Edward Carpenter

By SHEILA ROWBOTHAM

After Edward Carpenter died in 1929, E. M. Forster speculated that the British essayist, poet, and philosopher “won’t survive…in his books, but in the testimonies of his friends. He was so much more important in himself than in his printed words.” Indeed, Carpenter isn’t read much today, perhaps confirming Forster’s suggestion that his friend’s influence stemmed primarily from the force of his personality. Fortunately, Sheila Rowbotham’s fine biography captures that personality so vividly that it is sure to renew interest in this remarkable man. Carpenter was born into a respectable Victorian family in 1844, but he became a socialist whose adopted causes — gay liberation, free love, nudism, vegetarianism, recycling — anticipated movements that wouldn’t coalesce for decades or more. He wrote and lectured tirelessly, but more than expressing his ideals, he lived them. Although he had a considerable inheritance, he engaged in cooperative farming, declaring that “we will show in ourselves that the simplest life is as good as any?and we will so adorn it that the rich and idle shall enviously leave their sofas and gilded saloons and come and join hands with us in it.” Not long after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labor for committing sodomy, Carpenter began living openly with his male partner. Rowbotham’s exhaustive research has produced a riveting portrait of a man who had an uncommon ability to draw people to him and infect them with his utopian beliefs. In doing so, she writes, he “helped to prod the modern world into being.”