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Tom Crewe’s memorable debut, ‘The New Life,’ chronicles the fortunes of a gay man and a social reformer in Victorian England

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Lust is threatening to tear John Addington’s life apart. It haunts his dreams, governs his thoughts: “Lust, not as quickened heartbeat or lurch into dizzy possibility, but as lagging sickness, a lethargy. Lust as slow poisoning. Lust as a winter coat, worn in summer, never to be taken off.”

John, one of the protagonists of Tom Crewe’s novel, “The New Life,” is a gay man living in mid-1890s England, married to a woman, suffocating under the weight of the unhappy life he’s been forced to lead. He’s a memorable character in a literary debut that’s nothing less than remarkable.

Crewe’s novel follows John, a successful author and translator, and Henry Ellis, an intellectual who trained as a physician. The two men have led vastly different lives: John married on the advice of physicians, who told him the union would cure his homosexuality. His wife, Catherine, knows his secret, but the pair, who have three adult daughters, have decided to stay together, with John’s sexuality lingering in the background, rarely discussed. This becomes harder when John moves his younger lover, Frank, a working-class typesetter, into their home.

Henry is also married to a fellow intellectual named Edith; both are members of a social reformist group called the Society of the New Life. Henry is straight, but uninterested in conventional intercourse; Edith has taken up with another woman. Neither Henry nor Edith are attracted to each other, but they married to make a point: “They had made a union more serious and sustained than that which existed between many of the married couples they knew. It was a prototype for changed relations between men and women, uncorrupted by sexual expectation.”


After John reads a magazine article that Henry has written about Walt Whitman, he writes him a letter, hinting at his own belief that some of the poet’s work alludes to homosexuality. Henry, who is fascinated by unconventional sexuality, writes back, and eventually, the two men decide to write a book about “sexual inversion,” a 19th-century theory of homosexuality — John, they decide, will handle the historical aspects, with Henry in charge of the medical facets.


John is warned by a friend against the idea: “Your career would be ruined. Catherine, your daughters, would not escape the stain.” But the author is undeterred, responding, “I feel myself a fraud. I have grown sick on middle-class propriety. I am dying of it.” John’s wife knows nothing about the book; he has told her that he is working on an autobiography. Henry, meanwhile, has misgivings of his own: “Addington was almost certainly an invert. If he were to be discovered in a public lavatory, or in some kind of brothel, all would be lost.”

Complicating matters is the trial of Oscar Wilde, who is currently being prosecuted for “gross indecency” for his own encounters with men. The trial hits John hard, leading to his “days of dread … when everything that had been dignified, rationalized, was made gross and tawdry, was torn down and trawled through the gutter.” When the book is published, John and Henry can only wait to see how the establishment reacts.

“The New Life” is fiction, of course, but it’s rooted in the late Victorian era, in which homosexuality was criminalized, and inspired by real historical figures: John Addington Symonds and Henry Havelock Ellis, who wrote an influential book on human sexuality. It’s apparent that Crewe has done an impressive amount of research; he conjures 1890s London with exacting detail and his prose effortlessly calls to mind a time when progress was in sight, but still out of reach for people like John.


And what beautiful prose it is. Crewe’s writing is subtly intricate, gorgeous, though never precious or showy; at times, it calls to mind the best of Thomas Hardy, but with necessarily modern sensibilities. In one passage, John recalls a time in his boyhood when his sexuality was awakened by a photograph of a statue depicting a male athlete: “The advent of desire was like the quickening of a blade — he was the blade, and he was the prickling flesh against its edge. How hard to be both, to not see a way to being neither.”

“The New Life” is, at its heart, a moral novel, suffused with a simmering anger over the treatment of generations of people who were forced to endure torturous isolation and self-loathing because of the small-mindedness of those who saw others as less than themselves. This is apparent in one heart-wrenching scene in which Henry is interviewing a closeted gay man for his and John’s book: “Everything I have ever read in books or seen in plays; everything I have seen in my life of ordinary love, I have known in inverted form,” the man says, through tears. “It cannot ever seem unnatural or abnormal, because it has been natural and spontaneous in me.”


Crewe’s stunning novel arrives at a time when forces of intolerance are trying to take the world back to the days of hatred, seeking to ban books with LGBTQ themes and characters, threatening those who don’t conform to rigid ideas of gender and sexuality. This is a beautiful, brave book that reminds us of the terrible human cost of bigotry; this is a novel against forgetting.


By Tom Crewe

Scribner, 400 pp., $28

Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas.