I’ve always been fascinated with how gay men met each other and constructed their lives in the years before legalization; how they managed to create an identity and live in a deeply homophobic world. Reading about the gay socialist writer Edward Carpenter has been inspiring and I’m struck by how modern so many of his attitudes and beliefs were. This is a man who in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century was a committed socialist; a pioneering sex reformer who wrote on homosexuality and the emancipation of women; interested in environmentalism and an advocate of sustainable farming; an anti-vivisectionist and supporter of animal rights; supported prison reform; travelled to Indian and Ceylon and studied Eastern spirituality.
Born into an upper middle class family in 1844, Carpenter was educated at Cambridge and ordained as an Anglican minister before he rejected his middle class background and began to question and challenge many of the prevailing views of the time. In the 1880s, following the death of his parents, he used his inheritance to purchase a smallholding in Millthorpe near Sheffield where he built a house and began to cultivate the land.
Carpenter was an influential figure and well-known writer, and had a huge network of friends and acquaintances. They included the writers Walt Whitman, E. M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw, Tagore, Siegfried Sassoon, the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and the anarchist Emma Goldman. His many books and pamphlets include Towards Democracy (1883), Love’s Coming of Age (1896), The Intermediate Sex (1903) and Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folks (1914).
Although Carpenter had had a variety of male lovers over the years, it was on a train in 1891 that he would meet George Merrill, an uneducated lad of 20 from the slums of Sheffield. They would start a relationship that would endure for the next 37 years until Merrill’s unexpected death in 1928. What’s extraordinary is how they managed to avoid public scandal and live together as a couple for so many years given the attitudes to homosexuality in the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials. E.M. Forster visited Carpenter at Millthorpe in 1913 and famously names George Merrill as the inspiration for his novel Maurice.
“George Merrill – touched my backside – gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most peoples. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. He made a profound impression on me and touched a creative spring.”
Carpenter died within a year of his partner’s death and the two men are buried together in a grave in Guildford. If you’d like more information on Carpenter, check out the Edward Carpenter Forum website or read the excellent biography Edward Carpenter – A Life of Liberty and Love by Sheila Rowbotham.