The Elegant Optimist

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…

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