’ The charm was not universally received, however. Lytton Strachey always greeted Carpenter’s name ‘with a series of little squeaks’ and, according to Rowbotham, ‘disdained the Carpenterian simple life nearly as much as heterosexual copulation’.

Of all the young men who came to stay, the one who left the most interesting account was a rich and rare young American, Chester Alan Arthur III, who was on a mission to study homoerotic activity among the volunteers of the Irish revolution. This, as we can fully understand, did not take him long and so he returned to see Carpenter when the sage was 80. More than forty years later he gave Allen Ginsberg an account of Carpenter’s sexual skills. ‘At last his hand was moving between my legs and his tongue was in my belly-button. And then when he was tickling my fundament just behind the balls and I could not hold it any longer, his mouth closed just over the head of my penis and I could feel my young vitality flowing into his old age.’ In the morning, the old goat did it again, after which Merrill arrived with two cups of tea and another lodger sponged Carpenter and the young American down with a wet towel.

Chester Alan Arthur III also recounted that Carpenter told him that he had had sex with Whitman in 1877. If this is the case, it is of considerable interest because Arthur went on to have an affair with Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in On the Road. This connects the great old poet of the roads with the Beat Generation with only two degrees of separation – Carpenter and Arthur. It is a sign of Rowbothom’s seriousness and scrupulousness as a biographer that she is careful with this material and, with good reason, suspicious of its complete accuracy. For my own part, I believe every word of it.

For someone like Carpenter, an eternal optimist and idealist, the First World War came as a disaster. He disliked taking sides, was always happier nailing his colours to both sides of the fence and then making further openings in it, hoping that no one would notice, or mind too much. He misread the Russian Revolution, presuming that it would be the beginning of seismic change in other European countries, including Britain. He believed that ‘social conflict within combatant countries could be a force for peace; this “rising democracy” carried the seeds of a new global order.’ He agitated more actively against conscription than against the war itself; he began to take the war personally only when there was a possibility that Merrill would be conscripted. ‘The very idea,’ he said, ‘of our little oasis being broken up is intolerable.’ It is a sign of his cheerfulness, or perhaps even of his foolishness, that ‘he managed,’ as Rowbotham puts it, ‘to hang on to his broad utopianism throughout the First World War.’

He stood firm in a dark time for a new way of living in the world, a way freed from Victorian habits. In his autobiography, published in 1916, he attacked the Victorian era for its

commercialism in public life … cant in religion, pure materialism in science, futility in social conventions, the worship of stocks and shares, the starving of the human heart, the denial of the 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 banning of women from every natural and useful expression of their lives.

Most of this speech could equally have been made in Barcelona in 1977 (and indeed others places since then, including Ireland and Scotland, not to speak of England and poor little Wales), and would have been listened to with hope and pleasure and would have meant something to those who were trying to construct a new social order.

In 1921, Carpenter and Merrill moved to Guildford to be nearer London. Carpenter continued to see old friends, support good causes and write many letters, including to Ramsay MacDonald, an old associate, when he became prime minister in 1924. MacDonald replied, moaning about the burden of office: ‘I can but turn my face in the right direction and stagger on a few steps; then a rest and on again.’ For his 80th birthday, Carpenter received vast numbers of tributes from all over Britain, from the TUC as well as his old neighbours from Sheffield, including once more the vicar, and old warriors such as Annie Besant and Roger Fry. In those years, you would have been an awful bastard not to have liked Edward Carpenter and wanted to pay tribute to him.

George Merrill died in 1928, Carpenter the following year at the age of 84. Special tributes were paid to him by the prime minister, the home secretary and the lord privy seal. The Labour Party had become the ruling class, representing a victory for one of the many causes Carpenter had espoused. Many of the other causes, including the legalisation of homosexuality, would have to wait until human character changed even further, until it was ready to catch up with the character of Edward Carpenter in all its restlessness and belief in progress of all kinds.