LGBTQ history Month 2021
Last week I received a text form a friend who is researching gay history. This chapter of his book is on Edward Carpenter. Reading it I was so moved to hear of a man who was taking action to create community at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Many of you may know of him and the Edward Carpenter community, but I’m sharing the essay by Damien here as it is so well informed and paints such a beautiful picture of him and his work. We are very familiar with the story of Oscar Wilde, and it’s retelling in contemporary fiction through films and television series has given an added emphasis to the feeling that men like us in the past were persecuted and suffered. The story of Edward Carpenter is very different.
The stories we tell ourselves of our ancestors matter. I find it fascinating that contemporary society has chosen to focus on retelling the story of Wilde, whereas there are no motion pictures of Carpenter’s life, which is just as fascinating and shows an example of a gay man thriving despite the challenges of the world he found himself in. If you are not familiar with his story, I hope reading this gives you a new reference point for what it can be to be a man who loves men. Not that his life was a fairy tale, it had its difficulties, but he did live with his lover his whole life and was able to create a community where men who loved men could go and be open about themselves.
Edward Carpenter, by Damien Rowse
Edward Carpenter is the English father of reclaiming gay consciousness. Born 1844 in Brighton, Sussex, he grew up knowing that there was not space in his family for his true nature. Edward’s affluent parents instilled in him a strong sense of duty – working for the common good came first while listening to the body’s needs came second. As a student at an elite Brighton boys school and the then all-male University of Cambridge, he was partially able to fit in by hiding his feelings.
After germinating for several years a powerful desire took root inside Edward: to go back to nature and share a life of love and liberty with a male partner. Exposure to the poetry of Walt Whitman proved to be a catalyst for Edward: the Englishman would later travel to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to meet with the American who had created soaring visions of a mystical band of brothers living far from civilisation, and caring for one another as equal comrades. In 1890 Edward also fulfilled a long-held aspiration to directly experience the deeper nature of consciousness when he studied meditation with a teacher in Sri Lanka and India.
The death of his parents left a sizeable inheritance for Edward that allowed him to live comfortably without ever again having to work for a living. Relocating North to Derbyshire County he bought seven acres of land south of Sheffield, in the remote hamlet of Millthorpe. There he built a two-storey house and named the new home Millthorpe. From the time Edward began living there in 1883, this sanctuary became a beacon to gay men of the United Kingdom and Europe for nearly forty years.
As an adult Edward became vegetarian and during the years at Millthorpe was able to experiment with growing his own fruits and vegetables, as well as selling some of this produce at the local market. He created a pair of open-toed sandals for himself and took to wearing these for the rest of his life, thus feeling more connected to the earth he walked upon. Millthorpe was also a site where he and his friends could explore being naked outdoors at times.
In 1891 Edward met the great love of his life in the seemingly unlikely form of George Merrill, a man twenty-three years Edward’s junior with no formal education and raised in a Sheffield slum. They would remain devoted to one another for over thirty years until Merrill’s passing. The relationship was complex. Although George was able to sometimes earn his own income outside of Millthorpe, Edward undoubtedly supported him financially and Merrill was legally registered as a household servant. Both parties explored love and sex with other men during their decades together. On the one hand Edward was kind and generous to young George, introducing him to some of the leading thinkers of the time who visited Millthorpe and lifting him out of a life of hardship. On the other, George was in part treated like a servant, responsible for much of the meal preparation and housework. Meanwhile Edward retreated to a hut in the garden most mornings to write his books.
Edward contributed to a fuller understanding of the nature and historical role among males of men who love men. First he took his cue from nineteenth-century German gay advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who had termed men who love men Uranian, meaning ‘heavenly’. Edward’s understanding was that we possess elements of male spirit as well as aspects of the female polarity, and that unique gift enables us to see more than other people. He comprehensively researched the origins of ‘Uranian’ males in early pagan culture, discovering that we had often been the shamans and druids for our people. Likewise his studies revealed that we had held similar positions in indigenous tradition as spiritual gatekeepers from Africa to Asia and the Americas. This information would be a transformative for many gay men, telling them that people of their kind had once had a special place to stand.
Health difficulties later in life revealed that Edward and George were human beings, not two princes in a fairy-tale. George’s drinking would worsen as the years went by and at the age of sixty he died from alcoholism in 1928. Edward experienced growing pain and stiffness in the body, and soon after Merrill’s death he experienced a paralysing stroke. Thirteen months later Edward Carpenter died at age eighty-four, in June 1929.
Through intelligence, research and determination, Edward managed to openly enjoy what he termed ‘The Simple Life’ with his male lover close to nature, at a time when nearly all gay men were in hiding. To an extent he was able to reclaim his rainbow roots by remembering his true nature and the place of males like himself in pagan culture. Almost a century since his passing, this example continues to inspire gay men of the Edward Carpenter Community in Britain and around the world.