The New Life

Written by Tom Crewe
Review by Douglas Kemp

London in the final decade of the 19th century. In his debut novel, Tom Crewe focuses on the restrictions and judgments of late Victorian society, where men and women were faced with strict moral codes that could not be easily, or legally, transgressed without penalty. John Addington, based on John Addington Symonds, the gay poet and intellectual, struggles to resist indulging in his sexuality, despite the risk and severe punishment for “inversion,” as it was then termed. He is married and has children but is only attracted to men. Henry Ellis is a supporter of the New Life movement, an organisation dedicated to adopting more enlightened, rational ways of living and arranging society to suit all of the population, not just a few fortunate. He and Edith Vells, a writer, decide to marry but maintain their independence and live apart, again against all the customs of conventional, staid society. Ellis is based loosely on the writer and intellectual Havelock Ellis, who achieved fame later for his writings on social reform and human sexuality. Addington and Ellis agree to collaborate on a book that examines the history of male homosexuality and the hypocrisy of society’s attitudes to the activities. But when Oscar Wilde is tried and found guilty of such offences, the project becomes even more sensitive and dangerous and threatens both men’s prospects.

The author deploys delightful poetic descriptions and observation, especially in the play of light on quotidian objects and activities, and the narrative is expertly planned and executed. The author cheerfully admits that he has played fast and loose with the historical record, arguing “truths needn’t always depend on facts for their expression”. This is a great achievement, the work of an admirable literary talent, if not historically accurate or reliable.