The rebel’s rebel

<strong>Edward Carpenter: a Life of Liberty and Love</strong>

<em>Sheila Rowbotham</em>

Verso, 5

The views of Edward Carpenter, a late-Victorian libertarian and outspoken campaigner for gay love, women’s rights, nudism, recycling and just about every other progressive cause, would differ little from those held by many activists today. He advocated “plain living, friendship with the Animals, open-air habitats, fruitarian food and such degree of Nudity as we can reasonably attain to”, and was passionate about the need to “transform” politics and human relationships.

Acutely conscious of how he might be remembered, Carpenter kept meticulous records that shed light on his world and the people he knew (including Walt Whitman, Robert Graves, E M Forster, Oscar Wilde and Emma Goldman), but also reveal his tendency to exaggerate and self-dramatise. The feminist academic Sheila Rowbotham cuts through this judiciously, gently debunking the myth of the “rigid” Victorian household he claimed to have grown up in, while acknowledging the genuine torments he suffered in his early years (most notably, his painful struggle with his homoerotic desires).

Ultimately it is hard to disagree with Rowbotham that Carpenter’s inspiring tale remains “as relevant for rebels now as it was then”.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas