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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Edward  Carpenter

Edward Carpenter 1844to –1929

British writer, poet, and philosopher, and an activist in the early socialist and gay rights movements. As a young man, he pursued an academic career, attending Cambridge and becoming ordained in the Church of England, mostly because it was the thing to do. He was quickly dissatisfied with conventional Victorian life, but it wasn’t until reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that he was inspired to leave the church and forge his own path. He worked as a traveling lecturer with the hope of connecting with England’s working classes, and eventually settled in Sheffield where he became active in the burgeoning socialist movement and its various incarnations. When his parents died in 1882, he used his inheritance to build a house at Millthorpe in the nearby countryside, and in 1890 he traveled to India to study Eastern religion. Upon his return, he met George Merrill. Carpenter was aware of his sexuality from an early age, but didn’t have the chance to act on it until later in life. Merrill was from a working class family—which was Carpenter’s preference when it came to romantic partners—and the two formed an immediate bond. Merrill moved in with him at Millthorpe in 1898, and there they lived openly as a gay mixed-class couple, only three years after Oscar Wilde’s trial had scared most others into hiding. Carpenter was a prolific writer, penning the socialist poem Towards Democracy, the condemning Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure, and the nearly unprecedented Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society, which discussed homosexuality in a positive light, yet somehow avoided prosecution. Many of Carpenter’s ideas were ahead of its time, from his beliefs about sexual freedom, to class equality, to air pollution, to vegetarianism. And his home in the woods became a meeting place for great minds from around the world, including E. M. Forster, who would base his novel Maurice on the couple. Carpenter and Merrill remained together for nearly 40 years until their deaths, and are buried together in the same grave.

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