Edward Carpenter about 1875
Edward Carpenter about 1875

A Champion of ‘Homogenic Love’

Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love
by Sheila Rowbotham
Verso. 573 pages, $39.95

Reviewed by John Lauritsen

    Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was the most prominent early pioneer of gay liberation. Before him, writing in German, Heinrich Hössli had defended the “male love of the Greeks” (1836-1838) and Karl Heinrich Ulrichs had decried the persecution of “male-male love” (1864-1880). John Addington Symonds had defended the “masculine love” of the Greeks (A Problem in Greek Ethics, 1883) and rebutted 19th century homophobia (A Problem in Modern Ethics, 1891). But their writings were known to very few. In contrast, Carpenter's polemics were read by tens of thousands and were translated into foreign languages.
    Carpenter was involved in many causes: socialism, women's emancipation, vegetarianism, animal rights, nudism, sunbathing, Eastern mysticism, the simple life, and sexual freedom. Sheila Rowbotham deals thoroughly with all of these in her new book, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love. While not the first biography of Carpenter, it is by far the most comprehensive. An earlier biography by Chushichi Tsuzuki, Edward Carpenter 1844-1929: Prophet of Human Fellowship (Cambridge 1980), is much shorter, though still valuable.
    Carpenter's first homosexual experience came at the age of twenty. As he was moved by further experiences, readings of ancient Greek literature, and a visit to Walt Whitman, emancipation of “homogenic love” or “Uranian love” became the paramount endeavor of his life.
    At 37 he described his sexual tastes frankly to Havelock Ellis (from Carpenter's anonymous case study, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, quoted in Tsuzuki):

My ideal of love is a powerful, strongly built man, of my own age or rather younger — preferably of the working class. Though having solid sense and character, he need not be specially intellectual. If endowed in the latter way, he must not be too glib or refined. Anything effeminate in a man, or anything of the cheap intellectual style, repels me very decisively.... My chief desire in love is bodily nearness or contact, as to sleep naked with a naked friend.... I am an artist by temperament and choice, fond of all beautiful things especially the male human form; of active, slight, muscular build.

    In Victorian England, male-to-male sexuality was shrouded in silence. Undaunted, Carpenter gave a public lecture in Manchester on “homogenic love” in 1894. He chose “homogenic” over “homosexual” because the latter was a “bastard” term, mixing Greek and Latin roots. He used such terms as “the intermediate sex” or “Uranian love” in his later writings.
    In April 1895 Oscar Wilde was arrested, “and from that moment a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex, and especially of course questions of the Intermediate Sex.” (Carpenter's autobiography, My Days and Dreams, 1916)  Carpenter's publisher canceled its agreement with regard to his new book, Love's Coming-of-Age, and refused to continue printing or selling his popular collection of poems, Towards Democracy (1883).
    But Carpenter persevered, and after a book of art criticism,
Angel's Wings (1898), returned to his favored cause with Ioläus: An Anthology of Friendship (1902), a work that still reads well. When I founded Pagan Press* in 1982, my first project was to re-publish Ioläus, which had then been out of print for over half a century. Ioläus covers romantic friendship from pre-historic up to modern times. The final section on Walt Whitman closes with his words, “the dear love of comrades.”  Though Ioläus was preceded by Elisar von Kupffer's Lieblingminne und Freundesliebe in der Weltliteratur (Berlin 1900), it is outstanding for choice of material and felicity of translations, many done by Carpenter himself from Greek, Latin, German, and Italian.** While Ioläus is ostensibly concerned with Friendship, it was known as the “Bugger's Bible” among booksellers.
   After books on various topics, including one on Walt Whitman (1906), Carpenter wrote The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women (1908) and Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk (1914).  Though these books were advanced for the time and contain much valuable material, both are vitiated by the intermediate concept, taken from the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who believed that gay men (or Urnings) had a "female soul trapped in a male body."  Carpenter was caught in a contradiction: on the one hand, he discussed "the homogenic attachment" as something experienced by all kinds of people over the ages; on the other hand, he treated the "intermediate sex" as a small and exotic sexual minority.  In his own words:

The only theory — from K.H. Ulrichs to Havelock Ellis — which has at all held its ground in this matter, is that in congenital cases of sex-inversion there is a mixture of male and female elements in the same person.... 

This is unconvincing. There is a mixture of male and female elements in all people, not just in a sexual minority. Although some gay men may be more than usually feminine, and some lesbians, more than usually masculine, this does not explain their attachment to others of their own sex. Carpenter increasingly became aware of these contradictions, and admitted at the end of The Intermediate Sex that many men who loved other men were thoroughly masculine, and even supervirile (a term adopted from Gustav Jaeger). In later life he came to believe that, in historical and anthropological perspective, bisexuality is the human norm.

George Merrill
George Merrill

    In posterity Carpenter is paired with George Merrill, a young man he met in 1891, who for over a third of a century would be his lover, partner, and (for tax purposes) servant. The shared life of Carpenter and Merrill at Millthorpe, Carpenter's small farm in the north of England, was the inspiration for E.M. Forster's homoerotic novel, Maurice. In Berlin, photographs of Merrill and Carpenter were exhibited as famous gay lovers, along with other couples like “Bosie” and Oscar Wilde. Although the relationship had its strains — Merrill's occasional indiscretions and his later alcoholism (Tsuzuki) — it endured until Merrill's death in January 1928. Carpenter died himself a year later, and was buried in the same grave as his comrade.
    Sheila Rowbotham makes a strong case that George Hukin, whom Carpenter met in 1886, was the love of his life. Hukin was a young razor grinder and fellow member of the Sheffield Socialists. For the first time Carpenter found his passion fully reciprocated, and he fell head over heels in love. Then, a year later: “As they lay in bed together Hukin told him that he was in love with a woman called Fannie and that they were to marry.” Carpenter was crushed. Eventually, however, with Hukin's support, he accepted his lover's bisexuality and became friends with his wife, Fannie. Rowbotham sums up this episode nicely: “There were no known patterns for their criss-crossing emotions. Yet somehow, without any maps to guide them, they had contained the pain and prevented it from breaking out in ugliness and anger. This must have required a tremendous effort of will on the part of all three of them.”
    Carpenter had a gift for friendship. After George Hukin's death in 1917 at the age of 57, he continued to be a good friend to his widow, Fannie. One might have expected the two Georges to be jealous of each other, but they became close friends. After Hukin's death, Merrill wept uncontrollably all night.
    Carpenter's life at Millthorpe, where he and George Merrill made sandals and did market gardening, was an inspiration to counterculturists all over the world, who made pilgrimages to Millthorpe to visit the “recluse” and savor “the simple life”. But Carpenter's was not a common simplicity; like Coco Chanel's simplicity, it had style. His clothes at Millthorpe may have been rustic, but they were well tailored. Astutely aware of his image, Carpenter always had a stable of fine photographers, both amateur and professional. (For large and beautiful photographs of Carpenter click here and here.)
    Rowbotham has produced an excellent and beautifully written biography of Edward Carpenter. My one quibble is that she might have said more about the influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was advocating socialism, free love, nudism, and vegetarianism long before Carpenter was born. In 1925 Carpenter co-authored The Psychology of the Poet Shelley, which intimates that Shelley was a bisexual who inherently preferred males. Carpenter's close friend, Henry S. Salt, wrote an excellent study, 
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer  (1896). Though not mentioned by either Rowbotham or Tsuzuki, Carpenter in 1879 or 1880 paid a visit to Edward John Trelawny (1792-1881), Shelley's last surviving friend. Trelawny would then have been in his late eighties, and Carpenter, in his mid-thirties. Carpenter wrote in My Days and Dreams: “It gave me a strange thrill on leaving (and he died soon after) to grasp the hand of one who had been so near to Shelley, and whose character undoubtedly had a great fascination for the poet.”

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* To see the current Pagan Press booklist click here.

** To read an excerpt from Ioläus, on Achilles and Patroklos, click here

This review was first published in the May-June 2009 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review.

John Lauritsen's most recent book is The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (2007). 

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