Sheila Rowbotham, 'Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love'

IssueFebruary 2009
Review by Sian Jones

This vast history spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries, charting not only the life of Edward Carpenter, but also the early development of today’s political and social movements. But at its heart is Carpenter’s struggle with legitimising homosexuality, both in his own life and as an integral part of a new way of living.

While Carpenter’s commitments to the labour movement, democracy and social transformation led to his involvement in adult education, the trade union movement and women’s suffrage, his desire for change involved him in a vastly more eclectic range of campaigns that would not be out of place in the 21st century. His antipathy to scientific thought saw him campaign to close loopholes in the anti- vivisection laws; his ethical humanitarianism contributed to the emerging discourse on human rights; his love of communalism saw him champion parish councils and provide support for the refugees and immigrants whose ideas he supported whilst remaining, according to Shelia Rowbotham, a racist and anti-Semite. While many of these involvements were short-lived – like his passion for cycling – he remained committed to social change.

Often, his frenetic activity results in chapters which amount to lists of the stars of 19th century politics, a who’s who of the anarchist, socialist, feminist and any-other-ist groupings, their speeches, their publications, their intersections. Carpenter rubs shoulders as happily with William Morris, Kropotkin, the young Keir Hardie and Beatrice Webb, as with Sheffield’s socialist elite.

Whether Rowbotham overplays Carpenter’s significance is hard to judge. Certainly Carpenter lived out his ideals and commitment to alternative living – growing his own vegetables in his rural retreat, pioneering the role of sandal-wearing vegetarian – but there is the sense that he played with ideas, as only a man from his background could afford. His family wealth and a clerical Cambridge education enabled him to live a privileged existence, far from the reality of the working-class men whose political interests he championed, and for whom he felt an irresistible desire. For Carpenter, the personal was the political, and underlying Rowbotham’s sometimes relentless catalogue of his political orbit, is Carpenter’s initial struggle to express his own sexuality outside of the safety of his social class and his relationships with the loves of his life: the razor-grinder George Hukin and, from Sheffield’s slums, George Merrill. Heavily influenced by his idol Walt Whitman, Carpenter sought throughout his vast corpus of writings to give expression to his advocacy of an idealised comradeship, a love between men; but it was not until Homogenic Love, published in 1895, that he publicly articulated his ideas of sexual emancipation (and less explicitly, legalisation of homosexuality) as part of the wider process of social transformation.

This isn’t a book for the faint-hearted: Sheila Rowbotham’s years of laborious and detailed research sometimes leave her little room for reflection or analysis – and a glossary of the major figures and movements of the 19th century might help the ordinary reader chart their way through the myriad influences in Carpenter’s life of liberty and love.

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