John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis’s textbook Sexual Inversion—which ran afoul of Victorian sensibilities when it was published in 1897—is the inspiration behind Tom Crewe’s absorbing first novel.
Although based on historical events, The New Life takes certain liberties with them. Crewe’s Addington is a well-respected scholar, husband and father. His Ellis is a young doctor-turned-critic who, along with his wife, Edith, is a follower of The New Life, an organisation that hopes to advance societal reform. Each man, however, has a secret.
Addington is a closeted homosexual and in a relationship with a younger, working-class printer. And while Ellis and Edith’s marriage is a meeting of minds, it is not a union of bodies. Edith shares her bed with another woman: the fiery Angelica, who wants her lover all to herself.
Crewe deserves applause for his vivid scene-setting. From the heady miasma of sweat, eau de cologne, hair pomade and cigarette smoke in a crowded Underground carriage, to the “chill” of a pea souper—fog that “touched your face and squeezed itself out on your tongue like a smelly, greasy piece of dishcloth”—his fin-de-siècle London is a controlled explosion of the senses. Sex hums just beneath the surface; down dark alleyways and hidden in coded glances.
Compared to these subtleties, though, there are a few problems with the last hundred pages. The story begins to drag, and Addington’s sudden decision to abandon so many years of careful subterfuge didn’t quite ring true. Nevertheless, there’s much to admire in this meticulously researched, boldly envisioned debut.