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Edward Carpenter
(1844 - 1929) U.K.

Edward Carpenter

Reformer, poet, philosopher and Gay Rights pioneer


Carpenter came of a naval family, though his father retired early. He became fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge and curate to F. D. Maurice. A visit to Italy, "a new enthusiasm for Greek sculpture... and inspiring friendship", turned his thoughts in a different direction.

In 1874 he abandoned fellowship and orders and moved north, eventually settling at Millthorpe, near Chesterfield, where he pursued, by precept and example, his own concept of Socialism and communal fellowship. He wrote and lectured in supporto of varied progressive causes and his own lifestyle and revolt against middle-class convention (expressed by sandals, vegetarianism, overt homosexuality, praise of manual labour and the working man) became an important symbol of liberation for many, including E. M. Forster.

Of his many writings the best emembered is probably his long poem of very free verses Towards Democracy (published in 4 parts, 1883 - 1902), in which he expresses his millenarian sense of the cosmic consciousness and "spiritual democracy", and of the march of humanity towards "freedom and joy", much influenced by Whitman and the Bhagavadgita.

During his time at Cambridge, Carpenter had a romantic attachment to Andrew Beck but it was broken off when Beck decided to marry and pursue a career as Master of Trinity Hall.

In winter 1889-90, Carpenter met on a train a working-man from the Sheffield slums who was 20-year-old and out of work. The young man became his lover for the next thirty years. This was George Merrill, to whom E. M. Foster owed the magic touch that made him conceive his novel Maurice - Forster's working-man, Alec, is based on George.

Edward CarpenterIn 1898 Merrill moved into Millthorpe, Carpenter's cottage, against the advice of all of Carpenter's friends and remained with him until his death. Their living together brought them both happiness, and it is difficult now to conceive what a radically daring and courageous step it was in 1898. With Merrill, Carpenter kept open house for the immense number of friends in all ranks of life and from all countries who were attracted by his personal charm or his writings.

In a 1911 visit to the British Museum, he found that his book The Intermediate Sex was not listed in the library's card catalogue, and it took two years of pressure to convince the library to even acknowledge to its borrowers that the book existed and was on the shelves.

His autobiography, My Days and Dreams, was published in 1916. In it, without of course being explicit, Carpenter treats his ménage with Merrill with considerable frankness. Many undestood perfectly what was implied in his idyllic portrait of the rural life of two bachelors.

Although a few others wrote privately, clandestinely, or anonymously in favour of same-sex behaviour, Carpenter was the only English writer before WWI who publicly and openly defended homosexuality and the homosexual's rightful place in society.

"Remember, the serpent is still living in the Garden of Eden - only the heterosexual couple was expelled."

Carpenter & Merrill
Edward Carpenter (left) and his partner George Merrill (right)


Source: excerpts from: Aldrich R. & Wotherspoon G., Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History, from Antiquity to WWII, Routledge, London, 2001 - and other sources
Quote source: Globe and Mail, June 27, 1992

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