Sexual Politics

Michael Neve

  • Edward Carpenter, 1844-1929: Prophet of Human Fellowship by Chushichi Tsuzuki
    Cambridge, 237 pp, £15.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 521 23371 2

The British were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient and generous. Traditional values lost much of their force. Other values took their place. Imperial greatness was on the way out: the welfare state was on the way in. The British Empire declined: the condition of the people improved. Few now sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Few even sang ‘England Arise’. England had risen all the same.

Thus A.J.P. Taylor, in his English History 1914-1945, of 1965. Who can believe it now, either as an idea of England, or as a starting piece for a collection of English writings from the early 1950s? And who can even remember ‘England Arise’? Who recalls who wrote it, or the England that it called out to?

The author of the hymn was Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), the dimly remembered socialist, vegetarian, mystic and sandal-wearer. Carpenter is slowly being dragged back into the present by a variety of interests and pressures, the most obvious being the campaign for homosexual rights and the reprinting of various pamphlets and political statements that support this movement. Chushichi Tsuzuki’s useful but unimaginative biography, with its Cambridge imprint, makes this revival official. Even ‘England Arise’ may receive its dusting-off. The question still remains: what England, and what active relationship might this revival have to Edward Carpenter himself?

Historians, for what it is worth, have never cared much for Carpenter. Peculiar alliances are struck over this dislike, most notably between Taylor himself and E.P. Thompson. The two men united in their pronouncements as to the emptiness of Carpenter’s ‘individualism’, the weedy, private-income vegetarianism that he embodied, the hopeless blend of mysticism and retreatism that took the place of politics. The now semi-legendary Thompson announced in 1955 that Carpenter (unlike, of course, William Morris) represented the cosy intellectualism of those ‘whose aspirations are satisfied today by comfortably converted old cottages on the rural fringes of great towns, a goat in the paddock, and an occasional bout of classless bonhomie and darts in the village pub’. Another contemporary Marxist intellectual, Terry Eagleton, wrote his PhD thesis about Carpenter, but it has never been published, perhaps fitting untidily with the cleansed, scientific precisions of anti-humanist literary criticism of the kind Eagleton now favours. Only one famous historian came out on Carpenter’s behalf: J.H. Plumb. In an essay reprinted in his collection In the Light of History (1969), Plumb surveyed the world of Edwardian cranks, mystics and nature freaks, and gave his opinion: ‘they were right.’ History continues to be the muse of true irony.

This biography does useful service, but not much more, bearing the marks of one kind of worthy but unadventurous labour history. If Carpenter is to make sense in a new version, it will only be because he managed, in an actual historical struggle, to combine politics with other things: sexual emancipation, an anarchism not dismissable on the grounds of irrelevance, and, above all, a sense of humour. There are things to be said all round about this. In terms of anxiety-inducing literary influences, he had his effect on D.H. Lawrence, but not in ways that have to do with a sense of humour. His relationship to sexual emancipation in general is far more intriguing, because it took hold in the international sphere, the world of German sexology, Leo Tolstoy and P.D. Ouspenski. It is very odd that Tsuzuki says nothing of Carpenter’s influence in Japan, where some of his ideas on ‘comrade love’ and sacrificial struggle must have fitted neatly with a range of Japanese codes of conduct, many of them militaristic. Did Yukio Mishima read Edward Carpenter? The answer could matter quite a lot, as this might rescue the vexed question of ‘sexual politics’ from a purely English discussion, and perhaps throw light on other options within sexual radicalism than those of vegetarian socialism. It would also extend the discussion beyond the most important of its English dimensions: that of the fate of muscular Christianity, and the peculiar hybrids that this English ideology grew in the last part of the 19th century.

Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton in 1844 of naval parents, and spent much of his early life living with six sisters. It was the strong impression of the waste in their lives, and of the waste in the lives of Victorian middle-class women in general, that made up his earliest memories of family life. Carpenter then went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1864, straight to the heart of the Broad Church network, and eventually to a fellowship in that college, newly relinquished by Leslie Stephen. In June 1870, he was ordained by the Bishop of Ely, and got to know F.D. Maurice, Professor of Moral Philosophy and proponent of Christian Socialism. Carpenter was also friendly with Henry Fawcett and the mathematician W.K. Clifford (not R.K., as Tsuzuki has it); he also began reading Walt Whitman. After journeying to Italy, and experiencing with Whitman’s verse a whole array of new thoughts (and new doubts), Carpenter came to find the intellectual life of the university ‘a fraud and a weariness’. In June 1874, he relinquished his fellowship.

It is now that sexuality, socialism and the remnants of a Christian background become tangled, as Carpenter set off into ‘England’ as a lecturer in the University Extension Scheme. With unerring skill, he made straight for the Bermuda triangle of modern English camp: Leeds, Halifax and Skipton, lecturing there on astronomy in late 1874. In 1877, he made a ritual pilgrimage to Camden, New Jersey, to visit Walt Whitman; he also called on Emerson at Concord. On returning to England, Carpenter extended his lecturing activities, and Sheffield became his base. He was moving ‘towards democracy’.

The pamphleteering and agitation that Carpenter engaged in during these Sheffield years, as well as the personal liberations which he experienced, seem even more impressive after this biography and the work of others, such as Sheila Rowbotham, on the topic. In ways not important to the Cambridge mind, Carpenter seems to have managed to enter a lively and purposeful socialist environment, making extensive contacts with Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, as well as with local anarchists and social radicals. He published Toward Democracy (1883), and this brought new friends, notably Havelock Ellis. Out of this collaboration came the impulse to complete his theoretical work by writing, not just on the banalities of the money economy, but on ‘intermediate sexual types’ and their place in a revolutionary future. Market-gardening and agitation: on this combination, England was to arise, out of her ‘evil dream of toil and sorrow’. At the same time, reflecting his class ambiguities, Carpenter was able to describe his lower-class companions on the Atlantic crossing as ‘really very nice, orderly and good-natured – we have quite jolly times – only they are too corroded but that is not their fault.’ And Mr Tsuzuki lets slip, in a brief discussion of the Cleveland Street homosexual scandal of 1889, that Carpenter was asked in 1875 to become tutor to Prince Albert Victor (‘Eddy’, Duke of Clarence and implicated in the scandal) and to Prince George, later George V. Carpenter visited Windsor in 1875 to refuse the offer, but ‘retained autographed photographs of the two princes’. The ambiguities abound.

Carpenter’s socialism, and his work in activist politics in Sheffield in the period of the New Unionism of the late 1880s, continued to reflect the Christianity of his Cambridge years. The English working-class male was to be the carrier of a Shelleyan revival, the agent of a libidinal politics that transcended empty liberalism, in an inverted version of the conventional pieties of muscular Christianity. The lasting, if veiled attraction of Christian belief for English thought from Kingsley onwards is receiving attention again, and John Vincent illuminated the historical career of G.M. Trevelyan in exactly that way in the London Review of Books last year. The different social trajectory of Edward Carpenter bears out this analysis, for all the sociological distinctions. It isn’t underestimating the peculiar courageousness of Carpenter’s work in the North, nor a dismissal of it, to continue to find the Broad Church mission visible beneath the outer garments of local socialism and beards and sandals. In being part of the Christian socialist mix, Carpenter was in all senses conventional. And this point is reinforced when he pulls out of active politics to revisit Cambridge in its grandest historical version, a version where the great semi-Platonist, semi-scientific, semi-Christian idea of male fellowship found its most sustaining tutorials: on the passage to India.

Carpenter went to the East in 1890, to peel off his outer self, and effectively ended his English political career. He came back to the world of anti-vivisection, of the Fellowship of the New Life, and to the rise of the Uranians. Employing sexual typologies from German sources, and also using a Lamarckian notion of inherited characteristics, Carpenter outlined his vision. The Uranians, of mixed sexual type and prophetic powers, would initiate ‘a new chivalry’. Women would be rescued from the tombs of orthodox division of labour, bourgeois sexuality overthrown, and a true ‘inner’ democracy would flourish. Nietzsche was now welcomed, as a ‘healthy reaction’ to Christianity; the criminal world contained an idea of democracy in miniature, lying in wait for its realisation; men, and, more important, women, could evacuate the exhausted sexual categories of the Victorian psychiatrists and meet on the higher ground of the battle against a dead ‘civilisation’. The hermaphrodites would legislate.

Carpenter expounded these themes, in a series of books from the 1890s onwards, which have far more power than is understood by this biography, and far less relationship to political practice. It seems more and more difficult to place whatever ‘sexual politics’ Carpenter may have had: he moved away from the one as he gave himself over to the other. By the time of the First World War, he had almost exclusively become a writer on sex questions, with occasional visits to the political front, especially when supporting the suffragette movement. The development of his interest in Eastern philosophy coincided with an absence from the local activism of the 1880s, and at the same time reinforced the high-mindedness of the ex-Fellow of Trinity Hall. The impact of India in the English novel is well understood, its presence in re-conciliatory social philosophy less so. But for figures such as Carpenter, much Buddhist theoretical writing could do the work that secular liberalism did for others, in providing an extravagant language of class politics. It is not derogatory to Carpenter to find the tasks that he asked of sexuality as politics burdensome and peculiarly prone to defeat; and there is something wan in the fact that Carpenter is now probably best remembered for his lover George Merrill having pinched E.M. Forster’s bottom, thus inducing him to write Maurice.

The idea of a Uranian revolution seems perfectly tenable, makes considerable psychological sense, and in many ways it is going on at this moment. But the point must be made that the period since Carpenter’s death has seen new attempts to unite the libidinal and political in various forms, and hence to join sexuality to politics. It must also be admitted that it is hard to think of many real victories in this area, an area that received its most distinguished theoretical support in the writings of Herbert Marcuse. Liberal social theory has always had a sophisticated grasp on the distinctions between the public and the private, in its theories on rights and its notion of democratic activity. To seek a ‘sexual politics’ inside that tradition is obviously foolish, since much of the dignity of liberalism must reside in its refusal to conjoin these private parts to the general conduct of citizens in the polity. The Uranian revolution, the marriage between Eros and Civilisation, demands that such distinctions be dissolved, and that the sexual become the political. And it’s all too easy to point out how this programme has disintegrated, into the fatuities of West Coast hedonism and a ghastly intrusion (and hence extension) of the merely sexual into the whole social fabric. At the end of every corridor in institutions of higher education stands Howard Kirk the History Man.

The whole project may seem implausible, generating the same excitement, and the same confected frisson of spectacle and let-down, as the films of Lindsay Anderson. But the issue is not closed, as the renewal of interest in Carpenter may suggest. A thousand flowers did bloom: some were lowered into the barrels of guns, others placed outside houses in Memphis, Tennessee, and apartments in New York. Many – far too many – have been handed to gurus. The bunches that are left will have to be less widely distributed, as the whole notion of a ‘sexual politics’ is reworked. Could it all make sense, in another version?

The portrait of Edward Carpenter in the National Portrait Gallery asks the question in a striking way. This is Carpenter in 1895, as Bloomsbury (in this case, Roger Fry) captured him. He seems downcast, serious-minded, isolated in a world of glass that reflects him at an odd angle. An awful thought crosses the mind, that Carpenter in fact represents a fastidiousness, an aloofness, a Cambridge donnishness, which, allied to sexual indeterminacy, has left him marooned. The Uranians – whom he tended to see as ascetic and often less sensual than others – suddenly present themselves as ice-cold. If the portrait suggests this, there is a photograph that may answer back, of Carpenter and George Merrill, in front of trees somewhere. It is non-metropolitan, it looks as if they are happy, and makes one think that if England is to arise, the ways this will happen will reflect the continuing polarities of Northern and Southern life in English affairs, polarities that seem more pronounced now, for obvious economic reasons, than for many years. Carpenter certainly had all the 20th-century ambiguities, and more. His politics came – and went – in the North, and he died, remembered but isolated, in a bungalow in Guildford on 29 June 1929.