Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wednesday, August 31, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The New Life

Scribner Book Company: The New Life by Tom Crewe

Scribner Book Company: The New Life by Tom Crewe

Scribner Book Company: The New Life by Tom Crewe

Scribner Book Company: The New Life by Tom Crewe

The New Life

by Tom Crewe

Intense and character-driven, Tom Crewe's debut historical novel, The New Life, takes on issues of sexuality, freedom and the universal longing for human connection, framed through the lens of late 19th-century sex scholarship and domestic life. The Society of the New Life is named for a philosophical circle and for the protagonists' desire to step into a better tomorrow. The story follows two men (inspired by actual historical figures), Henry Ellis and John Addington, both intellectuals and writers with an interest in human sexuality. They begin corresponding when John reads a piece Henry wrote about the "Greek feeling" and soon begin to collaborate on a book about "inversion"--sexual activity and inclination outside what is considered "normal." Homosexuality in late 1890s England is illegal, and they run a great risk if they seek to publish the book, a conflict Crewe skillfully builds parallel to the sense of freedom the work gives both men.

After decades of toxic repression, middle-aged John needs to escape his closeted life for his physical and mental well-being. In one of his first scenes, John ogles from a distance a group of men at their morning bathing spot at the river. When one of the young men, Frank, approaches him, John is all too eager to cheat on his wife, soon entering a relationship with Frank and even bringing him into the family home as his "personal secretary."

Crewe's nuanced characterization is most evident within the two men's marriages. Catherine and John have been married for two decades at this point and while "it was on doctor's orders that he had married her," Catherine expected a true marriage when she accepted his proposal. As John takes more and more risks to live out his desires, Catherine confronts him in one of the most emotionally incisive scenes in the book. She forces him to consider how he used her body and her position as a married woman in society to act as a shield and a desperate grasp at self-control.

"'We had our two girls. Then you tell me how my parts--it is not my fault--disgust you.... I must realize that you will never want me. We agree that everything of that sort is over between us. Three years pass.... And then, one night, without warning, you are on top of me.... You do not speak. You do not look at me.... I am merely a pit dug for you to empty yourself in. I am merely flesh, fitted to receive your waste.'"

Yet even as Catherine forces John to acknowledge everything he took from her--including her bodily autonomy--and readers to acknowledge John's selfishness, it's still easy to empathize with him. The lives of these characters are shaped as much by their personal wants as by the demands of Victorian society, and the hurts they inflict on themselves and each other might not exist at all if "inversion" wasn't socially and legally repressed.

Crewe introduces the young doctor Henry Ellis as he's dressing to marry fellow progressive thinker Edith, a friend from the Society of the New Life who is as passionate about social issues as he is. They marry in what they consider an honest, modern arrangement, "taking on the usual forms only to show how they might be stretched to fit new purposes." They will live apart, joining for the pleasure of each other's company and public occasions that require it. They are friends and intellectual equals first, with the physical aspects of their relationship a secondary consideration.

The trial of Oscar Wilde looms large in the latter half of the book and while Crewe's PhD in 19th-century British history and his research for this book in particular are evident, he doesn't bog down the story in exposition. Instead, he focuses on the humans behind the headlines and the strain John and Henry's work places on their most important relationships. While The New Life focuses largely on the late 19th-century gay rights movement, Crewe takes care with the parallel fight for women's rights and the experiences of queer women and of "inverts" from all walks of life.

Crewe dredges up all the hurt, desperation, lust and shame his characters might feel, yet he also challenges the misconception that all queer people--and especially gay men--were miserable at the time. Though they certainly face difficulties, many of the queer characters make space for their relationships, to build something joyful and fulfilling. John's passions often take the fore, but Henry's more reserved countenance and philosophy on the complexity of human nature form a counterbalance that invites readers to examine their own identity and relationships. After all, more than a century after the ill-timed publication of Henry and John's Sexual Inversion, people are still looking for the way to step into that new life, one in which everyone can live and love openly. --Suzanne Krohn

Scribner, $28, hardcover, 400p., 9781668000830, January 3, 2023

Scribner Book Company: The New Life by Tom Crewe

Tom Crewe: Imagining a 'New Life' for Gay History

(photo: Jon Tonks/London Review of Books)

Tom Crewe's character-driven first novel, The New Life (Scribner, January 3, 2023), is set in 1890s London and follows two men working on a book about human sexuality. Crewe holds a PhD in 19th-century British history from the University of Cambridge. Since 2015, he has been an editor at the London Review of Books, to which he has contributed more than 30 essays on politics, art, history and fiction. With The New Life, Crewe takes readers into a society in which gay men--and anyone who is not romantically or sexually "normal"--are at social and sometimes legal risk, yet strive to carve out space for full, honest lives.

The New Life was inspired by the true story of John Addington Symonds and Henry Havelock Ellis, who worked together on one of the first medical texts about human sexuality. How did fact become fiction?

About a decade ago, I read Phyllis Grosskurth's 1964 biography of John Addington Symonds and became interested in the aspects of the 19th-century gay experience that have been blotted out in the popular imagination by the grand tragedy of Oscar Wilde's downfall. Later, I realized that the early 1890s were actually an optimistic time for people like Symonds, who was advocating with great energy and articulateness for what we would now call gay rights--and that this connected with other kinds of activism for new and better ways of living to do with women's rights and social justice.

I began thinking about how one might try to evoke this moment, and then show how Wilde's arrest unexpectedly derailed it. I decided that I wanted to write a novel along these lines, and before long remembered what I had by then half-forgotten: that before he died (in 1893) Symonds had begun writing a book about "sexual inversion" with the young progressive Ellis, later a pioneer sexologist. A first edition of their book, Sexual Inversion, was eventually published in 1897, but Symonds's family bought up all the copies and had them destroyed. His literary executor claimed that if Symonds had lived, he wouldn't have gone through with publishing the book, and so my novel is in a way an attempt to dramatize this as counterfactual. What if Symonds had lived? How would he have reacted to the Wilde trial, and would he have gone ahead with the book? How would Ellis have handled his partner, and how would Symonds have handled Ellis? Addressing these questions required me to invent a kind of alternative historical universe. My characters, John and Henry, share some qualities and backstory with the real men who inspired them, but their stories are very different.

Much of the latter half of the book focuses on legal proceedings, such as the real trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde, and the looming threat to John, Henry and their families. How was your research into and writing about the 1890s prosecutions impacted by your knowledge that the U.K. would decriminalize homosexuality in 1967 and pass the Alan Turing law in 2017?

I wanted to complicate the not very complicated narrative we tell ourselves about the progress of gay rights in Britain. Not enough people know about Symonds or Ellis, or about Edward Carpenter, who lived almost openly as a gay man, while being a famous and important figure in the British Labour movement. I also wanted to challenge the popular idea that everything before 1967 was dark and secretive and generally tragic. Most gay men were able to be open with someone and most were never punished by the law. One thing that leaps out when you read Symonds and Ellis's Sexual Inversion is that the men whose life stories they document have had all sorts of gay experiences and relationships, and most have completely accepted their sexuality. We don't know who they were, but they were clearly managing to be reasonably happy.

Of course, thinking about gay rights only in terms of the law also means occluding the experiences of women. Female homosexuality was never illegal in Britain, though it was socially taboo. Like some male gay relationships, lesbian relationships could sometimes hide in plain sight and I try to explore some of these complexities.

How is Henry's choice to focus on all kinds of "inversion" connected to his marriage to Edith, his coming to terms with his sexual needs (what we might call kink in modern parlance) and his working relationship with John?

Henry's decision to write about inversion undoubtedly has to do with Edith, though he sometimes suggests otherwise. It is a way of understanding her, of reaching the part of her that is inaccessible to him. But writing about inversion is also a way into the larger question of sex. Henry's own kink is important, because it means that he knows how it feels to have your sexual desires be stigmatized, becoming a source of shame rather than pleasure. What he understands is that, if you accept gay sex as a non-procreative fulfillment of a natural human need, then logically you can accept all other forms of non-procreative sex, too. Once you do that, you can recognize and embrace the diversity of human sexuality and the many possible sources of sexual pleasure, escaping all sorts of inhibitions and moral judgments. And to do this is to achieve a better kind of human existence on Earth.

What is the Society of the New Life? Did any of your characters live up to its ideals?

The Society of the New Life is my alternative-universe version of the Fellowship of the New Life, a late-Victorian group which believed that progressive social change would best come through the improvement of individual character. Members of the Fellowship would lead selfless, non-materialistic, co-operative lives--and that way inspire others. Britain's first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was a member of the Fellowship for a while.

In my novel, the "New Life" also stands for something more universal: that dream of a fresh start, a better and truer way of being in the world. Most of my characters are searching for their own version of this. What the novel shows is how very hard it is to achieve. And yet, no progress is ever won without bravery and risk and idealism. As one of my characters says: "Something may still happen. We cannot know if we do not try." --Suzanne Krohn

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