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An addictive read from a major new writer - and a riveting novel about forbidden sex in late Victorian England
A magnificent and daring novel of unconventional love and new ways to live, set in fin de siècle London
In the summer of 1894, John Addington and Henry Ellis decide to write a revolutionary book. They will argue that homosexuality is not a perversion, and that the law - which makes all sexual activity between men a crime - is wrong and must be changed. Such a book has never been written before, and to publish it will be to wage war on conventional morality. John has been married to Catherine for twenty-five years, and is the father of three daughters, but has spent his life trying to accept and understand his desires for men. John meets and falls in love with Frank, a young working-class printer. Henry is married to Edith, who has recently met and fallen in love with Angelica, a young woman who wants Edith all for herself. These two Victorian marriages, each altered irrevocably by the unanticipated introduction of a third person, are stalked by guilt and shame. They are also shaped and put under pressure by new ideas about sex, social equality, the role of women and the right to deviate from the norm.
When Oscar Wilde is arrested and put on trial for homosexuality in the spring of 1895, John and Henry have to choose whether or not to go ahead with their book. Is now the best or the worst moment to make the argument that sex between men should not be a crime? Faced with the consequences of their choice, they and the people around them are forced to consider another question: what price is worth paying for a new way of living? The New Life - very loosely based on the experiences of John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis, co-authors of the first book in English about homosexuality - captures a generation in the process of discovering the nature and limits of personal freedom, struggling to create a better world as the twentieth century comes into view.
Author: Tom Crewe
Hardback Published 21 February 2023 400 pages
Read and Recommended by Graeme:
"This superb new debut novel reimagines two real-life historical men - John Addington Symonds and Henry Havelock Ellis - and takes us back to 1890s London when the two were collaborating on a revolutionary book Sexual Inversion. It was an attempt to raise public consciousness and sympathy for homosexuality which was illegal and prosecuted harshly. However their ambition was undone by the Oscar Wilde scandal which hardened society’s views and alarmed many closeted men. The novel’s characters are only loosely based on the real-life men and the author who is an ex-historian has taken some liberties with the facts to weave this fascinating and evocative narrative. The novel opens with a tremendously sexy scene - John Addington is wedged up against another man on a very crowded train and becomes aroused as does the other man - though the clandestine nature of this encounter amplifies the eroticism tenfold. And it is this forbidden quality to sex and desire which supercharges the eroticism that runs through the book. There are many memorable scenes, in particular one when John’s lover Frank leads him outside his house into a very dense fog that cloaks the street. The two men are hidden by the fog and they kiss openly and defiantly in the street. The characters are so evocatively created, even the more secondary characters such as John’s wife Catherine and we get insight and sympathy into her unfortunate situation of being married to a gay man who itches for more freedom. Female and lesbian readers will also find substance in the novel - Henry’s wife Edith advocates publicly on the rights for woman, while in private conducts a love affair with a woman. The historical period captured in The New Life is utterly fascinating and portrayed with impeccable atmosphere and an expert eye to historical detail, yet it is all this pent-up, clandestine sexual longing that truly heightens the narrative into something very memorable and compelling for the reader."