Book review: The New Life by Tom Crewe

The New Life draws on real events, but freely adapts them. In late-nineteenth-century London, John Addington and Henry Ellis (based on John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis) correspond with a view to writing Sexual Inversion, a book on male homosexuality.

Addington, a married father of three who has struggled to repress his homosexuality, forms a passionate relationship with a younger working-class man called Frank Feaver. In his belated self-acceptance, he also wants society to become tolerant of homosexuality and believes the book will provide the historical, scientific and moral case for doing so.

Ellis, who is medically qualified but now focuses on writing and research, apparently has more of a political and intellectual interest. He is in an unconsummated marriage to Edith, a campaigner for women’s rights and, initially at least, appears naive about her lesbianism.

The novel tells the story of the collaboration of Addington and Ellis and its consequences, as well as the developing relationships of the two men. Addington wants to continue his relationship with Feaver while having the respectability — and safety — of being a married man. Ellis enjoys a close friendship with Edith, based on their shared principles, but struggles with jealousy and his own esoteric sexual urges.

The New Life took a while to get going for me. It’s a bit heavy on description – and spunk, there’s a lot of spunk. But I did end up becoming engaged in the story.

The secondary characters are perhaps more interesting than the self-centred Addington and the repressed and awkward Ellis. There’s a sensitive depiction of Addington’s youngest daughter and the attention she pays to Feaver, and it’s left nicely ambiguous whether she suspects the truth and is trying to show acceptance, or whether she is attracted to him herself (or perhaps both). Edith is a wonderful character, and her work in pursuit of her beliefs, her difficult love affair, and her kindness to Ellis, are all beautifully drawn.

There are also some nice moments of humour. I had to smile as the two authors fear controversy and condemnation ahead of publication, but instead are – initially at least – met with a wall of indifference. However, that changes with the publicity surrounding the Oscar Wilde trial. When Wilde is sentenced to imprisonment and hard labour for gross indecency, the sense of danger increases and they are faced with a difficult decision which drives the second part of the book.

The characters grapple with questions of courage, identity and pragmatism. Is it better to gradually try to shift public attitudes, and advocate for a change in the law, or to confront injustice head on? In the circle of the protagonists, the people who are most inclined to take a stand are the most privileged. Feaver gently points out that Addington has no conception of what hard labour means because he has never had to work. 

The New Life at times reminded me of George Gissing – the tortured relationships, the constant awareness of class, even the way the fog becomes part of the narrative. But Gissing has a unique gift for making miserabilists you’d never want to meet somehow fascinating, and he isn’t above using the twists and reversals of popular fiction to keep the pages turning.

The New Life would have benefited from more pace and a tighter structure – particularly at the denouement. It does, though, have a great sense of the period and asks some interesting questions about strategies for social change and the intersection of the personal and political.

I received a copy of The New Life from the publisher via NetGalley.
View The New Life on Goodreads

Want to know more? Tom Crewe is included in the Observer’s 10 best new novelists for 2023

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