The patron saint of sandal-wearers

Matthew Beaumont welcomes Sheila Rowbotham's biography of Edward Carpenter

December 10, 2008
7 min read

‘The personal is political!’ This famous slogan, which seemed to encapsulate the ethics of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, despite (or perhaps because of) its transparent limitations, might just as easily have been forged in the 1880s and 1890s. In the feminist periodical Shafts, to take one representative example, readers were urged throughout the 1890s to adopt a vegetarian diet, to practise an ascetic attitude to property, and even, rather more specifically, to cultivate ‘a less ardent love of their furniture’. It is a moving experience to read the articles and readers’ letters that fill the pages of this journal, and so to catch an idea of the courageous imagination with which thousands of ordinary women reclaimed a sense of humanity in the face of a society whose inhumanity had come to seem more and more manifest.

In England, at the fin de siècle, as the economic system plunged into a prolonged period of depression and as class conflict intensified, innumerable middle-class intellectuals, both male and female, began actively looking for utopian alternatives to the divisive conditions of industrial capitalism. Decisive evidence of this is provided by the phenomenal popularity of Looking Backward (1888), a utopian romance by the American journalist Edward Bellamy, which had sold hundreds of thousands of copies on both sides of the Atlantic by the end of the 19th century. In 1898, the English economist J A Hobson declared that, ‘taking the test of direct intellectual influence upon numbers’, Looking Backward must be accounted ‘one of the most important literary events of the century’.

The people who read this book – and passed it on, and formed societies to discuss it – were inspired by both spiritual and political possibilities. Like the poet W B Yeats, living in London in the late 1880s, they were mesmerised by the Theosophist H P Blavatsky on the one hand and galvanised by the Marxist William Morris on the other. And the alternatives for which these optimists searched were individual as well as collective. They involved adopting an attitude to vivisection quite as much as making a commitment to socialism. Nudism, according to many of these bourgeois renegades, was quite as important to the so-called ’cause’ as trade unionism.

The result of this restlessness was a political counter-culture that was at the same time shaped by the contemporary working-class movement and formed in opposition to it. The bohemian intellectuals who populated the debating clubs of the time, feverishly collaborating in the attempt to create viable alternative lifestyles, could not quite decide whether they were isolated prophets, and thus the inheritors of a romantic tradition of protest, or instead simply the instruments of far larger, increasingly influential historical forces, like the proletariat. To put it in terms formulated by Raymond Williams, it was impossible to decide whether they were the products of a ‘residual’ structure of feeling or an ’emergent’ one.

Fusing the personal and the political offered a solution to this contradiction. If one devised an ethical form of socialism, and sought to exemplify it with the help of like-minded comrades – through enlightened conversation, perhaps, or an attempt to make one’s daily life completely self-sufficient – then one aligned oneself with the emergent anti-capitalist movement but at the same time insulated oneself from its disappointments. And as the apparently climactic class struggles of the late 1880s – the dock strikes, for instance, and the violent demonstrations in central London – began to recede in the 1890s, ethical socialism became more, not less important. The utopianism of the fin de siècle represented a displacement of social conflict as well as an articulation of it.

New Lifers

It is in this historical and ideological context that organisations like the Fellowship of New Life flourished. The Fellowship, an assortment of ethical socialists that included the medical student Havelock Ellis, was first seeded at a small meeting in London in 1883. Its aim, as set out in exploratory advertisements printed on the inside of books and periodicals, was ‘to secure the intimate association of Men and Women desirous of living and of commending to others an honest, healthy and completely human life’. The advertisements qualified this ambition as follows: ‘That is, it proposes to itself the task of working out the ideal of such a life, and determining the conditions of its realisation, of attempting here and now to conform as thoroughly as possible to this ideal; and of rendering its full attainment desirable and possible to all.’

The politics of the Fellowship were thus premised on the assumption, or hope at least, that the embryonic image of an egalitarian society can be conceived and gestated in the individual choices and interpersonal relations of its adherents. In this way, the present might incubate an alternative future. George Bernard Shaw, who briefly flirted with the Fellowship, objected to this insistence on the personal, and so separated from the New Lifers to help institute the Fabian Society, formed in 1884. He preferred the practical business of making reforms in the present to the rather more impractical one of rehearsing for a future that might never appear. In a sense, though, the Fabian Society was simply the obverse of the Fellowship of New Life, since both organisations regarded middle-class progressives, as opposed to the working class itself, as the agent of social change.

The presiding spirit of the New Lifers, though he never exactly joined the Fellowship, was Edward Carpenter. Carpenter’s pursuit of the ‘simple life’, both theoretically and practically, proved more permanent and more influential than that of any of his contemporaries. His utopianism, which was quite as rooted in the late 19th century as that of Bellamy, has nonetheless seemed more durable. Bellamy’s vision of a highly bureaucratised society of the future, to which he gave the unfortunate name ‘Nationalism’, has effectively been a collateral victim of the historical developments that defined the 20th century.

Carpenter’s quasi-anarchistic antipathy to bureaucratic organisation, in contrast, has retained a certain salience. And unlike Bellamy, of course, he didn’t objectify his dreams in the form of a utopian blueprint. The elaborations of the utopian imagination, in so far as they are schematic, date almost as quickly as haute couture. Carpenter preferred instead to refract his dreams through prosaic poems, through poetic prose, and, most importantly, through the life he led.

Long neglected

Carpenter has long been relatively neglected. In the 1960s and 1970s, appropriately enough, as the personal and the political once again seemed inseparable, there were occasional attempts to recapture his importance. One Terence Eagleton, for instance, completed a

D Phil thesis on his thought in 1968. And in 1977, Sheila Rowbotham contributed a substantial section on Carpenter in a book called Socialism and the New Life, which she had written in collaboration with Jeffrey Weeks. More significantly, he was reclaimed by gay activists in the 1980s, who republished some of his writings.

But the left in general has tended to ignore him, embarrassed by his folksiness. He is, after all, the very personification of those fruit-juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, sex-maniacs, Quakers, ‘Nature Cure’ quacks, pacifists and feminists decried by George Orwell.

In her terrifically rich biography of Carpenter, which is as readable as it is densely researched, Rowbotham has finally rescued him from the enormous condescension of posterity, and made him relevant to another epoch shaped by scattered, often confused opposition to capitalism and its imperialist ambitions. Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love makes Carpenter seem of polemical importance for our time to the precise extent that he has been scrupulously located in his time. Rowbotham has removed the patron saint of nudists and sandal-wearers from the cloistered recess in which he has for decades resided, dusted him off, and brilliantly reanimated him.

A paperback edition of Matthew Beaumont’s Utopia Ltd: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900 will be published by Haymarket Books in 2009