Edward Carpenter – Queer Icon

Edward Carpenter was a British writer, poet, philosopher, and early socialist and gay rights campaigner. He significantly impacted progressive social thought at the turn of the century as a proponent of an alternative, anti-industrial way of life and a supporter of sexual freedom. Carpenter also promoted free love, vegetarianism, and nudism, as well as introducing sandals to England; all considered extreme at the time. He was also a founding member of the Labour Party. Carpenter had many literary and entertaining friends and associates, including John Ruskin, Isadora Duncan, and Walt Whitman.

Carpenter lived with his partner George Merrill, during a time when male homosexual actions were illegal. Their house became a shelter and a pilgrimage site for those who resisted Victorian society’s norms. This drew the attention of Derbyshire police, who wanted to build a strong case against Carpenter and Merrill. For a case against them, several males mentioned sexual impropriety, though it is unclear whether this occurred or was used to discredit Merrill. ‘Beyond strong suspicion,’ no proper evidence was discovered against Carpenter. There was insufficient evidence for the police to make a move. The fact that living together and publishing works challenging societal norms drew police notice demonstrates the risks these men were in simply by living their lives. In 1922, they moved to Gilford, Surrey. Ultimately, Carpenter and Merrill were partners for nearly 40 years.

Image via wikipedia

E. M. Forster was a personal friend of theirs who paid frequent visits to the couple. He subsequently revealed that his gay-themed novel, ‘Maurice,’ was influenced by a visit in 1913. Carpenter and Merrill’s relationship inspired the relationship between the characters in Maurice. Carpenter’s rural lifestyle and the manuscript of ‘Maurice’ inspired D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’ which centres on a man and a woman.

George Merrill (left) and Edward Carpenter (right)
Image Source: The Edward Carpenter Community

Carpenter left the Church and travelled to Yorkshire intending to educate workingmen, heavily inspired by Walt Whitman’s poetry and increasingly tired of Victorian society’s hypocrisy. He became more publicly active here, eventually joining the Socialist League in 1884. The anthem England Arise! is Carpenter’s most famous contribution to the Socialist and cooperative movements. However, his works on homosexuality and his open identity set him apart. His book, ‘The Intermediate Sex,’ is a significant work in the history of lesbian and gay rights in the twentieth century.

In the wake of Oscar Wilde’s conviction, British homophiles reconsidered pederastic rhetoric in defence of same-sex love. Carpenter’s deep involvement with feminist politics and ethics reimagined the context in which he could envision practical advocacy work. He proposed various arguments about the social and civic contributions of homosexuals. In the revised versions of Carpenter’s articles, a new way of thinking about gender roles developed more in line with German sexologists. This marked an unacknowledged break with Oxford Hellenism figures such as J.A. Symonds and Oscar Wilde.

Some political commentators regarded Carpenter as an eccentric crank at the time, an attitude that undervalues his impact on society today. His writings contributed significantly to the development of the English socialist movement and, subsequently, the gay liberation movement. Edward Carpenter’s analysis and defence of same-sex desire influenced the 1970s Gay Liberation Movement’s younger generation of lesbian and gay activist.

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