The New Life by Tom Crewe

If the last book I read, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, opened with one of the best lines I have read, this book opens with one of the most explicit scenes of sex I have read, full of desire and panic, but turns out to be a dream and so very neatly sets the scene for the whole book. Set in the Victorian era, this is a tale of two men and their marriages and the idea of the New Life.

John Addington is married to Catherine with whom he has three children. But this marriage is a smoke screen for Addington’s homosexuality, something he has tried to hide and deny until he can do so no more.

Henry Ellis is married to Edith in a marriage which they have both agreed to separate sex and being married. They live separately, and in fact Edith is a lesbian and has affairs with women, ending up living with Angelica. Ellis has fetishes which he finds he is unable to tell anyone about and is a shy man who prefers to be with Edith writing and thinking. They both believe that marriage can mean ‘new things’.

Both men have an admiration for the poet Walt Whitman whose poetry suggests that he is gay, although there is debate naowadays about whether that is enough evidence to say so definitively, and through this admiration come to hear about each other. Ellis suggests they write a book together about homosexuality containing case studies and scientific thinking and Addington agrees. Its purpose is to try and change the law that says men can not be with men.

Just before the book is published, Wilde goes to trial and is found guilty and this divides the opinions of Ellis and Addington about what should happen with their book. Ellis feels they shouldn’t publish or draw attention to themselves, Addington wants to at any cost and bullies his way to it happening although it costs him dearly. Eventually, a bookseller who sells one of their books is caught and the case is judged to be serious enough to go to trial.

The book is about the moral complexity of such a case. Is it better to change world through private actions, living the life you want but quietly? Or, should there be public acts which force others to think about the situation and to come down on one side or the other?

He (Ellis) wished that he belonged to the common herd, nuzzling in easy ignorance.


Throughout the book there are strands of class, education and type of character all woven together in this impossible moral problem. How do you push for changes in the law? Why shouldn’t you let the world know who you are and who you love?

The writing is sublime. Precise and flowing and changing in tempo for Wilde’s trial, suggesting the clamour of people wanting to know more.

These were John’s days of dread. His months: March to May. When everything secret, hidden, whispered was shouted, pasted printed. When everything unmentionable was warmed in every maudlin, moral mouth. When what was nameless became nothing but names.

Leaders, letters, speeches. Handbills, placards, pictures. Chalkings on walls. Crowds on corners. Jeerers. Jurors. When John felt himself exposed, sprawled on the slimed wreck of his privacy, at the world’s mercy. Except it was not his privacy.


Eroticism also runs through the book.

The rain started that night, while he was lying awake in bed, with a sound like sheets being shaken out. It grew in strength until it roared, till he could see in his mind the lances of rain, striking at the street so hard that they splintered and jagged back into the air. After it was finished he lay listening to the glug and gurgle of the drains and gutters, the silence of shocked pavements.


As a book it is a tour de force.

If you want to read the female equivalent of this book, try After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz.

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