Edward Carpenter was an English poet, social theorist and campaigner, and has been described as an early gay activist. As a proponent of an alternative, anti-industrial mode of life and an advocate of sexual freedom, he exercised a significant influence on progressive social thought at the turn of the century.
Born in Hove in 1844, he was educated at Brighton College before going up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, the scene of his homosexual awakening accompanied by romantic rejection. After leaving university, he visited male prostitutes in libertine Paris before entering the Church of England as a Christian socialist curate. Heavily influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman and increasingly wearied by the hypocrisy of Victorian society, he soon left the Church and travelled to Yorkshire with the intention of educating workingmen, settling in Sheffield in 1882. Here he became increasingly politically engaged, joining the Socialist League in 1884. Like Gandhi, with whom he later corresponded, he was moved by Ruskin to reject the system of industrial capitalism, and advocated the back-to-the-earth Communist society idealized in Morris’ News from Nowhere. Inheriting his father’s fortune, he purchased a home at Millthorpe, Derbyshire, in 1882 and there began his soon-to-be iconic life of market gardening, poetry and hand-crafting the footwear he is credited with introducing from India: sandals.
Drawn increasingly to Hindu philosophy, he travelled to India and Ceylon in 1890. He stayed at the home of a college friend Ponnambalam Arunachalam and climbed Adam’s Peak in the company of Kalua, a lascar whom he had met on the steamer to Colombo. Following conversations with the guru Ramaswamy (known as the Gnani), he developed the conviction that socialism would bring about a revolution in human consciousness as well as of economic conditions. After returning to England, a chance meeting in a railway carriage led to his lifelong romance with George Merrill, a Sheffield workingman who joined him at Millthorpe in 1898. Undeterred by Wilde’s conviction in 1895, Carpenter insisted that ‘Uranian’ relationships could bring about a social levelling, and a stay at Millthorpe in 1912 gave E. M. Forster the outline of Maurice. From the cottage, now a social hub for radicals, he campaigned for environmentalism, animal rights, sexual freedom, pacifism and the Women’s Movement, while in London he encountered a lifelong friend and influence in Rabindranath Tagore. Although he did not travel again to India, friends such as Charlotte Despard, James and Margaret Cousins, Sarojini Naidu, Romain Rolland and Henry Salt continued to connect him to the subcontinent and its freedom struggle. A significant figure in the Fabian Society, he was in 1893 a founder member of the Independent Labour Party. He died in 1929 and was buried with Merrill at Mount Cemetery in Guildford, Surrey.