Tom Crewe's 'The New Life' - Wilde times in Britain

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday February 7, 2023
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author Tom Crewe
author Tom Crewe

Tom Crewe's debut novel, "The New Life" (Scribner), has been rightly praised as historical fiction at its finest. The irony, richly deserved, is that its two main protagonists, John Addington and Henry Ellis, not only did not meet in real life but in fact could not have, given their different life trajectories.

The models are John Addington Symonds, a real-life gay scholar hoping to crown his life's achievement with an examination of "Greek love" (he was among the first writers to unpack the notion seriously) and the straight (if suitably kinky on his own) sexologist Havelock Ellis. The plot revolves around their slow-to-form collaboration to produce a masterwork on "inversion," one of the many scientific-sounding euphemisms for homosexuality at the time, the time in this novel being 1894 and 1895.

Close students of that slice of history will recognize in those years the trial of Oscar Wilde for his admitted — and proudly asserted — queerness, an awkward time, to say the least, for the men to bring out their book of case studies, "On Inversion." Crewe finds the drama latent in his retelling of history, in the process making real the dangers at the time living as an active queer.

author Tom Crewe  

The marriage conundrum
In Crewe's telling, both men, married to women, have achieved a level of liberation in their private lives that nevertheless leaves an emotional deficit. Addington, independently wealthy and the father of three grown daughters (still living at home with Addington and his wife, Catherine), has established a habit of bringing his male tricks home. Shortly after we meet him, he has imported — for good or at least for the remainder of the novel — the deadly handsome Frank Feaver, a gay version of D.H. Lawrence's gamekeeper, from the rudeness of Frank's room in a boarding house to the Addingtons' comparative palace, to the consternation if not the surprise of the Addington nuclear family.

Ellis, a virgin when he married Edith, a lesbian who solves the problem of householding by living separately and having her flames live with her, more or less remains one, not that he is unsympathetic to Addington's intellectual pursuit. The point of contact for the main characters is the Society for the New Life, an assembly of free-thinking intellectuals who contemplate and plan a better, more equitable, even ideal world.

Crewe's doctorate in Victorian English history brings the entire milieu into vivid play almost miraculously without suffocating the narrative. To the novel's benefit, you never forget you're reading fiction unbesmirched by anachronism. Crewe transports you to the scene without belaboring the bare bones of historical fact. (I learned for the first time that the British slang "sod," British slang for "fuck," comes from the word Sodomite as applied to gay men.)

Personal liberation
Only midway through the book does actual, verifiable history impose itself, in the enactment of Oscar Wilde's trial for indecency of a specifically homosexual kind.

"These were John's days of dread." Crewe writes, "His months: March to May. When everything secret, hidden, whispered, was shouted, pasted, printed. When what was unmentionable was warmed in every maudlin, moral mouth. When what was nameless was become nothing but names."
Frank opines, "Gentlemen, I always said it was gentlemen you needed to be afraid of."

It's hardly a spoiler to report that the eventual publication of the Addington-Ellis book, plainly titled "Sexual Inversion," blows up on them. Counter-intuitively, it is Wilde's sentencing that brings Addington and Ellis into face-to-face contact for the first time (we see most of their interaction in letters introducing each chapter), to decide on their course of action regarding publication of their book. The pair face a demonstrably non-academic form of publish or perish.

Sex writing
The closest Crewe takes us into the nature of lesbian intimacy is this: "The two women were not shy of revealing their intimacy to [Ellis], in their manner of speaking to and about one another, in the conjunction of all their plans, but there was no physical contact between them. They did not hint at what lay beyond."

Illuminating — verbally enacting — man-on-man sex is, by contrast, so much a Crewe specialty that he begins his novel with the stunning content of a gay wet dream of Addington's. It's potent stuff that only gradually reveals itself as a dream. Sexual encounters recur throughout the novel, sometimes surprisingly but never sublimated. Cocks are called cocks, and they're described in detail. Those cocks shoot sticky semen that adheres to the reader almost as discomfitingly as it does to the men alternately embarrassed and thrilled by it.

Writing about sex is famously difficult to bring off, so to speak, but Crewe's is as forward as anything you'll read in Garth Greenwell or other present-day writers who take frankness about sex out of the realm of the pornographic or sensational directly into the realm of the senses.

Ogling the sunbathers at the cruisy London park, the Serpentine, Crewe notes this about Addington: "The dance of light, the sound of water; men in the company of men, nakedness carelessly worn; everything natural, pure; the clean pleasures of the body. [He] sometimes looked at these men, in the shining minutes snatched before then went away to their work, at their physiques molded and stamped by labor, and saw in them another kind of life."

The power of words
The constant, often startling surprise and joy in reading Crewe's evocative prose is that it's tirelessly individual without being arch. He takes his audience to the brink of purple prose but reliably pulls out before the language sours. His writing is literally arresting in that it stops you only long enough to savor it without blunting the narrative arc.

Hearing Edith speaking for the first time, Ellis perceives "a voice with decision in it, cinching, clipped, concentrated, but with the potential to skid on its own hard surface."

Ellis's kink is described as "this deviation of his, this peculiarity, tickling warm: his desire to hear and see a woman urinate."

Addington and Ellis search for words that do justice to same-sexuality, the real-life Symonds having been instrumental in making the word "homosexual" neutral in Britain. An intellectual and spiritual fellow traveler attuned to their quest says to Ellis what could be a motto for this novel:

"There are lots of words now, ones we needn't be ashamed of. Invert, Uranian, Urning, homosexual. 'The intermediate sex' is my phrase. Our role in the New Life will depend on the blend between us.... We are a kinder race, unconcerned with propagating ourselves. We see differently."

In my estimation, the great gay novel of 2022 was Briton James Cahill's "Tiepolo Blue," which unconscionably has yet to find an American publisher. Crewe's "The New Life" cannot compensate that omission, but Scribner has given us a splendid start to a new year.

'The New Life' by Tom Crewe. Scribner, 390 pages, $28.

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