To Do a Little Good

The Gay Love Letters of Edward Carpenter and George Merrill

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Edward Carpenter and George Merrill

Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was at the forefront of British romantic socialism, whose philosophy was inspired by Whitman but had a clear political agenda and active "engagement" to radically reform social institutions. He practiced what he preached, giving away most of his money and earning a subsistence living as a sandal-maker as well as lecturer and journalist. His book of poetry Towards Democracy, consciously modelled upon Whitman's Calamus poems, is a forthright celebration of gay love:

O child of Uranus, wanderer down all times,
Yet outcast and misunderstood of men –
I see thee where for centuries thou hast walked,
Yet outcast, slandered, pointed at by the mob.
The day draws nigh when from these mists of ages
Thy form in glory clad shall reappear.

The personal liberation (which Carpenter called "exfoliation") in the poetry was matched by numerous articles and books on politics, religion, anthropology and sexology, subjects ranging from prisons, vivisection, nudism and mysticism, to "homogenic love", feminism, socialism, communalism and the Labour movement, the thrust of them all brilliantly summed up in the title of Civilisation: It Cause and Cure. Virtually none of Carpenter's personal letters have been traced, but it is appropriate to include a few of the surviving letters from his "band of friends" to show the effect he had upon people, for he was considered to be almost a healer. George Hukin was a razor-grinder, who met Carpenter while organizing a political campaign for the Sheffield Socialist Society. George Merrill (1870–1928) was an uneducated odd-job man from the slums whom Carpenter picked up in a railway car in 1896. Merrill's letters printed below are probably the first he ever sent to Carpenter, which explains why they were cherished and still survive. Soon he was the resident market-gardener, cook and housekeeper at Carpenter's small farm at Millthorpe near Sheffield. They lived together quite openly as a gay couple for the next thirty years. Merrill once chased away a clergyman who came to the door to give him a tract: "Keep your tract," said Merrill, "I don't want it. Can't you see we're in heaven here – We don't want any better than this, so go away." Carpenter's philosophy of brotherhood was no abstract concept; he had occasional affairs with some of the intellectuals and gay writers who came on pilgrimage to Millthorpe, and Merrill had occasional flings with hired hands and the local farm boys. Merrill served as a model for the gamekeeper in E. M. Forster's gay novel Maurice, which Forster acknowledged was a direct result of a visit to Carpenter, when Merrill "touched my backside – gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people's. . . . It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts. If it really did this, it would have acted in accordance with Carpenter's yogified mystificism, and would prove that at that precise moment I had conceived."


26 Sept. 1886

Dear Edward,
. . . it is so good of you to love me so. I dont think I ever felt so happy in my life as I have felt lately. And I'm sure I love you more than any other friend I have in the world.

21 May 1887

. . . yes, Ted, it did help me a great deal that talk we had in bed that Monday morning –l; oh how often I wanted to tell you about it – ever since that first night I slept with you at Millthorpe. You dont know how miserable I have felt all day long just because I wanted to tell you, and yet somehow I was afraid to. But I shall not be afraid to tell you anything in future if only you will let me, Ted.


26 Sept. 1896

I'm so sorry for . . . the impediment in my speech. I think I should be able to do a little good for the social cause if I could converse better, but never mind it may wear away when I get to you and read for you. I do feel it very much at times. I thought about you all last night dear . . .
          love from your affectionate Sonny X.

8 Nov. 1896

Dear Ted,
. . . I shall be glad to see thy dear face again as I have such longings to kiss those sweet lips of thine. I will wait till I hear from you, first. So I must close dear heart as I am feeling a little low and lonesome. I'm always with thee every night in spirit,
          fondest love from your dear Boy G XXX.

SOURCE: Edward Carpenter, Selected Writings, Volume 1: Sex, ed. David Fernbach and Noël Greig (London: GMP Publishers, 1984).

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