Saturday, January 16, 2010

Edward Carpenter: Victorian Radical Faerie

Finally got ahold of Sheila Rowbotham's biography of Edward Carpenter, which was published about a year ago.  I am so happy that I finally got to read this book.  I had it on request at the library for (what seems like) months, and I was afraid it wouldn't show up before I moved.  But it did, just in time!

The Person

I like Edward Carpenter because his worldview is very similar to mine, and because he was saying all these important things more than a hundred years ago.  It is a little painful to realize that we have to keep rediscovering these ideas over and over; every generation believes it's the first.  That's why it's important to remember that we do have a history and we have forebears.  Carpenter was well known and well loved in his time, and in fact his legacy has survived even though his name may have been forgotten.

Carpenter was born in 1844 and died in 1929.  Most of his writing and activism were in the fields of socialism and homosexuality, but his concerns also extended to:  the environment, animal rights, women's rights, vegetarianism, spirituality and paganism, free love and birth control, nudism and the simple life.  I have probably left some things out, and in fact there's no way I can tell his whole story here.

To me the most amazing thing is not his wide variety of interests, but his tolerance for other points of view. He had very strong convictions, and expressed them frequently, but it appears that he never expected everyone to live their lives exactly the same way he did. That kind of enforced conformity, which often goes by the name of "political correctness," has harmed many people and damaged many movements whose goal, ironically, was human liberation.  (There is a positive side to political correctness, if it teaches people to be genuinely inclusive.)

Carpenter was born into a fairly wealthy family, the seventh of ten children, most of whom were girls.  (I came across a website which asserts that all of his older siblings were girls, but that is untrue.)  As a boy he insisted on learning to play the piano, which in that era and that social milieu was considered to be a "girl thing."  (One of the points to remember about strict gender roles is that everything is divided up into male or female.  If females do it, then males can't possibly be allowed to do it; and vice versa.  Nothing is permitted to be simply human.)  He always felt as if his family didn't understand him, although obviously they were not as strict with him as they could have been.  Incidentally, his father did not go to church, which was fairly shocking at the time.

He said that as a child, he had recognized his attraction to "others of his sex" and was taught to be ashamed of it.  Nonetheless, he managed in large part to throw off this shame.  Throughout his life male homosexuality was illegal (in his lifetime, the penalty was reduced from death, to life imprisonment, to imprisonment with hard labor), so he could never be entirely open about it. But he wrote as much as he could, and in his private life he helped many people to accept their feelings.

In 1864 he went to Cambridge, where he got a degree and subsequently a teaching job.  At that time, Oxbridge professors were required to be a) male; b) unmarried; and c) ordained ministers.  Carpenter found himself having to preach sermons, which didn't sit well with him.  He had many doubts about Christianity, which had not yet solidified into a new philosophy of life.  He was also involved in the "University Extension" movement, in which educated men either set up new schools or went around the country giving lectures to their less fortunate brothers and sisters.  This must have been his introduction to Socialism, and throughout his life he preferred the society of the working classes.  It sounds rather condescending, but it's an indication of how much he hated the constraints of a upper-class existence.

In 1874 he officially left Cambridge, to spend the next six years teaching and learning in various Northern towns.  (One of the amusing things about the book is the culture shock he experienced when moving to the North of England, and the constant insistence that Northerners really are different from Southerners.  The author herself was born in Leeds apparently. What makes it funny is that England is a little tiny island filled with white people.  But oh no, they're so very different from each other.  Anyway.)  Living in these severely polluted manufacturing towns also taught him the importance of protecting the environment, which he promoted throughout his life.

In 1877 he traveled to America on family business and met Walt Whitman, to whom he had already written a couple fan letters.  Whitman was, of course, The Man.  Carpenter's first book, Towards Democracy, was an extended prose poem strongly influenced by Whitman's style.  By "democracy" he meant not only the limited political definition, but human liberation of all varieties.

In 1882 Carpenter's father died and he inherited 6,000 pounds. (I mention the specific amount because, prior to this occurrence, he had been living on about 60 pounds a year.)  He built a house in the country and lived there for the next 40 years, growing vegetables for sale and making sandals. It was not the life a well-off Cambridge graduate was expected to live.  Some people mocked "the simple life" and the evils of Socialism; others flocked to the Movement and admired Carpenter for putting his ideals into practice.

He had friends, lovers, and admirers around the world.  One of his Cambridge classmates was from Sri Lanka - they kept in touch throughout their lives and Carpenter went to visit him there, also passing through India, where he observed British racism first-hand and learned as much as he could about authentic Eastern religious traditions.  He also had many friends in America, and since he knew French, German and Italian he kept up with trends in Europe as well.

He met his life partner, George Merrill, on a train in 1891.  They died within about a year of each other and were buried in the same grave.  Carpenter's earlier romances (all with men) had not ended happily, but after meeting Merrill he felt more confident about his sexuality and dared to begin writing about it.  However, it was unsafe for him to actually come out, or to focus on homosexuality too closely.  Therefore, he wrote a series of pamphlets, called: Sex-love and its Place in a Free Society, Woman and her Place in a Free Society, Marriage in a Free Society, and Homogenic Love and its Place in a Free Society

Homogenic Love was the "queer" pamphlet, slightly camouflaged by Carpenter's other writings on sex and society.  (He disliked the word "homosexual" because it was a bastard combination of Greek and Latin.)  Unfortunately, his timing was bad and this pamphlet was published in early 1895, just a couple months before Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy.  Homosexuality immediately became such a dangerous subject that Carpenter's publisher broke his contract to publish the three previous pamphlets in one book, and temporarily stopped selling Towards Democracy as well.  Carpenter didn't stop writing about homosexuality, but he always had to be careful.

Edward Carpenter believed in a primitive utopia, a previous Golden Age in which women and homosexuals had more respect than they get in the modern so-called "civilized" era in which he, and we, live. Some people think this revisioning of the past is foolish.  Personally, I believe that, not only is it rather foolish to believe that people have always lived the same way we live now, but also, if we have always had these prejudices, what reason is there to hope that things will ever get any better?  If this really is human nature, then we're doomed.

You may not be familiar with the Radical Faeries. I knew enough about them to recognize that Edward Carpenter was their spiritual (fairy) godfather, but it wasn't until I read this book that I found out there was a more direct connection to the founder of the Radical Faeries, Harry Hay:
Aged eleven in 1925, [Hay] had spotted The Intermediate Sex locked in a glass case in the local library.  The word "sex" caught his attention and he contrived to persuade the librarian to go out to the hairdressers, by promising to look after the books.  On returning . . . she discovered, to her horror, the schoolboy still eagerly devouring Carpenter's prohibited book.
Following Carpenter's theories, later in life "Hay developed an ideology of a 'Third Sex,' distinct psychologically and culturally from heterosexuals, and argued that these differences carried potential benefits from society as a whole."  (Yes, Rowbotham's use of "heterosexuals" in that sentence is awkward.  We might say that she means "cissexuals.")

The Book

Rowbotham took 400 pages to tell the story of Carpenter's life, and it seems that she had to cut some things.  The only complaint I have about the book is that in a couple places she jumps around chronologically, describing an event and then going back to something else that happened earlier.

I just want to reiterate that my review of this long book cannot possibly tell the whole story.  But I greatly admire Edward Carpenter and I wish he were better known today.

(Incidentally, I've lately been reading Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, which were published between 1864 and 1880.  That is the exact period of time during which Carpenter was becoming radicalized; but although these novels deal extensively with politics, the world they depict is not Carpenter's world at all.)

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