Edward Carpenter
by Beth Palmer

Portrait of Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), by Frederick Hollyer. Public domain.

Edward Carpenter was born into a large family in Sussex in 1844. He was highly intelligent and widely-read and won various prizes during his time studying at Cambridge University. He was ordained in 1870 and worked as a curate for F. D. Maurice, a founder of Christian Socialism. He soon, however, found these duties to be incompatible with the kind of life he wanted to lead and relinquished orders in 1874. He would later come to a different kind of spirituality after reading the Bhagavad Gita and travelling in India.

Carpenter’s connection with nature and respect for the natural world was a strong principle in his life and he became a teetotal vegetarian who produced his own food in his market garden at Millthorpe in Derbyshire. Here he lived with George Merrill; their openly gay relationship was unusual for the late-Victorian period and the couple were a beacon of hope for many who felt repressed by legal and social restrictions on same-sex love. Here too, Carpenter wrote poetry, notably his Towards Democracy which looked towards a fairer, socialist future as well as pamphlets such as Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (1889) and Sex-Love and Its Place in a Free Society (1894). The Intermediate Sex (1908) was a landmark publication in its open and positive discussion of same-sex desire. Many of Carpenter’s ideas about sexuality, gender equality, worker’s rights, pacificism and socialism acted as inspiration for those who came after him and despite his work falling out of print in the second half of the twentieth century Carpenter is now recognised as an important figure in LGBTQ+ and labour history. His life has been recorded in a biography by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham and has been fictionalised in the novel The New Life (2023) by Tom Crewe.

Carpenter and Merrill moved south to Guildford and found a home in Mountside Road in 1922. This location was close to several friends, including E. M. Forster who lived at Abinger. When Merrill died Carpenter sold up and moved the short distance to Josephs Road where he died in 1929. Carpenter is buried in the Mount Cemetery in Guildford in the same grave as his partner Merrill. Carpenter’s inscription on their tombstone reads:

Do not think too much of the dead husk of your friend or mourn too much over it, but bend your thoughts out towards the real soul or self which has escaped to reach it. For so surely you will cast a light of gladness upon his outward journey and contribute your part towards the building of that kingdom of love which links our earth to heaven.

Photograph of the grave of philosophical poet Edward Carpenter and George Merrill at the Mount Cemetery in Guildford. Credit Jack1956 Wikimedia Commons.

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