The New Life – Tom Crewe (Simon & Schuster)

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Simon & Schuster

The subject of Tom Crewe’s début novel will likely be obscure to many readers, beyond those, like myself, who are gay history geeks. Many decades before Alfred Kinsey brought attention to the natural range of human sexuality, and eighty years prior to the psychiatric community decategorizing homosexuality as a mental disorder, two British academics John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis published a medical textbook, Sexual Inversion, that presented homosexual men as well-adjusted, healthy, and unjustly persecuted individuals. The year was 1897, and while the book faced skepticism and scandal at the time, it planted the seeds for a movement to depathologize and decriminalize gay sex. Crewe doesn’t seek to state all the facts about the authors’ lives and motivations, but in crafting his historical fiction, he drew heavily from the men’s biographies and changed their names just slightly. What results is an imagining of the events that led to Symonds and Ellis’s scholarship, grounded in what is known of the social and political climate of the time.

John Addington is a respected member of London’s intellectual class. He writes poetry and literary criticism and has a special interest in homoromanticism in ancient Greece. A gentleman of a certain age, he has a wife, two grown daughters and a daughter headed to Oxford University. He also has long been painfully aware of his attraction to men and kept that part of himself hidden from the world with the exception of a few clandestine sexual encounters.

Henry Ellis is a thirty-one-year-old newly married doctor. He and his wife Edith are proponents of an enlightened philosophy known as “the New Life.” The gist of the New Life is that society can be bettered by prizing intellectual inquiry over cultural convention, and with its egalitarian principles, it attracted socialists, suffragettes, and “sexual radicals,” as they were known at the time. Henry and Edith are well-matched in terms of values and academic passions, and they are both looking for a marriage that isn’t tethered by traditional roles and responsibilities. Edith is in a discreet affair with another woman. For Henry, his interest in marrying is a bit more complicated than seeking cover for homosexuality. He can only be aroused by a fetish, which he fears will render him unlovable.

John writes to Henry with praise for an article Henry wrote about the poems of Walt Whitman, and through their correspondence, the two men agree to collaborate on a book of case studies illuminating same-sex male relations. The story of how they bring their book to life (semi-fictionalized, Symonds and Ellis never actually met, and Symonds died before the book was published) is an immersive journey that has much to say about what it might have been like to be gay in the 1890s. Their subjects are terrified of being socially condemned and jailed, yet they manage to fulfill their needs for sex and companionship through coded signals, cruising grounds, and carefully curated social networks.

John and Henry risk a lot in publishing their work, and the question of how their daring endeavor will turn out is a surprisingly suspenseful hook. Oscar Wilde’s first trial for sodomy erupts in the midst of it all. Despite social liberality inching forward among the educated elite, a plague of injustices remain for gay men, from discriminatory penal codes to religious bigotry to blackmail.

Crewe delves deeply into each man’s struggles to come to terms with who they are. John enters a relationship with a working class man, Frank, who is substantially his junior, and with whom a long-term companionship is possible based on Frank’s desire to make a life together and John’s relative freedom now that his children are grown. He must adjudicate his deception to his wife and daughters while increasingly being aware of how society has deprived men like him the chance for self-acceptance and personal fulfillment.

Henry’s situation adds complexity to the sexual liberation theme. He feels a kinship to the men he interviews, as well as the subversive romanticism of Whitman, but his path is lonelier in some ways. His attachment to his wife is heartfelt, even desperate at times, but Edith will only be happy with a woman, and what man or woman would accept his sexual secret? Crewe is bold in portraying each man’s sexuality with sensuous detail, which gives his characters an appealing humanity.

The New Life is a well-realized novel that works both as a dramatization of gay history and a more personal story of two men searching for ways to live outside social convention.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

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