Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Exploring the archives: letters from Siegfried Sassoon to Edward Carpenter

In the second of our guest blogs by MA student, Sophie Maxwell, she explores letters written to Edward Carpenter by Siegfried Sassoon...

Sheffield Archives are home to the expansive Edward Carpenter collection, within which are kept numerous items of interest dating from around 1860 to the present day.  Carpenter - a poet, philosopher, socialist and campaigner for LGBT rights - adopted Sheffield as his home and lived for much of his life with his lover George Merrill at Millthorpe in Derbyshire.
Included in the collection are many personal items of Carpenter’s, such as a series of letters he received from the poet Siegfried Sassoon between 1911 and 1918.

In the first letter held at the Archives, dating from 27 July 1911, Sassoon describes his experience of reading ‘The Intermediate Sex’, Carpenter’s 1908 book detailing his (then radical) theories on sexual orientation and same-sex relationships. Sassoon writes:

'Before I read the 'Intermediate Sex', ...what ideas I had about homosexuality were absolutely prejudiced, & I was in such a groove that I couldn't allow myself to be what I wished to be, and the intense attraction I felt for my own sex was almost a subconscious thing, & my antipathy for women a mystery to me.'

He describes his encounter with Carpenter’s theories as an awakening, allowing him to accept his sexuality with awareness and optimism:

'I am a different being, & have a definite aim in life & something to lean on, though, of course, the misunderstanding & injustice is a bitter agony sometimes.'

Sassoon’s account is extremely moving, and it is a pleasure to see the intimacy with which he addresses Carpenter and confides in him his emotions and hopes for the future:
'May your reward be in the generations to come, as I pray mine may be.’

The letters constitute brief windows into a dialogue that ran for a number of years. Being able to glimpse only one side of a conversation is at times frustrating, but these documents have a resonance beyond being a reminder of what is lost. The letters allow us insight into a lost age of written communication, and an era shaped by the unimaginable horrors of the First World War.
Sassoon enlisted early in the war, but soon became distressed by the nature of the conflict and its purposes. In the summer of 1917 he wrote ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’, criticizing the ‘political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.’

He was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital as a shell-shock patient after his paper was published, and in a letter to Carpenter he assures his friend:
‘I am doing all right here, and no one worries me.’

The letter is short, and sad, ending with a humbling reflection on the realities of life in wartime:

It is difficult to keep going when all ones friends are getting killed, or having a rotten time - I lost one of the greatest I ever had - last week - but he died at once, which is something.'
This statement hangs as a dark epilogue to an intriguing communication between two like-minded writers. Sassoon’s observations on sexuality and war in the early 20th century can be understood all too easily a hundred years later.  Today, we are still fighting to eradicate political hypocrisy and social inequality in battles begun long ago by people like Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Carpenter.

Carpenter’s manuscripts, correspondence and library were donated to Sheffield Libraries in 1933.  For more information on the Edward Carpenter collection see
Sophie Maxwell, University of Sheffield

Letters from Siegfried Sassoon (war poet) to Edward Carpenter, 1911 – 1918 (Sheffield Archives: Carpenter/Mss/386/1-403); photograph of Sassoon sent to Carpenter (Sheffield Archives: Carpenter/Photographs8/84)