The lost Utopian: Why have so few of us heard of Victorian poet and renowned socialist Edward Carpenter?

Edward Carpenter was the Victorian Morrissey, the English Walt Whitman – and the original vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialist. So why is this gloriously eccentric figure almost forgotten today?
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The Independent Culture

On his 80th birthday in 1924, five years before his death, the socialist Utopian poet, mystic, activist, homophile, feminist, nudist and environmentalist Edward Carpenter received an album signed by every member of Ramsay MacDonald's Labour Cabinet. Glowing tributes appeared in the socialist papers as well as in the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and even the Egyptian Gazette.

In the early 20th century, Carpenter was a celebrity. Hordes of men and women – but mostly young men – had beaten a path to his rural retreat in Millthorpe, near Sheffield, to sit at his vegetarian, be-sandalled feet, or to take part in his morning sun-baths and sponge downs in his back garden.

After his death, however, his charismatic reputation faded faster than a Yorkshire tan. By the middle of the century he was regarded as a crank. When that Eton-educated proletarian George Orwell decried the left's habit of attracting "every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England", everyone knew who he was dissing.

Today, despite the brief renaissance of his works with the gay left after the emergence of gay lib in the 1960s and 1970s, and this worthy yet fascinating new biography by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham, it sometimes seems as though there's almost nothing left of Ted save his beard and sandals (he seems to have introduced sandal-wearing to these shores). He's become the Cheshire cat of fin-de-siècle English Utopianism. One could argue, and I will, that the main thing that connects most of us with Carpenter today is EM Forster's bottom.

George Merrill, Carpenter's uninhibited working-class partner, touched Forster's repressed Cambridge backside during a visit to Millthorpe in 1912, "... gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people's. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought."

Inspired, Forster went home, sat down on his probably still-tingling buttocks and wrote the first "gay" novel, Maurice. Though it wasn't to be published until after timid Forster's death, DH Lawrence saw the manuscript and was himself touched: Lady Chatterley's Lover is in many ways a heterosexualised Maurice. When Maurice was made into a film in the 1980s, its stars James Wilby and Rupert Graves made millions of rumps, male and female, tingle at a time when homosexuality, as a result of Section 28 and Aids, had become a cultural battleground.

Carpenter became a kind of English Whitman figure, though more outspoken on the subject of toleration of same-sex love than Whitman ever dared to be in the US. Alas, he was not nearly as fine a poet (another reason why his work hasn't endured).

Merrill and Edward Carpenter's relationship lasted nearly 40 years, and was an inspiration to many. Carpenter described Merrill as his "simple nature child", his "rose in winter", his "ruby embedded in marl and clay", and delighted in Merrill's lack of guilt about the "seamy side of life". Raised in the Sheffield slums and without any formal education, Merrill was almost untouched by Christianity. On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night on Gethsemane, Merrill's response was: "Who with?"

Carpenter was born into an upright upper- middle class family in Hove, Brighton (a sizeable inheritance financed his purchase of Millthorpe and his comradely life in the North). He was drawn to the working classes because he saw them as rescuing him from himself – as much as he was rescuing them.

"Eros is a great leveller," Carpenter wrote in The Intermediate Sex. "Perhaps the true democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society." He noted that many "Uranians" "of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way".

It's worth pointing out that Wilde and Bosie's relationship, which was to cause Forster and many other homosexuals at that time such grief, was based on their mutual enjoyment of rent boys. Carpenter disapproved of such exploitation, but you can imagine Wilde jesting that people like Carpenter were socialists only because they didn't want to pay for their trade.

Rowbotham, to her credit, doesn't shrink from pointing out the limits of Carpenter's socialism: "Carpenter never queried his own tacit presumption that the lower classes and subordinated races were to be defended when vulnerable and abject but treated with contempt when they sought individual advancement." To this, it could be added that if Carpenter succeeded in abolishing class, then with it would be abolished the interest in the working classes of men like Carpenter. Each man kills the thing he loves.

One young lover wrote of Carpenter: "You feel inclined to get hold of him as a boy would his mate" and talked of his "Handsome appearance – his erect, lithe body, trim and bearded face, penetrating eyes and beautiful voice". Carpenter was to continue attracting young working-class men to his door well into silver-haired old age.

Carpenter saw those exclusively attracted to their own sex as harbingers of a new age, the cultural advance guard of socialism in which a Utopian androgyny would be the norm. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for a future world of Carpenters. George Bernard Shaw was enraged by the idea that "intermediacy" should be recommended to "the normal" as the desired way to be.

EM Forster described Carpenter's mysticism as the usual contradiction of wanting to "merge with the cosmos and retain identity" at the same time. This described pretty much everything, from Ted's attitude towards comradeship and homosexuality, class and socialism, and even Millthorpe, where he would write standing in a sentry box in the garden while his "retreat" was overrun by guests.

His championing of androgyny and female emancipation held contradictions. Rowbotham describes his horror and disgust at the androgyny of a Siva statue he witnessed on a mystical visit to India as being "akin to the disgust he had felt at seeing the female nudes in a French art gallery". For Carpenter, "acceptable femininity consisted of lithe gay men and supportive, tom-boyish sister figures".

Perhaps the most lasting and pertinent thing about his life is a question: how on Earth did the old bugger get away with it? How did he avoid a huge scandal? How did he end up so lionised in his old age? Especially when you consider what happened to Wilde.

The answer is probably the same reason for his lack of appeal today. His prose now seems strangely precious and oblique, replete with coy, coded classical references. Worst of all for modern audiences, he necessarily downplayed the sexual aspect of same-sex love. Class helped too: even his live-in relationship with Merrill was often seen as one of master and servant (that's how Merrill, who was financially dependent on Carpenter, was legally described).

One contemporary suspected that Carpenter might not be as simple as he presented himself, that his mysticism "gave him a certain detachment which protected him against prosecution as a heretic". To which Rowbotham drily observes: "As for the non-mystical Merrill, he just tried out the idealistic admirers." (Or, as that Northern prophet Morrissey was to sing many years later: "I recognise that mystical air / It means I'd like to seize your underwear.")

Whatever Carpenter's survival secret, it's rather wonderful for us that he did. Although he fades in and mostly out of consciousness today, it's hard not to agree with Rowbotham's conclusion: "This complicated, confusing, contradictory yet courageous man is not going to vanish entirely from view."

The extract

Edward Carpenter: A life of liberty and love, By Sheila Rowbotham (Verso £24.99)

"...Though after the Wilde trial, homosexual men began to be labelled as 'oscarwildes', men who did not fit the green carnation stereotype remained in the shadows, swathed in a cloak of ambiguity... In socialist circles, this opaqueness was compounded by the overlap between political and personal comradeship"

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