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

Chapter 6 - MANUAL WORK AND MARKET GARDENING | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 7 - Sheffield and Socialism

E.C. (1887), AGE 43.

IN April 1882 my father died; and I was at once whirled out of my land of dreams into a very different sphere. It became necessary for me to return home, to Brighton, and handle, as executor, a considerable estate - divisible among ten children. The investments were chiefly in American securities - and they gave a lot of trouble! I stayed at Brighton four or five months, dealing with solicitors, brokers, officials, relatives - selling, negotiating, dividing, transferring without end - doing the work of a lawyer's clerk in fact. Indeed our solicitor remarked one day, perhaps rather plaintively, that it was lucky I had had the time to spare, as it had saved the family no doubt some hundreds of pounds! Of course the work was not really finished for three or four years, but the thick of it was got through that summer, and after that I returned to my beloved Bradway.

My forced stay at Brighton brought out into strong relief the contrast between the old life and the new. I felt more than ever the futility and irksomeness of the old order. I missed my companions of the North, I grieved more than ever over the wasted lives around me in the South - but it was with a new sense, the knowledge that there was something better. I employed my spare time in writing shorter pieces in the style of Towards Democracy and revising what I had already written, using my new surroundings again as a point of view under the great light of my main inspiraton. My unmarried sisters remained on for a few years at Brighton after my father's death, keeping the house together much as of old. Then they removed to London, and at last (in 1886) the old house and furniture were sold and its doors closed on the family who had occupied it for forty years.

At the end of the summer of which I am speaking - about September 1882 - I returned to my home at Bradway. My father's death had left me (more or less prospectively) possessor of about 6,000 - which with my little savings of earlier years, seemed quite a large fortune - too large indeed - it rather weighed on my mind! [Footnote 1] My lectures were over and done with; some years of literary work were before me, but obviously not of a paying sort, either in the way of wages or fame. The, question was What should I do?

I might have simply settled down into an armchair literary life. I really don't know exactly why I didn't. But the fancy for manual work had seized me, and for some reason or other, nothing but a life of that kind would satisfy me - only it must be in the open air. No sooner had my father died than I made up my mind to buy a piece of land and work on it as a market-gardener.

No doubt it was a healthy instinct. The motive was in the main a purely personal one. I felt (and rightly) the need of physical work, of open-air life and labour - something primitive to restore my over-worn constitution. I felt the need directly and instinctively, not as a thing argued out and intellectually concluded. I have sometimes been credited with making this move onto the land in pursuance of some great theory or scheme of social salvation! But it was not so. There was no idea of this kind in it, or if there was, it was of a very secondary character. My thought was my own need. But I may have had some feeling that a life of this kind was more honest than the alternative, and I think also that I felt it would bring me more decisively into touch with the great body of the people (a strong motive at the time) - and so far I believe these -two motives had some secondary play.

At any rate I never felt much doubt about the move. I persuaded Fearnehough, after a little time, to join me if I should settle anywhere; and then I set looking out for a bit of land. But that was not easy to find. At intervals for many months I scoured the country in the neighborhood of Sheffield, but could find nothing there except the small holding at Millthorpe, which though good land and in a lovely situation, with water, etc., seemed too far from town to be available for market purposes. Then I went down into Worcestershire; but in truth the difficulty of finding a small freehold anywhere in England - especially with good soil and near a market - is great; and being no more successful in Worcestershire I returned to Sheffield. Ultimately and being (as usual in such things) more compelled by necessity than of my own choice, I fell back on the seven acres at Millthorpe which I now occupy. Of course I could not help rejoicing in the lovely necessity of living in such a place - the charming brook running at the foot of my three fields, the beautiful wooded valley, and the close proximity, a mile or so off, of the open moors. But I had some misgiving, not only about the market side of the question, but about living so completely gulfed in the country - eight or nine miles from a town centre - for I had never tried anything of the kind before.

I spent the winter of '82 and '83 mostly at Bradway, continuing my writing and other life there, in the intervals of the search for land. About Easter '83 I came to terms for the purchase of the three fields at Millthorpe, and soon after that I set to house-building. The house was finished by the end of the summer, and in October '83 the Fearnehoughs and I moved in. About the same time I published through John Heywood of Manchester, my first poem Towards Democracy.

It was a small thin volume of 110 pages, meant for the pocket. It was sent out to the Press, but excited very little comment, except as the ravings of some anonymous author. Yet after a time, faithful to its charge, it came back to me, bringing dear and true friends from all sorts of unlikely places and distant parts of the world; and has not ceased to do so since. Not long after its publication Havelock Ellis picked it up on a second-hand bookstall in London, and wrote to me; and he again brought me into communication with Olive Schreiner, whose African Farm was then beginning to attract attention.

That winter, of '83-'84, was spent in hard work, getting the house and the yard and out-buildings in order, laying out the garden ground, digging up the grass-land, planting fruit and other trees, etc. And so were the summers and winters following, for four or five years.

That strange oestrum of hard manual work, and digging down to the very roots of things, spurred me on. I hardly know how to account for it. It possessed me. Every habit, every custom or practice of daily life - house-arrangement, diet, dress, medicine, etc., was overhauled and rigorously scrutinized. I worked for hours and for whole days together out in the open field, or garden, or digging drains with pick and shovel, or carting along the roads; going into Chesterfield and loading and fetching manure, or to the coalpit for coal, grooming and bedding down the horse, or getting off to market at 6 a.m. with vegetables and fruit, and standing in the market behind a stall till 1 or 2 p.m.; I was not satisfied but I must do everything that was necessary to be done myself.

It was a considerable strain. With my somewhat vague aspiring mind, to be imprisoned in the rude details of a most material life was often irksome. Yet a consuming passion drove me on - a desire to do something real, an evil conscience perhaps of the past unreality of my existence. I was compelled to eat it all out.

I carried on, for those first three or four years, the superintendence (of course with the help of my friend and his wife) of house and garden, with their manifold points of detail. I went on with my writing adding essays on social subjects ("England's Ideal" and others) to my poems; and I started lecturing on similar topics.

It was too much. I remember that period as a time of great strain. I felt indeed the isolation of the country - gulfed as I was among a perfectly illiterate unprogressive country population (much more so than at Bradway), with my friend and his family, who though good and true people were also quite limited to material interests. There was no one to whom I could talk, who could give me any help. My Sheffield friends were far away, only to be seen once a week or so, and (in the early years at any rate) visitors at Millthorpe were rare. it was too much, and my health suffered a little; and yet (as I have said) I was driven to it. It is strange how unaccounted impulses and instincts underlie the evolution of one's life. Certainly during those years I (in some ways the most unlikely person to do so) bottomed out the whole of the material and mechanical ways of life - from the details of household life to the processes of agriculture and of a great number of other trades and industries. It was a training such as no university could give. And if my health suffered now and then from the strain, on the whole it improved immensely during this period; so that after five or six years I threw off completely my nerve troubles, and became stronger than I had ever been before in my life.

Two other things happened in 1883 besides my migration to Millthorpe, and publication of Towards Democracy - namely, my first acquaintance with the Socialist movement, and my reading of Thoreau's Walden

Of course, in a vague form, my ideas had been taking a socialistic shape for many years; but they were lacking in definite outline - that definition which is so necessary for all action. That outline as regards the industrial situation was given me by reading Hyndman's England for All. However open to criticism the Marxian theory of surplus-value may be (and every theory must ultimately succumb to criticism), it certainly fulfilled a want for the time by giving a definite text for the social argument. The instant I read that chapter in England for All - the mass of floating impressions, sentiments, ideals, etc., in my mind fell into shape - and I had a clear line of social reconstruction before me.

I gave my first semi-socialistic lecture (though I think this was before reading the above book) - on "Co-operative Production" - in that year; and later in the same year I one evening looked in at a committee meeting of the Social Democratic Federation in Westminster Bridge Road. It was in the basement of one of those big buildings facing the Houses of Parliament that I found a group of conspirators sitting. There was Hyndman, occupying the chair, and with him round the table, William Morris, John Burns, H. H. Champion, J. L. Joynes, Herbert Burrows (I think) and others. After that, though I did not actually join the S.D.F., I kept in touch with them, and was able at a later time to render material help in the establishment of Justice as their organ.

From that time forward I worked definitely along the Socialist line with a drift, as was natural, towards Anarchism. I do not know that at any time I looked upon the Socialist programme or doctrines as final, and it is certain that I never anticipated a cast-iron regulation of industry, but I saw that the current Socialism afforded an excellent text for an attack upon the existing competitive system, and a good means of rousing the slumbering consciences - especially of the rich; and in that view I have worked for it and the Anarchist ideal consistently.

The other thing that happened in 1883 was my reading of Thoreau's Walden. Just about the very day that I got into my new house and onto my plot of land - the realization of the plotting and scheming of some years - that book fell into my hands, which took the bottom completely out of my little bucket! Having just committed myself to all the exasperations of carrying on a house and market-garden and the petty but innumerable bothers of 'trade,' the charming ideal of a simplification of life below the level of all such things was opened out before me-and for the time I felt almost paralyzed.

Whatever the practical value of the Walden experiment may be, there is no question that the book is one of the most vital and pithy ever written. Its ideal of life spent with Nature on the very ground-plane of simplicity (though probably only permanently realizable by a highly cultured humanity, having access to all the results of art and science, as Thoreau had at Concord) has yet shattered the conventional views of thousands of people. It helped, I must confess, to make me uncomfortable for some years. I felt that I had aimed at a natural life and completely failed - that I might somehow have escaped from this blessed civilization altogether - and now I was tied up worse than ever, on its commercial side.

What sort of line my life would have taken if Thoreau had come to me a year earlier, I cannot tell. It is certain that there would have been a considerable difference. Perhaps it is lucky I was not drifted away by him and stranded, too far from the currents of ordinary life. At any rate I do not regret now that things happened as they did. Instead of escaping into solitude and the wilds of nature - which would have satisfied one side - but perhaps not the most persistent - of my character, I was tied to the traffic of ordinary life, and thrown inevitably into touch with all sorts of people.

Early in 1883, as I have said, I gave my first lecture on social questions, and from that time forward I spoke on these subjects. In the summer of '84 I went again to the United States, my chief object again being to see Whitman - though I had also friends to visit. I crossed the Atlantic as a steerage passenger - in a big Inman boat, the City of Berlin - with seven or eight hundred other steerage passengers. It was a great experience. I have described it in my poem "On an Atlantic Steamship." The fact of my venturing it shows the determination with which I was working down into a knowledge of the life of the people. Besides, I had crossed as a saloon passenger before, and I felt that that was intolerable! The experience was not nearly so rude as I had expected. We had good weather, which of course is everything, and were on deck all day; the nationalities, Swedes, German, Irish, English, etc., were kept apart from each other below; I secured a cabin with a very decent set of young English fellows, and we got on first-rate. The food was quite clean and good. So well satisfied was I that I actually returned (from Quebec) in the steerage section!

I spent three or four days in Philadelphia and saw Whitman each day (of which I have given an account elsewhere [Footnote 2]; and then went on to Massachusetts. The visit to Whitman did not help me so much as the first time. He was very friendly; he gave me introductions to Dr. Bucke in Canada, and to W. Sloane Kennedy, and was generally kind; but his self -centredness (arising no doubt largely from physical causes) had increased, and seemed difficult to overcome.

In Massachusetts I stayed with my friends the Rileys, who had at one time been on St. George's farm (Ruskin's) near Sheffield. They were now on a farm near Townsend Centre, and I remained with them about three weeks, joining in the life, doing a bit on the farm with them, and seeing something of the neighbours. George Riley, the son, and I were chums, and spent some of the time walking together - on one occasion a two days 'out' to Wachusett, mountain and lake, a charming neighborhood. During the time I also visited Sloane Kennedy, at Belmont, and together we went to Walden pond, bathed in it, and added a stone to Thoreau's cairn. Thence to Pennsylvania, beyond Pittsburg, to stay with Mrs. Hardy and her three daughters - also people I had known in Sheffield - who together were 'running' a big farm and making it pay well, an excellent example of female management. Thence, after a pleasant stay of four or five days, across Lake Erie to Toronto and so to London, to see Dr. Bucke. Dr. Bucke was acting as head and superintendent of a large Asylum for Insane folk - over a thousand patients - which he managed excellently. I found him very interesting. We had long talks about Whitman; he showed me his Whitman books, pictures, etc., and then after another four or five days I got the steamer at Toronto, and went down the St. Lawrence to Quebec. The Lake itself, the passages of the thousand islands and of the successive rapids, were a great delight. I had only an hour or two at Quebec, unfortunately - not time to see much of the town; and then I embarked on the Parisian for home. Here again the lower reaches of this magnificent river, the coast of Gaspe, and of Labrador, the hundreds of icebergs we saw that day, becalmed in a glassy blue sea, and in blazing sunlight, were most interesting. We slipped through the straits of Belle-Isle and had an enjoyable passage to Liverpool.

It was, I think, some little time before the events recorded in the first part of this chapter - though I cannot be quite sure about the date - that I had the signal experience of meeting with Edward J. Trelawny, the devoted friend of Shelley and the companion of Byron. For years and years - until indeed the star of Whitman rose in the West - Shelley had been my own ideal. To grasp Trelawny's hand was to gain an unexpected link with a far remote past

Trelawny's life had been one of extraordinary adventure. To understand even a part of it one must read his Adventures of a Younger Son (largely his own story), and his book Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1858 and 1878). Born in 1792 of a well-known Cornish family he joined the Navy as a mere boy, and then at an early age deserted and took up, according to his own account, with a pirate gang among the seas of Java and Borneo. After some amazing adventures, he returned in about 1813 to Europe; and soon after married an English lady. Of this period however, between 1813 and 1820, very little seems to be known, except that he himself says: "I became a shackled, careworn and spirit-broken married man of the civilized West!" It was in 1820 at Lausanne that a German bookseller chanced to show him Queen Mab; and a little later, at Geneva, that he met Thomas Medwin, Shelley's cousin. The reading of the book and the conversations with Medwin convinced Trelawny that here was a man worth knowing; and he did not rest till a year or two later he went to Pisa and actually made Shelley's acquaintance (early in 1822). The two were about the same age; and it shows something of what manner of man Trelawny was, that he so quickly recognized the quality of Shelley; and some thing of what Shelley was that he so soon commanded the admiration of this buccaneer and man of adventure. After Shelley's death Trelawny was with Byron a great deal, both as Captain of Byron's yacht and companion in his expedition to Greece; but he never expressed a great regard for Byron - perhaps indeed he hardly did the latter justice. Byron died at Missolonghi in 1824; but Trelawny stayed on in Greece, joined the Greek cause against the Turks, took to wife the sister of Ulysses, or Odysseus, a Greek chieftain, lived for some time with him and his guerilla band in a cave on Mount Parnassus, and was nearly killed there by a bullet from a spy. These and many other things are written in the Records above mentioned.

Later, after his return to England, and somewhere about 1840, Trelawny fell in love with a certain Lady Goring, and finally induced her to leave her husband and live with him. And it was this, curiously enough, which at a later period led to my acquaintance with him. Lady Goring's son, by the old Sir Harry, married a cousin of mine, and when a boy of sixteen or seventeen I used occasionally to go and stay with the young pair at Highden near Worthing where they lived, and where I was initiated in the mysteries of coursing, ferreting, etc., which were very much in the order of the day there. Charles Goring, my cousin's husband, was the very type of the "bold bad baronet" of the shilling novels - a type fairly common then, though almost extinct now - a rather handsome man with fierce twirlable moustache, and thoroughly bearish manners, given to swearing and drinking, and devoted to his dogs and guns. Whatever induced my cousin - who was the sweetest and gentlest of girls - to marry him I do not know. But that is always the way: the mild and forgiving women marry the wicked men, and of course make the latter all the wickeder by doing so In course of time he grew a little tired of his wife (there were no children) and behaved badly towards her. Then his mother died - whom he had not seen since she ran away with Trelawny, some twenty-five or more years before; and so, seized with some sort of compunction after all this time, Charles Goring went on a pilgrimage to his mother's adopted home; found there Trelawny and his mother's daughter by Trelawny - his own stepsister, by that time a rather beautiful girl or young woman.

From all this complications arose, which I need not go into, but which ultimately in an indirect way led to a somewhat celebrated affair in the Divorce Courts - the Goring Case of the year 1878. Suffice it to say that soon after these unfortunate squabbles were over, Charles Goring had the grace to die, and my cousin (who had obtained a separation order) was left quite free. It was then that I asked her one day to give me an introduction to Edward Trelawny, which she willingly did.

I found him at the house which he was then occupying in Pelham Crescent, S.W. - No. 7 I think - a quite old man of about eighty-seven or eighty-eight, rugged to a degree, with sunken eyes and projecting cheek-bones, but with a strange gleam of fire about him even at that age - not unlike some semi-extinct volcano - and the appearance of what had once been a rather massive and powerful frame. He was sitting in a high chair near the fire with a pile of books on the floor beside him. "You are interested in Shelley," he said. And then without waiting for a reply: "He was our greatest poet since Shakespeare." And then: "He couldn't have been the poet he was if he had not been an Atheist." That was a pretty good beginning; he rolled out the "Atheist" with evident satisfaction. He went on to express his contempt for the contemporary poets, like Tennyson and Browning; then returned to Shelley : "I am not sure he wasn't the greatest man we have ever had: all these others just tinker with the surface; Shelley goes down to the roots." We talked a little about individual poems, but I forget what. Then he took up one of the books beside him - a Godwin's Political Justice, and read extracts from it - always with a choice which showed his hatred of modern Civilization (And this was interesting from one who had seen so much of the world outside the bounds of our civilization.) Indeed there was something astonishing in this old man's intensity of rebelliousness which extreme age had apparently done nothing to reduce. He directed my attention to an Oil-portrait over the mantelpiece : "Do you know who that is?" I guessed. It was a portrait - apparently not a very good one - of Mary, Percy Shelley's wife: [Footnote 3] the face rather milk-and-watery in expression. "She did him no good," he said "was always a drag on him - shackling him with jealousies and the conventions of social life." [Trelawny was never quite fair to any one he did not like, and it was evident he did not like Mary - though in the earlier days of their acquaintance he had certainly been fond of her.] "Poets," he continued, "ought never to marry. It's the greatest mistake. A poet ought to be free as air - free to say and do what he pleases - and he cannot be free if he is married." This was pretty good from a man who had been so very much married as Trelawny!

He had four wives at least - no one knew how many more. His first wife (as appears also from The Younger Son) was a girl of Borneo. The second was the lady who filled somehow the gap between 1813 and 1820. The third, as we have seen, was a Greek, the sister of Odysseus; the fourth was the former Lady Goring. There were many stories about him in the family, mostly no doubt somewhat embellished. His second wife, it was said, was only a small woman, and when she was "naughty" he would dangle her by the scruff of her neck out of the window, until she was good again. He had various dried heads, of pirates and others, among his treasures; and swords and daggers stained with the blood of enemies! Our conversation rambled on, but at this distance of time I forget details. As I say, it gave me a strange thrill on leaving (and he died soon after) to grasp the hand of one who had been so near to Shelley, and whose character undoubtedly had a great fascination for the poet. In Shelley's Fragments of an Unfinished Drama (in which the Pirate on the Enchanted Isle is generally supposed to represent Trelawny), the poet says-

He was as is the sun in his fierce youth,
As terrible and lovely as a tempest.

On the other hand Trelawny in the Preface to his Records says of Shelley : "After glancing one day at an old Italian romance, in which a knight of Malta throws down the gauntlet defying all infidels, Shelley remarked: 'I should have picked it up. All our knowledge is derived from infidels.'" These two quotations give a good idea of the relation between the two men.


  1. However, I happily managed in the next few years to get rid of a good portion of this! [Return to main text].
  2. See Days with Walt Whitman, (George Allen and Unwin, 1906), by E. Carpenter. [Return to main text]
  3. Perhaps the portrait by Edward Williams, but I cannot say. [Return to main text]

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