Edward Carpenter was born in 1844 in Brighton to a middle-class naval family. He grew up with nine siblings. All of his brothers pursued careers in the armed forces, while he decided to go to university. He was admitted to Cambridge University in 1864. In 1867 Carpenter was offered a clerical fellowship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He accepted and was ordained into holy orders. After reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass he first became interested in socialism. In 1873 he resigned from his position at Cambridge and set out for the north of England to work on the University Extension Movement. However, this did not fulfil his desire to improve the lives of the working-classes.
In 1883 Carpenter received a considerable inheritance and moved into a house in Millthorpe, outside Sheffield, where he lived according to his ideals of a simpler, communal life. In Millthorpe he made sandals and wrote poetry and on politics. In the same year, he published Towards Democracy, one of his most widely known works. Throughout his life, Carpenter came to support many causes such as gay rights, feminism, vegetarianism, the movement for clean air, and opposing vivisection. He did not follow a political party as his beliefs were more closely tied to anarchism than to the Labour Party’s doctrines. He spread his political beliefs through personal connections and his poetry, rather than through a political career or major literary works.
In 1890 Carpenter travelled to British Ceylon and India, where he discovered Hindu teachings. These travels are documented in his book From Adam to Elephanta. He intertwined his socialist message with that of eastern religions and formed a political teaching titled “mystic socialism”. Many of his political views seem to echo current left-wing agendas, such as a right to clean air and against eating or testing on animals. Those views were extremely forward-thinking in Victorian times and are somewhat reflective of today’s climate activism. Although Carpenter was aware of his homosexuality, he was unable to openly express it until later in life, due to the stern Victorian morality and its illegality. Only at Millthorpe was he finally able to express his sexuality freely. He established many long-lasting friendships with other men, which seem to have had romantic undertones. He also sometimes travelled to Paris to visit male prostitutes.
In 1891 Carpenter met George Merrill with whom he would build a 40-year-long relationship. Merrill was a member of the working class and was legally registered as Carpenter’s servant, though they lived out their relationship openly. This was almost unheard of in the 1890s, as they were both men and of different classes. Especially in its early stages, their relationship caused much criticism, particularly following the 1895 trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde. Despite this, they lived a relatively undisturbed rural life, and Millthorpe became a place of refuge and pilgrimage for admirers of Carpenter. Merrill was also the person that inspired E.M. Forster to write Maurice, which in turn is speculated to have inspired D.H. Lawrence to write the heterosexual romance Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
John Addington Symonds, who was the first person to privately publish trailblazing books on homosexuality, died in 1893, and Carpenter may have seen it as his duty to follow in Symonds’ footsteps. Thus, he privately published his pamphlet Homogenic Love, but it was unfortunately overshadowed by the Wilde trial and was therefore excluded from his collection of writing, Love’s Coming-of-Age. However, in 1908 Carpenter published a collection of essays titled The Intermediate Sex. This was the first work that was generally available, portraying homosexuality in a positive light. It was seen as the crucial text in support of homosexuality, published 60 years before the start of the modern gay rights movement. In 1911 he published Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, which outlined the important and exclusive spiritual role that homosexual and transgender people play in many non-European and non-Western cultures. Surprisingly, his books avoided prosecution, though they were investigated by the police.
Carpenter became a hero to the early generation of Labour politicians, as his later writing focused on pacifism, socialism, and unionism. During the Labour government of 1924, Carpenter received a greeting for his 80th Birthday signed by every member of the cabinet. In 1922 Carpenter and Merrill left Millthorpe for reasons that are still unclear. They lived out their days in Guildford, Surrey, where Merrill died in 1928. In 1929 Carpenter himself died and they were buried next to each other in Guildford. After Carpenter’s death, during the great depression of the 1930s, his brand of socialism became widely unpopular. In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell writes about “fruit drinking, nudist, sandal wearer[s] and sex maniac[s]” in the Labour Party, clearly referencing Carpenter’s style of living.
It was only in the 1960s and 70s during the feminist and gay liberation movement that Carpenter’s teachings became relevant again. Fiona MacCarthy called him the “gay godfather of the British left”, and his influence on the gay liberation movement has been profound, though not very well recognised. Sheila Rowbotham’s 2008 biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love has again renewed interest in him, poignantly stating that Carpenter is doomed to be continuously rediscovered.