Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter 1874

Socialist
Poet
Philosopher

1906
Publishes ‘Loves Coming of Age’

‘Eros is a great leveller’ Edward Carpenter

 

Edward Carpenter left behind his middle class upbringing and career in the church in his late 30s. He went to live in a working class community outside Sheffield. There he became interested in socialism. He lived openly with his lover, George Merrill. Merrill was twenty two years younger, from a poor area of Sheffield.

Edward Carpenter right and his partner George Merrill © University of Manchester (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

He started to write about sexuality when he was nearly 50 years old. At that time the only English-language writing about homosexuality came from police reports and medical records. Homosexuals were seen as either criminals or diseased perverts. Carpenter exchanged letters, books and ideas with other interested people in Britain. John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis were important friends.

The scientific study of human sexuality was just beginning. Carpenter read everything written by sexologists in Europe, particularly from Germany and Austria. There was a more open and liberal sexual debate in those countries. Some writers used the term ‘sexual inversion’ to refer to homosexuality. Carpenter also used the term ‘invert’.

Edward Carpenter sits dynamically with his back to a late Victorian desk. He is sat in a chair that is facing in towards the desk, but he is facing away from the desk. His right elbow rests on the desk with his left arm resting on the back of the chair.He has a neat, trimmed beard which is peppered with patches of white and grey. He is wearing a suit, with a bow-tie and holding the top of a rounded walking stick in his right-hand. Edward Carpenter is looking out of the frame. This gives us a profile of his face. While his pose in the chair gives a three-quarters profile of his upper-body and the top of his thighs.
Portrait of Edward Carpenter from Love’s Coming of Age, 1911  © Public Domain

The 1906 edition of Loves Coming of Age included a chapter called ‘The Intermediate Sex’. This chapter brought together his thinking about sexual inversion developed over the previous fifteen years. Other essays in the book were about sex and love, women in society and marriage. Publishing all the essays together helped to show that he was not only interested in homosexuality. It also helped build alliances around sexual relations, the liberation of women and the creation of a free society.

Carpenter argued that you are born with attraction to your own sex and continue to develop the attraction as you experience the world. He claimed that same sex attraction was far more common than popularly assumed, including among women. He also believed that love between men had existed in many cultures and throughout history. He suggested male male love was on a continuum of sexual characteristics and of sexuality. There were intermediate types which balance the characteristics of male and female. This could lead to cultural change and new opportunities.

Carpenter insisted that psychological illnesses were not the cause of sexual inversion. He said they were the result of the rejection and criminalisation of inverts. He believed private behaviour should not be regulated by law. Carpenter’s long term aim was to end the criminalisation of relations between men.

Carpenter presented homosexuality to the world with great care. His books were written for a general audience. It is clear he used his personal observation and experience even though he never used ‘I’ in the book. He described the great impact of hiding your sexuality. Many radicals and homosexuals at the time saw him as a visionary. For years important labour activists, feminists, writers, poets and academics visited his home.

In 1908 Carpenter published another collection of essays, The Intermediate Sex. This time all the essays were about homosexuality. His books were read by tens of thousands and translated into other languages. The books provided information, hope and support for homosexuals who found no other public representation or acknowledgement of themselves. His ideas continue to be important today.

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