Edward Carpenter was born in 1844, the seventh child of a well-off family in Brighton. In 1864 he went to Cambridge, where he studied mathematics; in 1868 he achieved a first-class degree and was granted a clerical fellowship. Ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church, he served as curate to the reforming socialist theologian F.D. Maurice. In the early 1870s, Carpenter entered a period of religious and sexual crisis, gave up his curacy and became involved with the Cambridge University Extension movement, founded to take adult education to women and workers in the North of England.1 Carpenter went on to become one of the best-known reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His ironic self-description – ‘a so-called “poet and prophet”’2 – captures the difficulty of characterizing him. He was a socialist, a mystic, a sexual reformer, a humanitarian and an anti-imperialist; he did much to popularize contemporary philosophy and science in a progressive vein; he is best remembered today for his pioneering defence of homosexuality both in person and in print. When he died in June 1929, however, he was already seen as an anachronism in a world where, as H.G. Cocks notes, ‘religion had come under suspicion and fallen into decay as one of the principal locations for sexual expression of all kinds’.3 His friend, the novelist
E.M. Forster, observed, ‘If my impression of him is correct, he is not likely to have much earthly immortality.’4 Since the 1977 publication of Sheila Rowbotham’s account of Carpenter in Socialism and the New Life,5 however, scholarly interest in Carpenter has been significant, as the themes that were central to his work – a concern with social justice and sexual politics, and an effort to make connections between various radical causes, from socialism to feminism and sexual reform – are important issues in our own day.