restricted access A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writing of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood (review)
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Reviewed by
Antony Copley. A Spiritual Bloomsbury: Hinduism and Homosexuality in the Lives and Writing of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood. Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006. xi + 397 pp.

This is not your standard scholarly monograph; neither is it a book of literary criticism, nor, for that matter, cultural studies in any conventional sense. It is a book about spiritual quests that is itself the record of a spiritual quest. To prepare for its writing, Copley went to India to look at, to reimagine, the places his three authors wrote of or about or from, and in the extracts of his diaries from that journey (not by any means his first Indian visit), which are published here as an appendix, he wonders if he can accept Vedantism, whether he can “slough off the ego for the sake of the Atman [the transcendental self]” (304), whether his life has been a detour from its true purpose, and whether he might not have pursued a monastic, a spiritual path instead of the more academic one of teacher of Modern European and Afro-Asian history. The author of biographies of Ghandi and of Rajagopalachari (an Indian political figure as well as novelist and poet who wrote in Tamil and who also translated Tamil texts into English) and of studies of sexuality and of religious conflict in France and in India, Antony Copley examines the writings and biographies of Edward Carpenter, E. M. Forster, and Christopher Isherwood to answer the question of how they reconciled their sexuality and their interest in [End Page 451] the spiritual and the mystical and, more particularly, the question of how their move to another religion and culture was a way of dealing with their homosexuality. The study has both a chronological and a thematic arc. It begins with Carpenter as both a disciple and a guru and ends with Isherwood as a vexed, yet persistent, disciple. Forster is really neither (although, at least metaphorically, he could be said to have played the role of guru for Isherwood), and indeed his Hinduism, such as it is, is far more Krishna focused than Vedantic. Forster, despite his curiosity about, even sympathy with, the spiritual and the mystical, remains in this analysis (and I certainly concur) too much the agnostic to be on a quest in the sense that Carpenter, Isherwood, and Copley were and, evidently for the latter, still are.

It is very difficult to summarize, even epitomize this text, since it is so dense a weave of story and back story, including summary biographies of the multiple figures who influence or intersect or help interpret the lives of the primary figures (for example Walt Whitman, George Merrill, Havelock Ellis, Jeffrey Masson, Arunachalam, Gerald Heard, Ramakrishna, Prabhavananda, Das Gupta, Sudhir Kakhar, and more). Carpenter, of the three the figure most identified with Indian spirituality, is examined first in his relation to Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass is the model for Carpenter’s Towards Democracy, and then in relation to his two gurus, Arunachalam and Illakanam. This trajectory shows him outgrowing these influences to become a guru in his own right, especially as Carpenter becomes alienated from a Hindu value system that put little emphasis on social compassion. One moves in and out of many lives, and, as Carpenter becomes a guru figure, these include the many who revered him. There is an interesting discussion here about the D. H. Lawrence/Carpenter connection, although Copley really only adds biographical and historical detail to the analysis provided by Emile Delavenay’s 1971 D. H. Lawrence and Edward Carpenter. The chief issue in these first three chapters, however, remains: how did Carpenter attempt to reconcile the demands of the body and the advancement of a spiritualized democracy with the self-abnegation of Vedantism, the result of the Vedantist quest of transcending the ego?

These questions recur most interestingly in the final section on Isherwood; they enter the Forster chapters that follow the Carpenter section only obliquely. It is, of course, the oft-cited touch on his backside that occurred when Forster first visited Carpenter in 1913 (although following Nicola Beaumann, Copley dates the beginning of the Carpenter influence...