‘Truths needn’t depend on facts for their expression.’
The quote is from Tom Crewe’s author notes for his novel The New Life. It’s a book I think will be noticed for its unselfconscious depiction of sex between men, but I also admire it as an example of how history can be melded into create great fiction without disrespecting the documented facts. Crewe’s main characters, John Addington and Henry Ellis, play the parts of the real Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis, authors of the first academic treatise on homosexuality. These two men never actually met: that their counterparts meet in this book is a hurrah for the ‘what-ifs’ of historical fiction.
Stevenson, Symonds, Wilde
I was drawn to this book because of R.L. Stevenson’s many friendships with gay or sexually ambivalent men and what Andrew Lang described as his ‘power of making other men fall in love with him’ and also because there was friction between Oscar Wilde (his trial is the tipping point of Crewe’s novel) and Sidney Colvin, the other member of my ‘love triangle’. The second part of my novel occurs in the mid-1890s when the impact of Wilde’s trial can’t be ignored. Because of this I knew a little of Symonds, who met RLS at Davos in the early 1880s and in The New Life I found Addington the more rounded and convincing figure, a Victorian scholar forced to deny his inclinations and enter into a conventional but strained marriage. At the time, there were only three views of homosexuality: romanticised Greek Love, a medical condition or criminal immorality. His wish was to have it accepted as entirely natural and for homosexuals to live together openly and without fear. He doesn’t come across as a particularly attractive character but he is compelling in his need to be heard after years of silence.
Women and marriage
Ellis is more of an enigma. Originally a doctor who has turned to social causes, he is painfully shy and by the end of the book I found myself asking why he had entered into the project to write a book with Addington. He considers himself socially progressive and has homosexual friends but except in one small aspect is oddly asexual. He marries the campaigning Edith apparently as an act of rebellion but neither of them has fully considered what they are getting into. The marriage remains unconsummated and Edith eventually lives with close friend Angelica as her wife. There is a strong suggestion of an attraction between Ellis and Angelica and the ending is ambiguous as to how or where they will all end up.
It’s arguable that the female characters in this book could be given voices – or perhaps that’s a novel still to be written! This book is certainly as much about marriage and male/female relationships as about homosexuality and I found Addington’s final showdown with his wife and his damaged relationship with his children quite heart-breaking.
For a historical novel this is a book of great style and striking modernity and for anyone wanting an insight into the sexual mores of late Victorian England it’s not only a great read but for me at least more illuminating than any academic article or treatise.
2 thoughts on “‘Desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England’: The New Life by Tom Crewe @TomCrewe1”
Fascinating subject and a beautifully written review which impels you towards the book.
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Thanks Sue – a fascinating book in all kinds of ways.