The New Life is a lyrical debut novel which balances big questions with small and powerful intimacies. Re-imagining a moment in Victorian history, it tracks the stories of two men, the middle-aged John Addington and the younger Henry Ellis, who embark on a project to write a book on the subject of ‘sexual inversion’ – male homosexual love, sexuality, and relationships. Both are married to women, but neither man’s marriage is conventional. John is pursuing a sexually-charged affair with a younger man from a socially-inferior background which his wife is helpless to prevent, while Henry and Edith’s marriage of two minds – intended as a demonstration of how the relationship between men and women might be redefined in The New Life for which they are both striving – comes under strain with the unanticipated intrusion of a third party. Against these human dramas the two men pursue their project, driven by principles and personal desires – but unbeknownst to them the ‘love that dare not speak its name’ is about to be forced out of the shadows and into the harsh, judgmental light of Victorian morality, public opinion, and the press.
Crewe writes with elegance and sympathy. This is a book that, first and foremost, is about people: their thoughts, their dreams, their desires. It is highly charged with sexual energy – the almost unbearable weight and pressure and desire deprived of an outlet: ‘lust as a winter coat worn in summer, never to be taken off’. The world of Victorian London through which his characters move is intensely atmospheric – a swirl of cold rooms, oppressive dark wooden furniture, carriages, labourers, meeting-house crowds, letters flying back and forth – but it is a light sketch to be filled in by the mind of the reader, unencumbered by lengthy descriptions. His observations on the dynamics of couples are subtle and enjoyable. John Addison and Henry Ellis confine the scope of their book to the subject of male inversion, but is often Crewe’s female characters which are the most captivating: the bold Angelica who inserts herself into Henry and Edith’s married life, John spirited teenage daughter, and his quietly suffering wife Catherine, trapped and constrained by her husband’s behaviour and by society’s intolerance.
Crewe – an editor at the LRB who has a PhD in 19th century history from Cambridge – describes himself in the afterword as merrily reshaping and rewriting the facts of the people and events which inspired the book with ‘the enthusiasm of the ex-historian’. In doing so he has created a sharp and sympathetic novel. His extensive suggestions for further reading will no doubt inspire a great many readers to dive deeper into this fascinating period and topic for themselves.
Review by Thomas Laskowski