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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