Edward Carpenter (4365 words)


Edward Carpenter was born in Brighton in 1844. His paternal grandfather was an admiral during the wars with revolutionary France, and his father, Charles, served as a naval lieutenant before retiring to practice law, in 1833 marrying Sophia Wilson, the daughter of another officer. The family settled in a genteel part of Brighton. Carpenter studied at Brighton College, as did his three elder brothers, who took posts in colonial administration, the navy and the army respectively. As the youngest brother, the seventh of ten children, Carpenter spent much time in the company of his sisters. He grew to resent the confinements of bourgeois convention, and the gulf between his own class and the poor.

His father’s literary tastes were a key influence: counting Coleridge among his acquaintances, Charles was an enthusiastic student of Fichte and Kant, whose works he read aloud to his family. The liberal clergymen F.D. Maurice and F.W. Robertson were household guests, and he encouraged his children’s friends to read the heretic theist Charles Voysey. Over time Charles stopped attending church and when Edward seemed inclined towards a clerical career, he sought to broaden his horizons by sending him to Heidelberg to study for six months before taking his place at Cambridge. German romantic philosophy left a clear trace on Carpenter’s spiritual interests.

Development of Writing and Career


At Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Carpenter excelled in mathematics, while befriending a number of radical contemporaries, including W.K. Clifford and Henry Fawcett, both members of the Republican Club, where Mazzini’s calls for social justice and national freedom were read and discussed. Henry Sedgwick, who resigned his clerical fellowship and later established the Society of Psychical Research, was another influence, as was Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a Tamil student who encouraged Carpenter’s interest in Eastern religions. In his spare time Carpenter continued reading in philosophy, comparative religion, and romantic poetry.

In 1868 Carpenter was offered a clerical fellowship recently vacated by Leslie Stephen – a post that required he take holy orders. The Bishop of Ely, perturbed by Carpenter’s liberal ideas, questioned his orthodoxy, but agreed to ordain him in 1870. The new post was a cause of unhappiness, exacerbated by the college chapel’s conservatism. He found solace in Walt Whitman’s poetry. A college friend had given him W.M. Rossetti’s early edition of Whitman in 1868; Leaves of Grass (1855) and Democratic Vistas (1871) would become key texts for him. As Carpenter became aware of his homosexuality, the American poet provided a link between his political and sexual identities. In 1873, he published a book of poetry, Narcissus and other Poems, written in a spirit of romantic discontent.

Tiring of chapel duties, Carpenter sought a curacy at St. Edward’s Church, where his father’s friend F.D. Maurice, a key figure in the Broad Church tradition, was coincidently the new incumbent. Even Maurice, a committed Anglican, could not assuage Carpenter’s doubts, now clear in his support for campaigns to liberalise University requirements of allegiance to the Thirty-Nine Articles. Carpenter found consolation in an 1871 journey with his college friend Edward Beck through Switzerland, Italy and Germany, a taste of personal liberation ending in Paris where traces of the 1870 commune fuelled his social radicalism. A longer 1873 trip to Italy clarified his appetite for a spiritual and bodily freedom unavailable at Cambridge, partly inspired by the Greek sculpture he admired at various museums.

On returning from this trip, he relinquished his orders, hoping that a lay fellowship might be available. This did not transpire and his career now lay outside the University and the Church. Around this time, he wrote a verse drama, Moses (1875). The imagery of the promised land was often invoked by British socialists of the time, who envisioned a brighter future over the horizon; for Carpenter the spirit of liberation took in multiple dimensions, both personal and social.

Northern teaching, domestic life, and Towards Democracy

Carpenter became a lecturer for the University Extension scheme recently established by James Stuart, a fellow at Trinity College, as a ‘peripatetic’ university for provincial working people (Rowbotham 41). To begin his duties, he moved to Leeds, which became his base as he travelled to lecture across the North on religious subjects (notably, syncretic patterns of sun-worship). He felt a warm affinity for working people, seeking the collective social vitality described in Whitman’s eulogies for America.

In May 1880 Carpenter sought to settle, beginning a series of co-habitations with working men. He arranged to take lodgings with Alfred Fearnehough, a scythe-maker, and his family. In 1881 he lived with a farmer, Charles Fox, in a cottage at Bradway, installing a hut in its grounds where he could write. He gave up lecturing that year and concentrated on writing a long poem, which would become his life’s work: Towards Democracy (1883), written in a style recognisable as Whitman’s, a derivativeness not at odds with its sincerity. 500 copies were published, of which 400 had sold after a year. The work’s readership would grow as it became an inspirational text for young, provincial socialists; new editions, expanded in the manner of Leaves of Grass, appeared in 1885, 1892, and 1902.

In 1882 his father died leaving an inheritance of £6000, which Carpenter used to buy seven acres of land at Millthorpe, near Sheffield, where he built a cottage, to which he moved together with the Fearnehoughs, seeking to establish himself as a market gardener.


Like many socialists of his day, Carpenter was inspired by reading Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879), and H.M. Hyndman’s England For All (1881), the latter largely a précis of Marxist economics. Soon involved in London socialist networks, in 1881 he joined the Democratic Federation led by Hyndman, contributing £300 to its journal Justice. When William Morris, Eleanor Marx, and Edward Atheling split from Hyndman to form the Socialist Alliance, Carpenter remained loyal to the renamed Social Democratic Federation. In fact, he was closer to Morris’s aesthetic socialism than to Hyndman’s brand of Marxism; ultimately he remained a detached figure encouraging unity among the socialist factions.

One of these, the Fellowship of the New Life, was more attuned to his interests. Dedicated to inner spiritual growth as much as social re-organisation, its members, including Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, admired Towards Democracy for its attention to both aspects of socialism. The group would be overshadowed, however, by its offshoot, the Fabian Society, formed by practical-minded members in 1884. Led by Sydney and Beatrice Webb, the Fabians were increasingly technocratic and statist; its leading figures Edward Pease and George Bernard Shaw would demur at Carpenter’s utopianism.

Perhaps closest to Carpenter’s politics were the local socialist groups emerging in the provinces. Grass-roots networks such as the Clarion Group and the Labour Church reflected the growing political appetite of provincial workers. Carpenter had long cultivated such networks, and in March 1886 he played a role in the formation of the Sheffield Socialists, composing their statement of independence from national socialist bodies, and paying for their meeting hall, which he regularly attended. In the same year he penned the hymn England, Arise, which became a standard at local socialist gatherings of the early 20th century. Such networks, loosely absorbed in the federal structure of the Independent Labour Party, would generate a provincial avant-garde, notably in the Leeds Art Club, led by A.R. Orage, an enthusiastic reader of Carpenter, whose later editorship of the socialist journal the New Age would shape early modernism.

Carpenter’s early articles on politics were published as England’s Ideal (1887), but the fullest statement of his socialism came in 1889, in an address on “Civilisation” delivered to the Fabian Society in 1889. He argued that modernity marked a fall from lost integrity into forms of alienated industry, abstract property, and atomised psychology, all reflected in forms of physical debility; but that this was a felix culpa, a necessary stage preceding the reunion of selves as a social and spiritual whole. The argument was met with a hostile response by his comrades (Rowbotham, 2008, 143-44); Hyndman and Shaw attacked it as a distortion of the Hegelian system, and its Rousseauist optimism earned Carpenter the nickname “the noble savage” (Rowbotham, 2008, 94). Yet Carpenter’s mixture of anecdotal pseudo-science, Whitmanesque rhapsody, Lamarckian social evolutionism, Hegelianism and syncretic religion laid the foundations of a total theory of psychological and social development that he would elaborate until his final publications. Politically, his vision was pluralist; advocating a ‘simple life’ of self-sufficient, largely agricultural labour, it was close to Kropotkin’s anarchism in practical implications. The state had no place here; property and government would disappear in an ultimate unity of souls. Individuality itself was an evanescent stage in a larger cosmic development. The paper was published in Carpenter’s 1890 volume Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, where the outlines of this evolution were sketched in further essays. “Modern Science” suggested the limits of Victorian positivism, anticipating relativistic philosophies of science; “In Defence of Criminals” considered how some behaviour treated as criminal could be considered as pioneering moral growth; and “Exfoliation” elaborated a Lamarckian theory of organic and social growth as a process of shaking off the husks of dead forms in pursuit of the new. Despite initial hostility, the book was reprinted in several editions, influencing readers around the world. In 1921, Carpenter added a preface reflecting on how his ideas had gained a following in the modernist period that they lacked among the Marxists and Fabians of 1889.

Around this time, Carpenter’s ideas had gained a new readership among younger Cambridge students, who adopted him as a kind of sage in spiritual, aesthetic and socialist matters. These figures, proto-modernists in their own right, included C.R. Ashbee, Roger Fry, and Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson. Ashbee formed the Guild of Handicraft in London in 1888, later moving it to Chipping Camden where he sought to establish a community on Carpenterian lines. Dickinson, who lectured on the same Extension Scheme as Carpenter, absorbed his ideas into a developing philosophical system, and introduced him to E.M. Forster; the latter’s The Longest Journey (1907) captures Cambridge discussions in this spirit (1907, 7-9; Rowbotham 2008, 276; Brown 1982). Fry’s “Essay on Aesthetics” (1909) hints at a Carpenterian escape from “actual” to “imaginative” life (Fry 15). This aesthetic transcendence is connected to social organisation in Fry’s 1912 essay “Art and Socialism”, which envisaged a guild system within a “great state” that would facilitate “spiritual life” (Fry 39-54). Fry’s artistic collective, the Omega Workshops (1913-19) reflected this line of thinking, though more representative of a cosmopolitan avant-garde than Carpenter’s ‘simple life’.

Eastern Religions and the Higher Self

Disappointed with the reception of Civilisation, in 1890 Carpenter took up a suggestion from his friend Ponnambalam Arunachalam to visit India. The journey took him through Ceylon and India, where he explored the Eastern religions that had fascinated him since his Cambridge days. More recently, Arunachalam had given him the Bhagavad Gita which he had studied closely. Carpenter chronicled his journey in From Adam's Peak to Elephanta: Sketches in Ceylon and India (1892), a central chapter of which, “A Visit to a Gnani”, described an encounter with a holy man who explained a process of meditation that would allow escape from the limits of the self and union with the larger monistic energies of the universe.

Carpenter’s ideas had always contained similar themes; in this work he promoted the idea of a higher consciousness achieved through individual discipline, bringing out the aspect of his spirituality that was gnostic, that emphasised the difficulty of the path before humanity, and the role of certain advanced minds in progressing ahead of the multitude.

These ideas were typical of the period and would shape early modernism. Their influence is clear in discussions of ways and means to ‘intensify’ the self– vividly caught in the modernist journals, the New Age and the Egoist, in which plans for a new socialist community were entwined with dreams of heightened egoism, to be achieved by an advance guard of aesthetic and political visionaries (Fernihough 2013; Mead 2015, 57-102; Mead 2021). Carpenter’s work thus contains within it a tension between revolutionary union and individual insight, reflecting the inter-relations of socialism and radical individualism in early modernism.

Writings on Sexuality

In 1887, John Addington Symonds asked Carpenter to contribute to a study of same-sex desire. Symonds, writing in collaboration with the Fabian intellectual Havelock Ellis, hoped to advocate for homosexuality; a purpose somewhat at odds with Ellis’s aims of sexual classification. When Symonds died in 1893, Ellis completed his more scientific account as Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897); but Carpenter felt called to write more, as Symonds had intended, in explicit defence of “Uranianism”. Carpenter’s vision of progress had always prioritised “comradely love” – an optimism undented by his troubled experiences with George Oates, and, from 1886–7, George Hukin, a razor-grinder from Sheffield, whose decision to marry caused Carpenter great distress. Such frustrations reflected a benighted modernity that Carpenter hoped to surpass; he now published his first statements on sexual freedom, which he saw as integral to the future of humanity.

In a series of pamphlets, Carpenter approached the nature of sexual desire, the social roles of men and women, and the institution of marriage, before addressing homosexuality in the fourth pamphlet, on “Homogenic Love”. Adopting Symonds’ role as advocate and Ellis’s scientific language, he sought to explain the origins of same-sex desire. Such behaviour was a stage of social evolution; ‘Urnings’ as he described them, were the advance guard of a future species, emerging through the social “exfoliation” he had described in his earlier works.

Although Carpenter avoided the pillory faced by Oscar Wilde, his work caused disquiet among his progressive networks. He had planned to gather the pamphlets as a book, but his publisher T. Fisher Unwin withdrew from their agreement. The work was finally published by the Labour Press as Love’s Coming of Age (1896); “Homogenic Love” was at first omitted, though it was added in the 1906 edition; and in 1907 Carpenter added to his argument in the Intermediate Sex. Reviews of the first of these publications were scarce, and some hostile; a few friends in socialist circles distanced themselves; for example, Shaw objected to the sexual appropriation of the political cause. The British Medical Journal scorned his method and his “praise and laudation for creatures and customs which are generally regarded as odious” (quoted in Tsuzuki 143). But despite the inconsistencies of his method, blurring pseudo-science, sociology, and personal utopianism, Carpenter’s books on sexuality sold well and clearly inspired many readers. They prompted appreciative correspondence from Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, among others, and Carpenter became a sage-like figure at Millthorpe, where, after 1893 he had a settled life with George Merrill. Here guests found an inspiring image of domestic equilibrium, described as a “shrine” to the “Love of Comrades” by E.M. Forster (Forster 217).

Later Reputation

By the turn of the century, Carpenter was a recognised prophetic figure on the Left. Many of the early Labour MPs credited Carpenter as a formative influence; indeed, Ramaey Macdonald had begun his career as librarian to the Bristol Socialists with Carpenter’s sponsorship (Goodway, 50-51). However, as the party faced criticism for supporting the Liberal Party, Carpenter was cited again by heralds of a more radical socialism. In 1906 Arthur Penty’s Restoration of Guild System, a text that initiated the Guild Socialist movement, cited Carpenter’s ideas prominently in its Preface together with Ruskin, Morris and Carlyle (Penty viii). Cultivated by A.R. Orage, S.G. Hobson and G.D.H Cole in the New Age journal, Guild Socialism proposed to limit the state to licencing and validating the self-governing guilds representing industrial workers. For Orage, this pluralism was entwined with the spiritual evolution described by Carpenter in From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta.. Penty, a close ally of Orage, shared this view. In fact, Carpenter was more anarchistic than his guild socialist admirers; and when French and American exemplars inspired British Syndicalists to demand complete self-government by industrial workers, he lent his support to this movement in a public interview, inspiring a subsequent generation of British radicals: Herbert Read, for one, was converted to a lifelong anarchism by Carpenter’s works in 1912 (Read 76).

The modernist movement in the arts seemed increasingly attuned to Carpenter’s way of thinking. Indeed, the reaction to positivism resulted in forms of vitalism that resembled Carpenter’s sense of a single energy shaping mind and society. The works of Bergson and Nietzsche, newly translated, now shaped the cultural and political avant-garde. Orage, whose New Age was a key venue for early modernism, provides a vivid example. In his 1907 work Consciousness, Animal, Human and Superman, Orage described a state of imminent cosmic insight, breaking the bounds of the human ego, combining ideas from Carpenter with those of Bergson and Nietzsche. Indeed, for many readers Carpenter’s psycho-physical explanation for consciousness in The Art of Creation (1904) resembled Bergson’s account in Creative Evolution (1907). Unfamiliar with Bergson’s work in 1904, Carpenter was surprised to find his work compared to the Frenchman’s, but when he expanded on the idea in The Drama of Love and Death (1912) he embraced the comparison as proof of his theory of syncretic thought at work among various currents (Rowbotham, 293-4).

Meanwhile, Carpenter’s works had had a wide impact globally. His legacy can be seen in various international modernisms, many of which echoed both his political and spiritual emphases (Henderson 29-37). Tolstoy’s interest had long been clear; he wrote an introduction to Carpenter’s essay ‘Modern Science’ in its first Russian translation (Tolstoy 1904). In the US, Carpenter was read by Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, and influenced the anarchist Ferrer Association’s Modern School based in New York. In the visual arts, Carpenter influenced Wassily Kandinsky and the American Cubist Max Weber. In England some of these influences came back to England with Jacob Epstein, who in turn worked with Eric Gill on a utopian community of Carpenterian type; Gill’s version of similar ideas shaped the Ditchling community. Readers in India included Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore (Gandhi 2006; Hilton 2015).

In 1916 Carpenter published his memoirs, My Days and Dreams; new editions of Towards Democracy, and further works on politics and spiritual life followed. Forster’s Maurice was written under his influence in 1914, though the text was published only in 1971. Lawrence’s works seem imbued with Carpenter’s ideas. Though the debt was unspecified, to contemporary readers the commonalities must have been clear, as they were in radical periodical networks persisting in the interwar years (Clarke, 1996; Fernihough 2013).

The authors of such texts, written self-consciously ahead of their times, are prone to phases of obscurity, and this was already true in the last years of Carpenter’s life. He moved from Millthorpe to Surrey with Merrill, who, suffering from alcoholism, died aged 63 in January 1928. Carpenter formed one last domestic arrangement with Edward Inigan before his death in Guildford in 1929.

Critical Interpretation

Carpenter’s work was always subject to sceptical review among his socialist and academic peers (for example by Shaw, Hyndman and Pease). He was clearly inspirational to younger socialists, though some were guarded in later praise (Orage in a sceptical mode would call him “Mrs. Whitman” (Steele 35-6). After his death, his ideas fell into some obscurity, though they were remembered well enough by George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which rails against the appropriation of “socialism” by “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer [and] sex-maniac… in England” (206).

A revival of interest was sparked by E.M. Forster’s Maurice, which on its belated publication in 1971 included a “Terminal Note”, added in 1960, that recalled Carpenter’s forgotten status as a sage for a generation of radicals, and particularly of gay writers. Forster recalled the inspiration of his novel during a 1913 visit to Millthorpe when Merrill had touched him “gently and just above the buttocks… It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas” (217). Also in 1971, Emile Delavenay, a French scholar of modern English literature, published his study on Carpenter’s influence on D.H. Lawrence. This question remains in debate: despite strikingly similar ideas of consciousness and society, there is surprisingly little direct reference to Carpenter’s theory in Lawrence’s work, perhaps reflecting an ambivalence to its strongly-drawn sexual identity (Delavenay 1971).

Terry Eagleton wrote his 1968 doctoral thesis, supervised by Raymond Williams, on Carpenter’s synthesis of religion and politics, perhaps finding an echo of his own dual interests in Catholicism and Marxism. The thesis was never published, but passages in his first book, Shakespeare and Society (1968), show his engagement with these ideas for a time. In the literary field, Tony Brown’s work added intellectual-historical context in articles and in an edited collection of essays in 1990.

Williams discussed Carpenter himself in a review of Chushichi Tsuzuki’s 1980 biography, describing him as “to an extraordinary extent, a prefigurative man” (Williams 1980). Major studies by Tsuzuki and Stanley Pierson, historians of early British socialism, re-instated Carpenter at the fore of this movement (Tsuzuki 1980; Pierson 1970; 1973; 1979), as did the interest of E.P. Thompson, who encouraged his student Sheila Rowbotham to study the Carpenter archive at Sheffield, leading to further key scholarly works on Carpenter (Rowbotham 1977; 1980; 2008).

Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks considered Carpenter in the context of feminist and gay studies in the 1970s (Rowbotham and Weeks 1977), expanding on areas of Carpenter’s work given less space by Tsuzuki and Pierson. In the field of art history, biographies of Fry by Frances Spalding, and of Gill and Ashbee by Fiona MacCarthy, identified Carpenter’s key role in their respective subjects’ life, captured in MacCarthy’s work on Ashbee, The Simple Life (1981), entitled after Carpenter’s conception of communal integrity (Spalding 1980; MacCarthy 1981; 1989).

In more recent modernist studies, work by Linda Dalrymple Henderson has brought out Carpenter’s international impact, while Bruce Clarke, Anne Fernihough, and Scott McCracken, among others, have highlighted his place in the modernist canon as a theorist of sociology and sexual identity (Henderson 1987; McCracken 1990; Clarke 1996; Fernihough, 2013). Accounts focusing on his post-colonial impact have appeared by Leela Gandhi (2005) and John Hilton (2015), among others. In 2008, Rowbotham published her full biography of Carpenter, drawing on many years’ research, which is the main source of reference for the intricacies of this key bridging figure who connects the Victorian culture of religious doubt with the aesthetic, political and social radicalism of the modernist era.

Note: Research for this article was supported by a European Research Council Starting Grant (TAU17149), "Between the Times: Embattled Temporalities and Political Imagination in Interwar Europe".

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Citation: Mead, Henry. "Edward Carpenter". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 May 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=749, accessed 18 May 2022.]

749 Edward Carpenter 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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