Vivid 19th-century novel about homosexuality has a contemporary twist: The Irish Times

The new life

The new life

Author: Tom Crew

ISBN-13: 978-1784744694

publisher: Chatto & Windus

Rough price: £16.99

Tom Crewe’s debut novel opens with an illicit boner pressed against another man’s buttocks on a crowded train in Victorian London. It’s one of several electrically erotic sex scenes in The New Life, illustrating gay desire at a time when acting on it was a jailable offence.

Set between 1894 and 1896, The New Life alternates between the stories of two writers who promote progressive ideas about sexuality. John Addington is a 50-year-old married man who has had fleeting encounters with men. Henry Ellis, 30, is straight but has a paraphilia that leads him to support non-procreative sex. He embarks on a platonic marriage to Edith, who takes women as lovers.

Addington and Ellis begin a correspondence about homoeroticism in ancient Greece and the poetry of Walt Whitman. They decide to collaborate on a book that normalizes homosexuality, including case studies of gay men. Their optimism about the book’s reception portrays a period of hope scuppered by the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde (whose cross-examination is excerpted in The New Life to great effect).

Despite growing anxiety following Wilde’s imprisonment, Addington is encouraged to live out his desires. One afternoon, admiring the naked bathers at the Serpentine, he meets a young worker. Eventually she moves her lover into his Paddington home, giving his wife, Catherine, no choice in the matter.

The sex scenes between the two men are a rallying cry for Henry’s belief that “the sexual instinct could be a great engine for happiness, if only it could be freed from shame.”

As the tension builds towards the denouement, the interests of the characters are not quite aligned. John, who feels he is “dying” of “bourgeois sleight of hand,” is willing to risk his freedom for the right to live openly and set a positive example for others. Edith’s lover Angelica supports him in her frankness, while Henry, Edith and the book printer are more reluctant to bet their future on the cause.

Through the stories of the two couples, Crewe juxtaposes the fight for gay rights with other activist causes. Henry and Edith first meet at the Society of the New Life [(inspired by the Fellowship for the New Life, from which the Fabian Society would splinter off)]. Society promotes unconventional ways of life, although, as the characters discover, the ideal of non-monogamy has challenges in practice. Henry, Edith and Angelica struggle to balance and “new life has come too late for Catherine,” admits John.

While the tight third-person narrative makes us empathize with John’s plight, the cost of his choices to his family is never understated. “Is the injustice I suffered the stuff of a book?” Catherine asks. She too has been alone and she accuses her husband of having used her body as “mere flesh, fit to receive [his] rejection”.

In addition to embodying “the new life” in her marriage, Edith gives popular lectures on modern women and gender relations. British men are “used to being ruthless,” she says. “Women don’t. We don’t grab. We should not. But we have to, to make room for ourselves. Addington’s three daughters attend Newnham College, one of the first women’s colleges in Cambridge. As the younger one prepares to leave home, she wonders “whether his childish powers of leadership would survive … the awareness of his smallness in the greater world.”

Period detail

An editor at the London Review of Books, Crewe has a PhD in 19th-century British history, a knowledge reflected in the details of the period in The New Life. His prose is not only sensual but sensory, with a Jamesian flair for metaphor, including a thick fog that allows John and Frank to hold hands and steal a kiss on the street. In their unabashed eroticism, the sex scenes between the two men are a rallying cry for Henry’s belief that “the sex instinct could be a great engine for happiness, if only it could be freed from shame.”

That The New Life rings so contemporary is an accusation over which the fight for equal rights is raging, as recent US Supreme Court rulings and the global shrug at World Cup host Qatar attest

The characters of John and Henry are loosely based on John Addington Symonds, poet and critic, and sexologist Havelock Ellis. The two men collaborated on a medical textbook titled Sexual Inversion, published in 1897; however, dates and details have changed. Because Sexual Inversion was published after his death, Symonds’ family bought and destroyed all copies, with his literary executor stating that Symonds would not have published the book if he had lived. The New Life, in which Addington lives to deal with the aftermath of the book’s release, “is in a way an attempt to dramatize this as counterfactual,” Crewe said.

Havelock Ellis continued to challenge the taboos of the Victorian era, helping to pave the way for more progressive attitudes (with the notable exception of his support for eugenics). That The New Life rings so contemporary is an accusation over which the fight for equal rights is raging, as recent US Supreme Court rulings and the global shrug at World Cup host Qatar attest . But even in the darkest moments, Crewe’s characters insist, “we must live in the future we hope to achieve.”

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