Edward Carpenter's Autobiography
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 5 - BRADWAY AND TOWARDS DEMOCRACY | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 6 - Manual Work and Market Gardening

EVERYTHING, one sometimes thinks, has its Compensation. The soul of man is so vast, so endless, that no matter on what side or sides it be hemmed in or thwarted, it will find its outlet in some fresh direction - all the more powerfully perhaps for its temporary and local obstruction. This is true of bodies of people, and it is true also of individuals.

The sufferings of these years, the emotional distress and tension which I had experienced, poured themselves out in poetical effusions, outbursts, ejaculations - I know not what to call them. Sometimes lying full length in the train coming home at midnight from some lecture engagement, hardly able to move; sometimes in the morning with a sense of restoration, flying over the fields in the sunlight; sometimes in my little lodging; sometimes on a long country walk - I wrote just what the necessity of my feelings compelled - formless scraps, cries, prophetic assurances - in no available metre, or shape, just as they came. In no shape that they could be given to the world; but they were a relief to me, and a consolation.

Afterwards, when I found as it were the keynote which harmonized these disjointed utterances, I made use of them; and they were mostly embodied and embedded and adapted into the structure of Towards Democracy.

I say my nerves had come to such a pass of dislocation, that I was nearly breaking down; and I had sworn a great oath to myself to mend matters somehow. The year 1879 was in many ways the dim dawn or beginning of a new life to me.

Early in that year I made my first valid essays in the direction of a reform in diet. I may have tentatively experimented in vegetarianism before that, but ineffectually and in ignorance. Once I remember boldly dining off nothing but a vegetable marrow. Of course, disastrous defeat and dismay immediately followed! Practically I had always lived along the usual régime, of plentiful meat, washed down with beer or wine; and probably the sick headaches and nervous tension of my early years were to a considerable extent due to this excess of stimulation. Now, the vegetarian ideal, for many reasons, began to commend itself to me; and though I did not abandon meat at once, I gradually pushed along this line - slowly as my way is, but steadily - so that after four or five years, that is, by '83 or '84, I practically was able to dispense with meat (and alcoholics) altogether - and did so dispense, often for months at a time.

A word here about my vegetarian practice generally. I find now [1899] that though I have lived, as said, for months at a time without meat or fish of any kind, and have enjoyed in so doing infinitely better health than ever before - and though I feel as if I could continue in this diet indefinitely and much prefer it - I have yet never made any absolute rule against flesh-eating, and have as a matter of fact eaten a very little every now and then - just, as it were, to see how it tasted, or to avoid giving trouble in Philistine households, and so forth. Having a strong (perhaps a too strong) objection to principles generally, I have disliked the idea of making any absolute rule in the matter. Briefly I find the vegetarian diet - fruit and grains and vegetables, nuts, eggs, and milk - pleasant, clean, healthful in every way, and grateful to one's sense of decency and humanity. It is a real pleasure to live among those who adopt it. But having spent my time for the most part embedded among folk who favour meat, I have not always kept to my own choice, but have given in at times to a supposed convenience or necessity. Perhaps I should have done better, for myself and others, if I had been more resolute, but such are the facts.

In the year 1879 also the absolute necessity for a more open-air life began to make itself felt. I had always lived in towns, and though fond of the country I looked on the town as my natural home. Now I began to long for a country home. I took long walks round Sheffield, and bitterly regretted having to come back in the evening, instead of staying permanently outside. I began to resolve how a change might he possible. Manual work, too, in contradistinction to the mere 'exercise' (riding or cricket or athletics) which takes the place of work among the well-to-do classes, began to have a fascination for me. I think it was in this summer [1879] that being at Brighton, I worked for a couple of months in a joiner's shop, regularly, from 6.30 to 8.30 every morning; I used to make panel doors, and got a good experience, so far, of the trade.

Also as I continued to make Sheffield the headquarters of my lectures, I was taking definite root there, and reaching down partly through my classes, partly through explorations of my own, into the actual society of the manual workers; and beginning to knit up alliances more satisfactory to me than any I had before known. Railway men, porters, clerks, signalmen, ironworkers, coach-builders, Sheffield cutlers, and others came within my ken, and from the first I got on excellently and felt fully at home with them - and I believe, in most cases, they with me. I felt I had come into, or at least in sight of, the world to which I belonged, and to my natural habitat.

It was about this time that I made the acquaintance of a man who for some years after was a good deal associated with me - Albert Fearnehough. He came up one evening after a lecture, and gave me his name (I remember thinking how strange it was) and address; and asked me if I would come and see him some time. Later, meeting me in the street, he renewed the request, telling me that his friend who came with him to the lectures was a young farmer who was well up in book-learning (which he himself was not) - that they both lived in the country, he in a cottage on the farm of which Fox, his friend, was owner; and that they would both gladly entertain me any time that I cared for a country walk. Here was exactly my opportunity. I accepted the invitation, and not long afterwards went to visit the two friends at the little hamlet of Bradway, four or five miles from Sheffield, on the charming outskirts of Beauchief Abbey.


Fearnhough was a scythe-maker, a riveter, a muscular, powerful man of about my age, quite 'uneducated' in the ordinary sense (since indeed at the age of nine he had pushed a handcart about the streets of Sheffield) but well-grown and finely built, with a good practical capacity though slow brain, and something of the latent fire and indomitableness of the iron-worker - a man whose ideal was the rude life of the backwoods, and who hated the shams of commercialism. Indeed he was always getting into coils with his employers because, he would not scamp and hurry over his work, as occasion demanded; and with his workmates because he would not countenance their doing so. In many ways he was delightful to me, as the one 'powerful uneducated' and natural person I had as yet, in all my life, met with. Moreover there was a touch of pathos in his inarticulate ways and in his own sense of inability to compete with the cheapjack commercialism of the day. He lived in a tiny little cottage, on Fox's farm as I have said, with his wife, a good patient worker, and two children. And many a Saturday or Sunday. afternoon I came up there and had tea with them, or roamed about the fields.

Charles Fox was a very singular character - a bachelor, with a good brain, curiously fond of mathematics in his boyhood, quite an original thinker in his way - yet to look at, a mere clodhopping farmer with inexpressive face, humped shoulders, and beetle-like gait. He was not ill -looking, but decidedly quaint, with his florid, shaven face, and only the sharp gleam of his eye to show you his shrewdness. Most of the country-folk thought him a little touched in the head, for his odd Socratic humour; and never fathomed in the least his real ability. He lived on the farm left him by his father, with an unmarried cousin of his, Miss Fox, for housekeeper, and with her son Teddie for his farm-lad and helper; and with a brother, Owen, who certainly was weak in the head and feeble, and of no practical use in the establishment. Between Teddie and his uncle quite an affection existed; but of the household, and - especially of Charles Fox I have given some account in a separate paper, under the title of Martin Turner; and what I have there said I need not repeat. [Footnote 1]

My acquaintance with these two men had its inevitable effect on me. I saw at last my way of escape out of that dingy wilderness, that selva oscura, in which I had wandered lost, from childhood even down to the very middle of life's journey. They represented at any rate, for me a deliverance from the idiotic fatuous life I had been submerged in all my boyhood at Brighton, and more or less ever since. They represented, if nothing more, a life close to Nature and actual materials, shrewd, strong, manly, independent, not the least polite or proper, thoroughly human and kindly, and spent for the most part in the fields and under the open sky.

My visits to little Bradway and the farm became more and more frequent. I was accepted cordially by both households. I joined in the farm work, and spent long evenings with the boy and his uncle in the cowhouse or with the two families round their kitchen fire - quaint scenes of fun and merriment which are graven on my mind, but which it would take too long to recount here. I soon formed a plan of coming to live if possible with these good people, and carrying on my lectures even from this distance out in the country.

It took a little time to arrange anything, but after some months it was agreed that Fearnehough should move into another cottage a little distance off (since the one he occupied was so small) and that I should lodge with him for a time. Accordingly (in May 1880) he migrated with his family to the neighboring parish of Totley, and I joined them there; but in March of the following year, the adjacent cottage to the old one on Fox's land having become vacant, and Fox having thrown the two into one, we returned to Bradway and resumed our old relations on the farm.

I had managed to carry on my lectures from Totley - indeed I had added a new course, on the "History of Music," and one that interested me much, to my former ones; but it was certainly inconvenient, carrying on the work from such a distance in the country; and new interests and forces were growing within me.

The life, especially since our return to Bradway, was so different from anything to which I had before been accustomed, it was so congenial in many respects, so native, so unrestrained, it seemed to liberate the pent-up emotionality of years. All the feelings which had sought, in suffering and in distress, their stifled expression within me during the last seven or eight years, gathered themselves together to a new and more joyous utterance. My physical health was every day becoming better. There was a new beauty over the world. Everywhere I paused, in the lanes or the fields, or on my way to or from the station, to catch some magic sound, some intimation of a perpetual freedom and gladness such as earth and its inhabitants (it seemed to me) had hardly yet dreamed of. I remember that, all that time, I was haunted by an image, a vision within me, of something like the bulb and bud, with short green blades, of a huge hyacinth just appearing above the ground. I knew that it represented vigour and abounding life. But now I seem to see that, in the strange emblematic way in which the soul sometimes speaks, this image may have been a sign of the fact that my life had really at last taken root, and was beginning rapidly to grow.

Another thing happened about this time. On the 25th January 1881 my mother died. Her death affected me profoundly. Though there had been (as I have explained elsewhere) so little in the way of spoken confidences between us, we were united by a strong invisible tie. For months, even years, after her death, I seemed to feel her, even see her, close to me - always figuring as a semi-luminous presence, very real, but faint in outline, larger than mortal. It was an inexpressibly tender and consoling relation. Gradually, in the course of years, the presence, or the sense of it, faded away, becoming less and less objective, into the background of my mind, where it remains now, more as it were an actual part of myself than it was then.

Her death at this moment exercised perhaps a great etherealizing influence on my mind, exhaling the great mass of feelings, intuitions, conceptions, and views of life and the world which had formed within me, into another sphere. The Bhagavat Gita about the same time falling into my hands gave me a keynote. And all at once I found myself in touch with a mood of exaltation and inspiration - a kind of super-consciousness - which passed all that I had experienced before, and which immediately harmonized all these other feelings, giving to them their place, their meaning and their outlet in expression.

And so it was that Towards Democracy came to birth. I was in fact completely taken captive by this new growth within me, and could hardly finish my course of lectures for the preoccupation. Already I was speculating how I could cut myself free. No sooner were the lectures over (about the end of April 1881) than I began writing Towards Democracy. It seemed all ready there. I never hesitated for a moment. Day by day it came along from point to point. I did not hurry; I expressed everything with slow care and to my best; I utilized former material which I had by me; but the one illuminating mood remained and everything fell into place under it; and rarely did I find it necessary to remodel, or rearrange to any great extent, anything that I had once written.

I soon saw that the whole utterance would take a long time. I decided to give up my lecturing work so as to be quite unhampered. And I did so. What with my savings from Cambridge days, and a small income of fifty or sixty pounds a year springing from them, I knew I could live well enough for a few years - and so I felt supremely happy. It became necessary also to have some place in which to sit many hours a day writing - and so I knocked together a kind of wooden sentinel-box, placed it in a quiet corner of the garden, overlooking far fields, and thither resorted all through the summer, and into the autumn, and far away through the winter.

What sweet times were those! all the summer to the hum of the bees in the leafage, the robins and chaffinches hopping around, an occasional large bird flying by, the men away at work in the fields, the consuming pressure of the work within me, the wonderment how it would turn out; the days there in the rain, or in the snow; nights sometimes, with moonlight or a little lamp to write by; far far away from anything polite or respectable, or any sign or symbol of my hated old life. Then the afternoons at work with my friends in the fields, hoeing and singling turnips or getting potatoes, or down in Sheffield on into the evenings with new companions among new modes of life and work - everything turning and shaping itself into material for my poem. There was a sense to me of inevitableness in it all, and of being borne along, which gave me good courage, notwithstanding occasional natural doubts: and a sense too of unspeakable relief and deliverance, after all those long years of gestation, as of a woman with her child.

After about a year, that is by early 1882, Towards Democracy - that is the long first poem that bears that name - was completed except for some technical revisions. The child conceived and carried in pain and anguish, was at last brought into the world.

Some further details with regard to the genesis of Towards Democracy were given in a short paper in the Labour Prophet for May 1894, and are now reprinted as a Note to the editions of Towards Democracy; and the history of it's publication is given in Chapter XI below.


  1. See Sketches from Life in Town and Country (George Allen and Unwin), be E. Carpenter. [Return to main text].

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