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The Elegant Optimist

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Alvin Langdon Coburn
Edward Carpenter, 1905

One fought and battled for hope and grew weary in the struggle,” Bertrand Russell told a fellow No-Conscription activist, Constance Malleson, one autumn night in 1916. Talking into the small hours in the young actress’s London flat, he “prodded home” (as she would later write) a harsh, half-tragic vision of the progressive politics that had brought them together. “One lived with the pain of the world and with all the cruelty of it…. One had to look into hell before one had any right to speak of heaven.”

After Russell at last made his way home, Malleson turned to look at a picture on the wall, portraying the man who had written the “bible” she had up to now worshiped. Edward Carpenter’s Towards Democracy had first appeared in 1883, when the author was thirty-nine: expanding through four editions over the next three decades, this long prose-poem had become one of the central texts of the British left. But at this juncture—while the Battle of the Somme ground on, when you “had to be for it or against it: in the trenches or in prison”—Malleson, soon to become Russell’s lover, cast aside her former idol. “Carpenter’s creed meant nothing to me any more. I had found something stronger. Everything I believed in had fallen away…. Soft things had no place in this world.”

The prophet she was rejecting was not exactly a “soft thing.” Among the many progressive causes that Carpenter promoted in late-Victorian and Edwardian England, he called for respect for his fellow homosexuals, and that stand certainly took courage. Yet Carpenter’s political style was diametrically opposite to that which Russell was adopting in 1916—hard, combative, and angular, as befitted the “age of the machine.” Sheila Rowbotham’s superb new biography of Carpenter asks us to think not only about a more remote cultural environment but also about a less apparently glamorous rhetoric. Carpenter practiced a type of high-minded, fuzzy, ecumenical radicalism that receded into the shadows well before his death in 1929 and that has only fitfully emerged from them since.

For most of the twentieth century, the “struggle” that Russell invoked was the sine qua non in any definition of the radical left. Charisma, so far as radicals of the era were concerned, naturally gravitated toward stirring tales of militancy and martyrdom—starting with the suffragettes, passing on to the likes of Che Guevara and Steve Biko. Rowbotham has herself long been involved with that approach to history: coming of age in the revolutionary ferment of the late 1960s, she has since engaged with Marxist and feminist causes both as an activist and as a historian. Now however, making good a long-standing personal fascination with this half-forgotten sage, she switches tracks from her writings about political advances made by working women, and thus confronts different historical challenges.

For even if she does not present the subject of her biography as “soft,” she nonetheless regards him as “sponge-like.” Carpenter’s mind, she writes, was extraordinarily absorbent, able to “assimilate and synthesise concepts, attitudes and aspirations” that poured in from all directions. He started to gain an audience in the 1880s as a kind of English Thoreau, the educated owner of a cottage in rural Derbyshire who spoke up for self-sufficiency and against the pomp and clutter of High Victorian bourgeois life, adopting “simplification” as his slogan. A stone floor is preferable to varnished planks, he told listeners to an 1885 lecture, and they should wear wool as much as possible: it could always be recycled. These practical tips were soon accompanied by his most concrete contribution to the West’s radical repertoire, the sandal. The liberating footwear that he started making in his cottage, following a sample pair sent him by a friend touring Kashmir, launched a fashion that soon became a fixture of alternative lifestyles.

Immediate physical ease was at issue—in the same spirit, Carpenter would later support nudism—but so was the Asian connection. Visiting Ceylon and India for himself, he came back with criticisms of the British Empire and paeans to the ancient wisdom of the East. Certainly, living conditions must be improved here and now: Carpenter concerned himself with land reform and prison reform and promoted innovative smoke-reduction technology in the factories of northern England. But equally, spiritual aspirations must somehow be satisfied in an incipiently post-Christian era.

Emotional demands, still more: dispassionately, he projected schemes to free up men’s relations with women; more daringly, he asked late-Victorian England also to sympathize with same-sex passions. But perhaps there was no ultimate distinction to be drawn between matter, heart, and mind? Perhaps all were infused by a common organic principle? By 1912, when Carpenter brought out The Drama of Love and Death: A Study of Human Evolution and Transfiguration, he was reaching out to embrace Bergsonian vitalism, aspects of theosophy, the notion of “the fourth dimension,” the anthropology of James Frazer, and the now forgotten political schemes of syndicalism, as well as the more successful cause of women’s suffrage.

Pinning down sources of this grand holistic enterprise takes Rowbotham on all manner of literary journeys, from Hegel and Marx to Hafez and the Neoplatonists. Among much else, her book charts the now alien intellectual terrain of pre-1914 Europe, wryly acknowledging its oddities—as she notes, “Plotinus provided a route between Plato and Hindu mysticism…but he was not too hot on class struggle and the land question.” Rowbotham writes with unfailing sympathy for the thinker who managed to soak up all these influences, yet she can be quite tart. As of 1915, Carpenter’s decades-old lecture act is dismissed as “vague spiritual sustenance”; whereas the foundation stone of his literary reputation, Towards Democracy —the text that was a “bible” for young progressives like Malleson—is denounced for its “overall flaccidity.” Who will disagree?

And so I heard a voice say What is Freedom?

I have heard (it said) the lions roaring in their dens; I have seen the polyp stretching its arms upward from the floor of the deep;

I have heard the cries of slaves and the rattling of their chains, and the hoarse shout of victims rising against their oppressors; I have seen the deliverers dying calmly on the scaffold.

I have heard of the centuries-long struggle of nations for constitutional liberty—the step-by-step slowly-won approaches as to some inner and impregnable fastness….

But what is Freedom?

Versions of that question bump and drift, like slightly limp balloons, through a dozy five-hundred-page mélange of Walt Whitman and the Bhagavad Gita. Exactly because the prose-poem’s inclusive niceness overruled any urge to provoke (even if Carpenter hoped to advance on the homoeroticism of his American counterpart), it was a best seller in its own time and is almost unreadable now. Carpenter’s agenda was at least more succinctly expressed in “England Arise,” a hymn of mammon-benighted masses awaiting a new age’s dawn that became a mainstay of the marches and meetings he attended—a liturgy for the quasi religion that he liked to call “the larger socialism.” But Rowbotham roundly states that there is no prospect of reviving her subject’s reputation as a writer.

There is a further problem, though, that she has to surmount. The life story of Carpenter turns out to possess no more clear-drawn lines or acute angles than his mind. Her task would surely be easier if the tale were of a man who struggled with “the pain of the world” and did indeed “look into hell” before he glimpsed heaven. But Carpenter lacks such chiaroscuro. A gradual slide away from the well-heeled home in the south coast resort of Brighton where he was born in 1844 eventually reshapes into a sprawl of overlapping circles of interest, political, social, sexual; the disruptions and discomforts seem minor. From his rentier father he inherited a taste for German philosophy (Charles Carpenter had met Coleridge), a good head for sums (hence his ability to discuss smoke-reduction blueprints), and, at the age of thirty-seven, capital sufficient to maintain himself in whatever style he chose.

His mark on the world had been up to that point slight. The gifted Cambridge student had considered a job as a tutor to Queen Victoria’s grandsons before his progressive sympathies led him northward, to adult education lecturing in the industrial towns. The money he came into in 1883 allowed him to build Millthorpe, the country cottage outside the steel city of Sheffield that became for four decades his base. He was also able to sail west to meet his hero Whitman and east to join a Ceylonese friend from Cambridge. From Millthorpe, Carpenter’s reputation as a radical slowly, vegetally expanded, via talks, books, and organizational work, until Tolstoy and Gandhi were alike alert to his name and there was an ardent groupuscule of Carpenterians in Tokyo.

A ready participant in left-wing initiatives of all sorts, Carpenter never himself sought political power; although, Rowbotham notes, he subjected his many visitors at Millthorpe to a “benign autocracy” of healthful walks, home-grown meals, and songs around the piano. But “benign” is the keynote. Consistently, she presents a man who was compassionate and peaceable; who tried to inject those qualities into his politics; and who, given his luck in life, must have found it relatively easy to retain them.

The story is momentarily flare-lit in 1890 by the visit of an Irish anarchist named John Creaghe to Sheffield. Creaghe instigates “direct action” on all fronts—fight the police, demand free love, release all criminals—and berates Carpenter as a vacillator, consorting with gradualists. “Certainly comrade Creaghe, I stick up for Fabians and Trade Unions just as much as I do for Anarchists,” Carpenter replies. “We are all travelling along the same road. Why should we be snarling at each other’s heads?” “With what an air of the superior person he dismisses my jaw,” comes Creaghe’s rejoinder, wishing to the devil this gent in his “comfortable retirement.” I guess (as an Englishman) that Creaghe would get the ringside cheers here from nine tenths of the world. Carpenter’s was so thoroughly a project of British bourgeois self-assurance, for all the criticism he offered of British imperialism: of the unflappable panoramic optimism that a kind of national luck permitted.

The main drama of Rowbotham’s book, you might expect, would turn on Carpenter’s homosexuality. But that is not quite how things work out, either in the private love stories or the public persona. The materials for the former prove elusive. She has a 1916 autobiography to draw on—a distinctly “out” publication, like several before it, but reticent about how his illegal sex life developed. A correspondence with Charles Oates, a gay friend from Cambridge, reveals slightly more, with Carpenter archly informing his fellow cruiser, “I believe PO employees [i.e., postmen] are not infrequently of the right sort.” But a concomitant of that taste for working-class men (which naturally tinged his politics) was that his lovers committed little to writing, either. Nonetheless Carpenter was clearly able to pursue a long, varied, and pleasurable sexual career, “resolutely untroubled by guilt” in Rowbotham’s judgment, both before and during his partnership with George Merrill, the sweet, boozy rough diamond who met him on a train in 1891 and settled in at Millthorpe in 1898. The one threat to this setup came from a local reactionary denouncing the surrounding village as the “Sodom of Derbyshire”: cheeringly, its offended inhabitants rallied to Carpenter’s defense.

This comes as quite a variation on a much more familiar narrative of British gay life, which pivots on the conviction of Oscar Wilde for “gross indecency” in 1895, an event all agree was a triumph for repression. From one side, Rowbotham’s mild and worthy evangelist of radicalism has been overshadowed by harder-edged heroes; from another, by that martyred hedonistic wit. That Carpenter’s platform—“just brotherly love, clean water and no fun,” as one jaded observer quipped—was the “antithesis” to Wilde’s, Rowbotham accepts, not that she would have her readers think him humorless: she shows that he had an engaging capacity for self-deprecation. But she also describes him deploring the risk-taking of Wilde as “very foolish (and naughty),” while steadily and discreetly he pushes forward projects to familiarize the public with “homogenic love”—a pamphlet here, a poetry anthology there, forays into psychology and comparative mythology: attempts to catch the cultural trend, to ride the zeitgeist.

Successful attempts, it seems, for Rowbotham quotes many an isolated gay or lesbian who read Carpenter and thereby found some understanding for their predicament. Quiet tenacity and an ear to the passing cultural moment are, I think, the combination on which the success of Edward Carpenter itself depends. The writer and her subject unite around those qualities, which is why her book is so satisfying to read despite its lack of high drama. Rowbotham feels her way so deeply into the later stages of Victoria’s reign, tracking the economic downturn of the mid-1870s and the next decade’s surge in radical awareness: a ferment that continued till the century’s final years, when the right forged a new patriotic compact between mammon and the masses via the populist press (a formula again triumphant in Britain over the past three decades). By 1901, amid “the flag-waving jingoism of the Boer War,” Rowbotham writes that “the exasperated author of ‘England Arise’ declared…, ‘The English (with the exception of the working classes), make me sick.’”

As far as the tale allows, Rowbotham also transmits a feel for Carpenter’s fallback repository of faith, the proletariat whose hardships he wished to eradicate. The task is tricky: mindful of her earlier work, she points to all those “working class women who appear only through tiny peep-holes” in her present research. But always her instinct is to physicalize. The stench of Sheffield, with its blast furnaces and undrained streets, and the spartan freshness of Millthorpe—winter bathing in a brook, potato-digging, sandal-making—form a counterpoint to all Carpenter’s abstract theorizing. Plotinus and Schopenhauer are offset by the slum child George Merrill, darning his socks or downing his ale at the Royal Oak.

Most of all, Rowbotham’s prose is quickened by the closely felt presence of Merrill’s partner. For again and again, Rowbotham’s documentation returns to a single refrain: her subject was the very handsomest of men. He captivated all who saw him, with a grace that ran through his looks, his clothes, his demeanor, even his handwriting. The natty dresser painted in 1894 by his casual friend Roger Fry was written up by other witnesses as “a very beautiful and attractive person,” “tall, spare with browned bearded face,” and “erect, lithe, athletic in appearance”; an Italian introduced to him in 1909 (the heyday of his international celebrity) spoke for many another witness when he recalled the “vivid, piercing eyes looking deep into mine, the noble luminous smile.” And such beauty has a strange power to linger. Rowbotham quotes Jonathan Cutbill, his present-day literary executor: “Edward Carpenter was an extremely sexy man.”

It turns out, then, that the political is the personal. Carpenter’s contribution to the cause of the left consisted not so much in what he thought and wrote, still less in what he organized or instigated, but rather in the singularity of his presence. He was neither heroically forceful nor subversively witty, yet his charisma radiated far and wide, whether through his constant kindliness or his dapper line in soft felt hats. With him, fashion sense—a feel for the zeitgeist, you might equally say—rises to become virtue. “A knack,” the first line of Rowbotham’s introduction happily—and characteristically—terms it. The robust colloquial voice of northern England always comes to the fore in her writing. With a big toolbox of academic methodologies to hand, she knows that the quick rough grasp of everyday diction will trounce them all.

If everything turns on the individuality of Carpenter, however, does that make her work a study of character rather than of public affairs? Not so, insofar as the personal falls back into the political, which is, typically, a sorry turn of events. The turn away from the Carpenterian style and Carpenterian values that started during World War I, as Russell bedazzled Malleson, reached its full definition with George Orwell writing to a friend about “middle-class socialists” in 1936:

So many of them are the sort of eunuch type with a vegetarian smell who go about spreading sweetness and light and have at the back of their minds a vision of the working class all TT [teetotal], well washed behind the ears, readers of Edward Carpenter or some other pious sodomite.

A ferocious scorn for homosexuals, for peaceability and kindliness, for the writer’s own class, indeed for the supposed unwashed reality of the working-class other; a zeal to appear “hard” and unillusioned: altogether, here we arrive at an almost irresistible rhetorical formula. So it has proved in the mainstreams of Anglophone politics and journalism, over which Orwell’s shadow still extends and in which invariably there are points to be scored by mocking “sweetness and light,” not to mention sandals.

Rowbotham’s response to this is, naturally enough, to cast Carpenter as a forerunner of the counterculture that she grew up with from the 1960s onward. She vindicates his fuzzy, absorbent modus operandi as a fair response to the questions her generation of activists tried to address at their sit-ins and their squats: “how to imagine an alternative without becoming trapped in a prescriptive construct.” She salutes not only his diligent ground-laying for the cause of gay liberation but his prescience as an early environmentalist: “Recycling, the revival of small-holdings by organic farmers, the spread of farmers’ markets and local sourcing are all unwittingly Carpenterian.”

One might object that this type of congratulation by hindsight is rather an easy game to play, but what other kind of praise befits those who merely prophesy, rather than take command? It happens that “soft power”—a politics that proceeds by attraction, not force—has been a notion rather in vogue lately, by way of reaction to a certain “hard” way of wielding power. In that light, Rowbotham’s magnificent historical study might have other contemporary implications. How far, one wonders, would qualities such as Carpenter’s be able to push home progressive results, if someone with his magnetism and ecumenical goodwill were actually handed the reins?

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