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Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter (1844 - 1929), was a writer, socialist philosopher and a pioneering gay, women’s and animal rights and also an environmental protection activist. Carpenter studied at Cambridge, becoming a Trinity Fellow, and also being ordained as a curate in 1870. During this period Carpenter was strongly influenced by the works of Walt Whitman with their emphasis on ‘manly love and friendship’, but also by the ideas he encountered when attending Henry Fawcett’s Republican Club. In 1874 he relinquished his curateship and was required also to resign his Fellowship. Carpenter then spent some time lecturing on astronomy at Leeds for the University Extension scheme and in 1877 he visited Whitman in the US. On his return to Britain he decided to settle in Sheffield, “attracted by the hills and beautiful, craggy countryside that surrounded the town” (Rowbotham 2008: 60). It was here that he met a scythe-maker called Albert Fearnehough who lived in a farm cottage on the farm belonging to Charles Fox. Through his friendship with these men Carpenter was introduced to manual labour and a rural way of life, and he embraced both of these zealously, coming to believe that a simple, uncluttered, unmaterialistic way of life was an important part of the way to achieve a better more moral society. He also became a vegetarian and a teetotaller.

It was around this time that Carpenter began writing poems and his volume Towards Democracy was first published in 1883 (although he added to it and republished it several times afterwards). In 1882 Carpenter’s father died, and with his inheritance Carpenter bought about seven acres of land outside Sheffield at Millthorpe and built a house there, where he moved in October 1883. Later, Fearnehough and his wife lived with Carpenter at Millthorpe. Here Carpenter embarked on market gardening, writing and also sandal-making. He joined the Democratic Federation founded by Hyndman and also the Fellowship of the New Life, where he met Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner. Carpenter and Schreiner became close friends in the period after 1885, and he found in both Ellis and Schreiner “two friends who were, like him, intent on examining sexual responses and attitudes” (Rowbotham 2008: 93).

Schreiner and Carpenter were to remain friends until her death in 1920; she stayed at Millthorpe many times and there came to know many people in Carpenter’s circle, importantly including Bob Muirhead, Alf Mattison and Isabella Ford. Carpenter began lecturing for the Independent Labour Party and also the Fellowship of the New Life, from which the Fabian Society later grew, and he was instrumental in setting the programme for the Sheffield Socialist Society when it was formed in 1886. In 1889 Carpenter’s New Year Fabian lecture was published as Civilization: Its Cause and Cure, and in 1892 From Adam’s Peak to Elephanta gave an account of his actual and spiritual journey in Ceylon and India in 1890-1. Later, between 1894 and 1895, the Labour Press in Manchester published four of Carpenter’s pamphlets on sex matters including Woman, and her Place in a Free Society and Marriage in Free Society.

At Millthorpe, Carpenter surrounded himself with a semi-permanent community of visitors, friends and lovers. Around 1886-7 he enjoyed a relationship with a razor-grinder called George Hukin, but from 1893, George Merrill, an engine driver’s son who had grown up in Sheffield’s slums, became Carpenter’s primary companion after the Fearnehoughs left Millthorpe. In 1922 when Carpenter had become increasingly frail, he and Merrill moved to new Millthorpe at Guilford, Surrey; shortly after Merrill’s death, in May 1928 Carpenter had a major stroke and died just over a year later.

Schreiner’s letters to Carpenter span between 1886 and 1920 but are concentrated during the 1880s and 1890s. The letters overall are distinctive in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, they strongly attest to Schreiner and Carpenter’s shared love of nature and landscape, and are filled with powerful descriptions of the sky and sea of the Mediterranean (where Schreiner spent a great deal of time in the late 1880s), and the sun, mountains and untamed vegetation of the Cape. Secondly, Schreiner too shared Carpenter’s rejection of social convention and particularly the constraints of ‘proper dress’. Writing from Ganna Hoek in 1892, for example, she commented: “I like to feel this wild, untamed life with ‘the will to live’ still strong & untamed in it, seething about one. It makes the old strength come back into ones heart. It’s beautifully hot here. You know how lovely that is, the fierce clear sunlight shining full on you. Yesterday I went alone on the top of a koppje & took off all my clothes & wandered about for hours in the hot dry sand & thorny bushes. Its delightful to feel the sand direct on one. In England it’s so cold one must cover & peep & have conviction of ?sin all the while.”

Thirdly, Schreiner’s letters to Carpenter remark extensively on both her own writing and his, with Schreiner frequently commenting on Carpenter’s writing and stressing the influence they had on her. It is clear that his Towards Democracy had a great effect on Schreiner, and she was still posting copies to friends long after the book’s original publication. Relatedly, Schreiner’s letters also reflect on the problem that so many of their reforming, like-minded contemporaries also grappled with: how to live and work in an ethical way, and how to balance the competing demands of life. During the late 1880s Schreiner was struggling to balance the demands of human bonds and relationships and her need to write, to do ‘impersonal work’ for the benefit of society more broadly. In 1887 she urged Carpenter to recognise the importance of solitude as a precondition for writing: “Yes, you must get away from Sheffield. I have seen that for a long time, but only the person themselves can tell when the time has come
I wish you could be quite utterly alone for some four months, & come out on the other side
Death will be like that. Yet one can work.” And later in 1888 she exhorted, “Edward, you must write much. Make your life consist in that.”

Fourthly, Schreiner’s letters to Carpenter also comment extensively on their more specific shared ethical concerns including: vegetarianism (“My objection to meat eating is & remains the horror of eating ones animal brothers”), rational dress (“would much like to help forward any movement for the dropping of clothes”) and anti-vivisection (“It is cowardly wickedness to torture animals to satisfy our own curiosity”). After her return to South Africa in 1889, Schreiner also attempted to explain to Carpenter the distinctive form of capitalism in southern Africa and that the European ideas about socialism which he valued did not translate very easily in the southern African context, not least because of the imperial factor in southern Africa and the distinctive form that capitalism was taking there. Later in the context of the 1899-1902 South African War, several of Schreiner’s letters to Carpenter powerfully give voice to her view of the war as primarily against the forces of capitalism. “Fancy having absolutely to fight the capitalist for our life”, she wrote to him in 1899.

Fifthly, another distinctive feature of Schreiner’s letters to Carpenter is their relaxed and easy-going epistolary ethics. Unlike in some of her correspondences, Schreiner did not seem to expect a pattern of strict reciprocity in her epistolary exchanges with Carpenter. On the contrary, she urged him never to write her ‘duty’ letters and instead to only “Drop me a line when the spirit moves you”. The tone of her letters to Carpenter is generally chatty, warm, conversational, earthy and peppered with teasing humour, for example about Carpenter’s sandal-making. Moreover, it is striking that in her epistolary relationship with Carpenter, Schreiner was perhaps better able to achieve the comradely, fraternal, egalitarian friendship that she was unable to fully achieve with Karl Pearson, for example. She frequently addressed Carpenter as ‘brother’ and comfortably expressed her love and affection for him, commenting “I love you so, dear, you have entered right into my heart”, for example, and signing herself ‘Your Donkey’. Nonetheless Schreiner remained acutely aware that her position as a woman complicated the ideal of comradely friendship which she cherished, and she lamented wryly to Carpenter, “I wish I was a man that I might be friends with you all”.

As already indicated, Schreiner’s letters to Carpenter continued after her return to South Africa and her marriage to Cronwright-Schreiner in 1894. When she returned to Britain at the end of 1913, she resumed face-to-face meetings with Carpenter from time to time, but the outbreak of the First World War brought about something of a rift in their friendship. Schreiner believed that Carpenter supported the war, or at least tacitly accepted it, whereas she was an absolute pacifist. In a letter of January 1915 she commented, “I think you think I am a horrid person, but you know its just because you’ve always been to me so exhalt, so far above all national & class prejudice that it almost stunned me to believe you approved of the war”, adding, “Now I’ll never never talk about the war to you again, if you’ll only come & see me when you come to town.” Carpenter wrote onto this letter, “I didn’t approve of the war! but we couldn’t help it.”, a comment which actually proves her point. Schreiner continued to write to Carpenter and to see him occasionally, but as she expressed it to their mutual friend Bob Muirhead, she never mentioned or discussed the war with him and became anxious if she thought he might raise the subject. When she left for South Africa in August 1920, however, she wrote Carpenter a remarkable ‘last letter’ (there is no knowing whether this was in fact her last letter to him), in which she wrote, “If I dont see you again dear old Edward Good bye. All good be with you
One is glad to have lived, & that one day after thousands of years a world will rise on earth in which nation hate & the love of dominance will have passed away - is what I believe - though I can’t prove it.”

For further information see:
Edward Carpenter (1916) My Days and Dreams London: Allen & Unwin
Sheila Rowbotham (2008) Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love London: Verso 
Sheila Rowbotham and Jeffrey Weeks (1977) Socialism and the New Life: The Personal and Sexual Politics of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis London: Pluto Press
Chushichi Tsuzuki (1980) Edward Carpenter, 1844-1929 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Chushichi Tsuzuki (2004) ‘Carpenter, Edward (1844-1929)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32300
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recipient icon Recipient Of
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Sheffield City Libraries, Archives & Local Studies: Edward Carpenter Collection, Archives & Local Studies, Sheffield City Libraries: The Edward Carpenter Collection is held ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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mentioned icon Mentioned In
collection icon Cory Library, Rhodes University: The Cory Library, Grahamstown, is a rich resource for books and archival papers pertaining in particular to the history of th... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Greene Family: A sub-set of Schreiner’s letters to Alice Greene is held in the private collection of the Greene family heirs, (while o... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin: The HRC, Austin, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers pertaining to literary life and manuscripts across... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Humpherys Bedborough: The letter from Schreiner to George Bedborough is part of the private Legitimation League Collection owned by Professor Anne ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Lytton Family Papers: Schreiner’s letters to Constance Lytton are part of the extensive family papers of the Lytton family and are held in th... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Macfarlane-Muirhead Family: Schreiner’s letters to Robert Muirhead are part of Macfarlane-Muirhead family collection and can be accessed at the Mui... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Sheffield City Libraries, Archives & Local Studies: Edward Carpenter Collection, Archives & Local Studies, Sheffield City Libraries: The Edward Carpenter Collection is held ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University College London: Special Collections at UCL is one of the leading university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK. It... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Western Cape Archives: The Jeffreys collection holds three Schreiner letters is part of the manuscript holdings of the Western Cape Archives. The on... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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