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Carpenter, Edward (1844-1929)
by Allen, Renée

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Edward Carpenter 1844-1929

Anglican cleric, itinerant professor, socialist, poet, anarchist, pioneer of gay liberation, and often considered a prophet.

Edward Carpenter came from a large middle-class family in Brighton. He was educated at Cambridge, ordained into the Anglican church, and became a fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1867, when Leslie Stephen left. In the years following his appointment, his skepticism about religion and the English middle- and upper-classes, in combination with his reading of Walt Whitman's works, inspired Carpenter to make radical life changes. In 1873 he resigned his position at Cambridge to become an itinerant lecturer in the north of England as part of a utopian movement to improve class relations through education. Carpenter felt compelled to share this decision with Whitman and so began corresponding with him in 1873. In 1877 he traveled to the United States in order to meet Whitman; he was thoroughly satisfied with this trip, during which he also met Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and several other New England Celebrities. On a second voyage to America in 1884, he was disappointed to find Whitman had become self-centered and something of an apologist for capitalism.

After leaving Cambridge, Carpenter sought to live a simple rural life that hoped would involve “whole-bodied” as well as whole-hearted comradeship. This often meant living with married couples and their families. He also lived for a while on John Ruskin's St. George's Farm, before purchasing his own farm at Millthorpe in 1883 with money inherited when his parents died.

Shortly after they met in the early 1880's, Carpenter joined Havelock Ellis's “Fellowship of the New Life,” a faction of which became the Fabian Society in 1884. Carpenter remained on good terms with both groups. He studied the Bhagavad-Gita and even traveled to India in 1890 to learn more about Hinduism. He was also friends with Emma Goldman and often supported socialist causes financially and in print. However, his preference for personal politics over national movements, his opposition to any theory that claimed to be the final answer to society's problems, and his eclecticism made him as much an anarchist as a socialist. Carpenter believed that society would develop by a process he called “exfoliation,” a form of Lamarckian evolution propelled by will in which society was expected throw off its successive skins (e.g. capitalist institutions) as it outgrew them.

Carpenter was also an advocate of women's liberation. He regarded marriage in England as both enforced celibacy and a form of prostitution. He did not believe women would truly be free until a socialist revolution occurred. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, however, this led him to conclude that all oppressed workers should support women's emancipation, rather than to subordinate women's rights to worker's rights. Olive Schreiner, Edith Lees (later Mrs. Havelock Ellis), and his six sisters were among the people who helped to edit his writings on women.

Carpenter first met John Addington Symonds in 1892 after the latter had begun collaborating with Ellis on Sexual Inversion. Carpenter supplied Symonds and Ellis with his own history, as well as numerous other case studies of homosexuals. Though many of his poems were openly homoerotic, including his most famous, the Whitmanesque “Towards Democracy,” Carpenter did not write specifically about homosexuality until 1894, when he published Homogenic Love: and its Place in a Free Society privately. This pamphlet, which defended homosexuality as both natural and normal, was the fourth in a series on sexual liberation. The others were collected under the title Love's Coming of Age in 1896, but Homogenic Love could not be added until 1906 due to publishers' fear—after the Oscar Wilde trials in 1895—of publishing any material on homosexuality; even Ellis's Sexual Inversion had to be published in German translation before Ellis could find a British publisher.

In 1908 Carpenter published The Intermediate Sex, one of the first books to present homosexuality positively to a general audience. As the title implies, he considered homosexuals (men and women) a third sex whose members had the bodies of men and the emotional lives usually associated with women, or vice versa. Carpenter adapted this view from German sexologist Karl Ulrichs whose terms for homosexuals, “urnings” or “uranians,” he also borrowed; derived from the Greek word for heaven, these terms emphasize the spiritual aspects of love over more earthly desires.

In 1898, six years after they first met on a train, George Merrill moved in with Carpenter at Millthorpe and, more or less accidentally, became his sole companion. They lived openly together until Merrill died in 1928. Carpenter's life and writings influenced the works of his friend E.M. Forster, but Merrill was the model for the title character in Maurice. When Carpenter himself died the following year, he was buried together with Merrill.

—Renée Allen


  • Dawson, Simon. “Bibliography”, The Edward Carpenter Archive
  • McCracken, Scott. “‘I am the lover and the loved-I have lost and found my identity’: Edward Carpenter and fin-de-siècle Masculinities.”Signs of Masculinity: Men in Literature 1700 to the Present. Ed. Anthony Rowland et al. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998. 139-61.
  • Rowbotham, Sheila. ““Commanding the Heart”: Edward Carpenter and Friends.” Victorian Values: Personalities and Perspectives in Nineteenth-Century Society. Ed. Gordon Marsden. London: Longman, 1990. 199-210.
  • Taylor, Philip. “Biographical Note. ”The Edward Carpenter Archive
  • Tsuzuki, Chushichi. Edward Carpenter, 1844-1929: Prophet of Human Fellowship. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

Selected Works by Carpenter

  • Chants of Labour (1888)
  • Civilization, Its Cause and Cure (1889)
  • England Arise: a Socialist Marching Song (1886)
  • From Adam's Peak to Elephanta (1892)
  • Towards Democracy (1883, new parts added through 1902, four parts collected in 1905)
  • My Days and Dreams (1916)

Possible terms to combine with Carpenter to search for more information

  • anarchy/anarchism
  • art-relation to life
  • Fabianism
  • feminism
  • homosexuality
  • religion-relation to life
  • socialism
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