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The New Life

A Novel

LIST PRICE $28.00

About The Book

A brilliant and captivating debut, in the tradition of Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Tóibín, about two marriages, two forbidden love affairs, and the passionate search for social and sexual freedom in late 19th-century London.

In this powerful, visceral novel about love, sex, and the struggle for a better world, two men collaborate on a book in defense of homosexuality, then a crime—risking their old lives in the process.

In the summer of 1894, John Addington and Henry Ellis begin writing a book arguing that what they call “inversion,” or homosexuality, is a natural, harmless variation of human sexuality. Though they have never met, John and Henry both live in London with their wives, Catherine and Edith, and in each marriage there is a third party: John has a lover, a working class man named Frank, and Edith spends almost as much time with her friend Angelica as she does with Henry. John and Catherine have three grown daughters and a long, settled marriage, over the course of which Catherine has tried to accept her husband’s sexuality and her own role in life; Henry and Edith’s marriage is intended to be a revolution in itself, an intellectual partnership that dismantles the traditional understanding of what matrimony means.

Shortly before the book is to be published, Oscar Wilde is arrested. John and Henry must decide whether to go on, risking social ostracism and imprisonment, or to give up the project for their own safety and the safety of the people they love. Is this the right moment to advance their cause? Is publishing bravery or foolishness? And what price is too high to pay for a new way of living?

A richly detailed, insightful, and dramatic debut novel, The New Life is an unforgettable portrait of two men, a city, and a generation discovering the nature and limits of personal freedom as the 20th century comes into view.

Excerpt

Chapter I I
HE WAS CLOSE ENOUGH to smell the hairs on the back of the man’s neck. They almost tickled him, and he tried to rear his head, but found that he was wedged too tightly. There were too many bodies pressed heavily around him; he was slotted into a pattern of hats, shoulders, elbows, knees, feet. He could not move his head even an inch. His gaze had been slotted too, broken off at the edges: he could see nothing but the back of this man’s head, the white margin of his collar, the span of his shoulders. He was close enough to smell the pomade, streaks of it shining dully at the man’s nape; clingings of eau de cologne, a tang of salt. The suit the man was wearing was blue-and-gray check. The white collar bit slightly into his skin, fringed by small whitish hairs. His ears were pink where they curved at the top. His hat—John could see barely higher than the brim—was dark brown, with a band in a lighter shade. His hair was brown too, darker where the pomade was daubed. It had recently been cut: a line traced where the barber had shaped it.

John could not move his head. His arms were trapped at his sides; there were bodies pressing from right and left, from behind, in front. He flexed his fingers—they brushed coats, dresses, satchels, canes, umbrellas. The train carriage rattled in its frame, thudded on the track, underground. The lights wavered, trembling on the cheekbone of the man in front. John hadn’t noticed that, hadn’t noticed he could see the angle of the man’s jaw and the jut of his cheekbone. There was the hint of a moustache. Blackness rushed past the windows. The floor roared beneath his feet.

He was hard. The man had changed position, or John had. Perhaps it was only a jolt of the train. But someone had changed their position. The man’s jacket scratched at John’s stomach—he felt it as an itch—and his buttocks brushed against John’s crotch, once, twice, another time. John was hard. It was far too hot in the train, far too crowded. The man came closer, still just within the realm of accident, his buttocks now pressed against John’s crotch. John’s erection was cramped flat against his body. The man and he were so close it was cocooned between them. Surely he could feel it? A high, vanishing feeling traveled up from John’s groin, tingling in his fingertips and at his temples. He could not get away, could not turn his head, could only smell the hairs on the back of the man’s neck, see the neat line of his collar, the redness on the tops of his ears, could only feel himself hard, harder than before, as though his body were concentrating itself, straining in that one spot. Surely he could feel it? John felt panicked; sweat collected in his armpits. He dreaded the man succeeding in pivoting about, skewering the other passengers with his elbows, shouting something, the carriage turning its eyes, a gap opening round his telltale shame. And yet he knew that he did not want it to stop, that he could not escape the grip of this terrible excitement.

The man began to move. At first John was not certain, he thought again that it might be the jolting of the train. He had been willing the hardness away, counting from a hundred in his head, breathing slowly through his teeth, when he felt the slightest movement, as though the man were pushing back against his erection, as though he were gently tilting against it, rising and falling on his toes. John’s first sensation was a rush of dread, followed quickly by a rush of something else, that same high, vanishing feeling running through his fingers and up to his temples. He had no control. He was crowded on all sides—he was fixed at the center of a mass of bodies, his entire consciousness constricted, committed to this small circle of subtle movement. This man’s buttocks, pressed so tightly against him it almost hurt, moving up and down. A bead of sweat, released from his armpit, ran quickly and coldly down his side. He tried to look about him, at the other passengers, but could not: instead he gazed frantically, surrenderingly, at the man’s collar, the redness on his ears. Was that a smile, creeping to the edge of the moustache? And still it went on, unmistakable now, the rising and falling, the pressure, almost painful, moving up the length of him, to the tip and down again. He breathed heavily through his nose, breathed heavily onto the man’s neck. He wished he could move his arms, that he could move anything at all: that his whole being were not bent so terrifyingly on this sensation, this experience, that he could for a moment place himself outside it. He breathed heavily again, saw how his breath flattened the whitish hairs on the back of the man’s neck. His face hurt. He felt a strange pressure under his ears. He swallowed, took another breath. Pomade and eau de cologne, cigarette smoke, salt. Up and down, the pressure dragged painfully to the tip, down again. He was sinking under it. He could barely breathe.

The train slowed. They were coming to a stop. He gasped onto the man’s neck. He longed for escape, for it to be over. Up and down, up and down, pleasure lancing through his body. The light changed; he saw over the man’s shoulder the brighter lights of a platform. He tried to step backwards, could not, yet. He heard the doors being opened, heard the aggravated noise of the platform, waited for the pressure to ease, for movement in the carriage, for people to depart. He longed to turn his head. But more people were pouring in, more darkness, black pressure: umbrellas, canes, satchels, dresses, coats. He and the man were forced even closer than before; he could feel the full warmth of the man’s body, the climbing curve of his back, the shoulders braced against his. And his lips were nudged onto the man’s neck; he felt the hairs on his lips, tasted the pomade and the eau de cologne. The man was still tilting against him; they were moving together now, in a slow, crushed dance, rising and falling in time.

The train pushed off, the lights quivered. It was unbearably hot. He felt faint-headed, almost in pain. And then he felt the man’s hand, a hand, unbuttoning him, felt the slight opening, an access of air, his erection pressing forward to fill it. Panic, a terrible excitement. And then the man’s hand, a hand, wriggling into the gap, struggling into it; he felt the wait of seconds to be unbearable as the hand fought through the stiffness of the tweed, found the second opening in his drawers. And then it was in, the hand, was closing round it. His eyes were closed by fear; the man’s neck was slippery beneath his lips. The carriage rattled in its frame, the lights shot darts behind his eyelids. The hand closed round it, he felt each finger find its place, begin to pull the flesh tight, to release, to guide it down into some sort of tenderness, to draw it tight again. He could barely breathe. He felt stretched tight, stretched beyond endurance. His body ached. Up and down, up and down. Fingers spanned the length of him, pulled tight, pulled faster. His hands were suddenly free, he had them on the man’s hips, was reaching up into the damp warmth inside his jacket, feeling his ribs beneath his shirt. Then down, fumbling with his buttons, cupping the swell of his cock. His hand was in the man’s trousers, the cock warm in his hand, he rubbed the head with his thumb. It was happening so fast now, up and down, faster and faster. Rising in him, through his fingertips, up to his neck, under his ears, at his temples. He was gasping. The man’s neck was wet beneath his lips.

It was like the pumping of blood from a split vein, a deep wound. He was woken by the violence of it, helplessly halfway. He squeezed his eyes shut. Air seeped past his gritted teeth and escaped at the corners of his mouth. He lay still a long moment, waiting for his nightshirt to be weighted onto his leg, for the slime to settle on his skin and begin to trickle. He was far too hot—his legs were slick with sweat, wet behind the kneecaps. Catherine was asleep, her face composed against the pillow. He peeled back the coverlet and swung his legs over the side, spreading his toes on the floorboards. The mess on the front of his shirt seemed almost to gleam; he could see one large patch, and other, smaller ones, a succession of smears. He pinched the fabric to hold it away from him and then with his other hand pulled the shirt forward from the back, over his head—this was the method he had developed after too many times pulling it up over his face, dragging the mess into his beard—and sat naked on the bed. His cock, struggling to keep its shape, drifted drunkenly between his thighs, sticky at the tip. He held it a moment, letting it cool between his fingers. The darkness in the room was filmy, as if the small amount of light leaking through the curtains was slowly percolating it. His body was luminous; his legs and arms, even his shrinking, sluggish cock, had a greeny Renaissance sheen, like some dying Christ. He felt obvious, transparent, sacrificial, sat naked on the bed. His head hurt; his eyes were sore. Emissions exhausted him.

It must be early in the morning. Too early for the servants, who might otherwise be heard scuttling in the corridor. He looked at his nightshirt, puddled on the floor, and thought again of them having to wash it, stiff and yellow, starched with their master’s seed, four or five days a week. A succession of pungent patches, smears. He could hardly bring himself to look at Susan, who he knew collected the dirty things. If they talked about it downstairs, it was possible only that they chuckled over Mr. and Mrs. Addington’s honeymooning still, but he felt sure that they would be able to tell the difference between marital possession, even excessively practiced, and incontinence. Servants knew more of these things as a rule, and he remembered hearing that Susan had older brothers. Did she think of them as she handled this forty-nine-year-old infant’s underthings? Ask herself whether they too, her handsome brothers, were victims to shaming impulse? Perhaps it satisfied her to decide they were not.

It was especially bad now. He blamed the heat, which inflamed him. He had not masturbated yet, but he could not go on very much longer without doing so. It was something he did only in his greatest extremity, pleasurably—pointless to deny it—but furtively, furiously, fearful of discovery by Catherine or one of the children (particularly when they had actually been children, forever stumbling into his study) or a servant, a pretty Susan backing into the room with arms full of fresh linen, to find sir hunched over himself, softly gibbering. And yet he would still do it, in extremity, discounting even the cost to his health.

How to define extremity? The greatest extremity? Lust, not as quickened heartbeat or lurch into dizzy possibility, but as lagging sickness, a lethargy. Lust as slow poisoning. Lust as a winter coat worn in summer, never to be taken off. Lust as a net, cast wide, flashing silver, impossible to pull in. Lust as a thousand twitching, tightening strings, sensitive to every breeze. Lust as a stinking, secret itch. Lust carried leadenly in the day, dragged to bed. Lust at four in the morning, spent chokingly into a nightshirt. Lust as a liquid mess, dragged into your beard, drying into tendrils, the smell trapped in your nostrils.

It was lust that used to drive him to sleep with his wife, nervously mounting her as one would an unfamiliar horse, sensitive to every tremor and shifting movement, rucking up her nightdress and shuddering into her. He had tried to bury his lust in her, to stake it and walk away. This was what he had been urged to do. It was on doctor’s orders that he had married her. But they had agreed, after their second daughter was born, to stop. Years passed, and he was ready to split his head, and had crawled onto her again. There was another pregnancy. And so they had ended—ended it—with three girls, a family. And still he yearned, wanted, itched.

A sound stood out in the darkness. The clop-clap of hooves. He gently levered himself off the bed and walked to the far window, parting the curtain with a finger and putting his eye to the gap. A cart passed on the far side of the street, the horse kicking up dust, the driver with his cap pulled down against a band of sunlight. He followed its progress as far as he could, and then turned back into the room, briefly blinded by dazzling, dancing dark. There was a basin in the corner of the room, filled the night before. He dabbed a sponge and cleaned himself, wiping away the last oozings and scrubbing at the stuck-down hairs on his thighs. Another cart went past the house in the other direction and the curtain shifted in its wake, driving an avenue of light briefly across the floor. He toweled himself and squeezed out the sponge. At the same time he realized Catherine was awake, pulling herself up by her elbows, her face a shade of dark above the white of her nightdress, the collapsed bed linen.

“What is it?” There was sleep in her voice. She was a sound sleeper—normally he could wash and dress without her ever knowing he’d woken prematurely.

“A spill.” This was their word for it: a soft, married word, evoking nothing of its violence, the stuff that was wrenched from him. He moved towards the bed as he spoke, placing a hand over his privates when he saw a small reflex of anxiety quiver her face. “I am going to get dressed.”

“It is early, John.”

“I won’t sleep.” He picked up his nightshirt and turned away, conscious of presenting her with his back and buttocks, the shadow of his testes, feeling alien to himself. Not sure whether she was still watching, he took his dressing gown from its hook and put it on. Then he let himself out, stepping softly across the corridor—still no sound of servants—and into his dressing room. He lit the lamp, picked out a suit, and was half-dressed when he found himself becoming hard again. Without hesitating, he unbuttoned his trousers, tugged his cock through the gap, and began to pump it with savage determination, groaning as he spewed into a handkerchief.

Ten minutes later, John Addington, fixing his hat on his head, stepped out into the clean June sunshine and began to walk, accompanied only by the shreds and tatters of his dream.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The New Life includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In the summer of 1894, Henry Ellis and John Addington, two men who have never met in person, begin writing a book in defense of what they call “inversion.” For both personal and intellectual reasons, each feels strongly about their argument: that homosexuality is natural and harmless, a variation of human sexuality as innocuous as color blindness. As they collaborate, sending letters across London, John—married for many years, with three grown daughters—meets a young man in a park and falls in love for the first time. At the same time, Henry, a young, progressive thinker and writer, is challenged by the complications of his own marriage with Edith, with whom he shares intellectual convictions but not a home. Together, these two men are determined to write a book defending the freedom to love and live without threat of imprisonment or ostracization.

Yet that is exactly what they face when Oscar Wilde is arrested and charged with gross indecency, mere weeks before the book is set to publish. As the country is plunged into an era of homophobia and fearmongering, John and Henry must decide how much to risk—for themselves, their families, and their reputations—in the pursuit of a new way of life.

Discussion Questions:

1. On page 85, the reader learns of Henry’s “peculiarity” and the shame he’s felt about it for his entire life. This “peculiarity” allows him to sympathize with “inverts” and their oppression. Discuss how narrow the definition for “normal” really is. How many people fall outside of that category? How have the confines for normal broadened or narrowed since Henry and John’s day?

2. A recurring fear of both John and Henry is that John’s “inversion” will be discovered, discrediting their book. Why is it that we don’t trust the subjects of debate to have a credible perspective? What are some examples of conversations where the people most affected by the decision are left out of the process?

3. At the beginning of chapter 11, John recalls the events leading up to his marriage to Catherine, the dread he felt, his inability to focus, his casual cruelty because he did not love her. He recalls rushing into the marriage even though he knew it was wrong. Discuss a time you were torn between instinct and reason when making a decision. How often were your instincts right?

4. On page 126, in the midst of a heated conversation about sexual freedom and contraceptives, Angelica says, “If sex is considered a pleasure, why would you not make it safe from consequences in every kind of case?” What role does moral posturing play in maintaining the status quo? How does it contribute to restricting bodily autonomy?

5. In the same conversation, and later on page 152, the meaning and limits of liberty are raised again. Angelica claims that “liberty can be abused.” How is “liberty” being defined here? Does that definition allow for individual self-determination? How is “liberty” constrained when someone other than the individual gets to decide when they are “abusing” it? How do responsibility and liberation compete with or complement each other?

6. In a letter to Henry on page 141, John defends the omission of female inverts from their book due to the lack of legal penalty. However, lesbianism was socially taboo, and women who attempted to marry one another with one presenting as a man were charged with fraud. Considering that Edith and Angelica were by no means free to be together despite it not being explicitly illegal, how does this illustrate the limits of legality as a means of liberation?

7. Consider the ripple-effects of the prohibitive laws against “inversion.” John’s wife, Catherine, is deeply wounded by the limits placed on his choices—and by his resulting actions—and is not free herself to seek other companionship. Discuss the ways in which this reflects Franny Lou Hamer’s quote “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

8. Consider the line “We must live in the future we hope to make.” What does this mean to you? How do you or how would you incorporate this into your own life? What future do you hope to make?

9. On page 245, John says “I said to Ellis today that there are blameless lives, that Wilde had dragged us all down with him. It isn’t true. I don’t think any of us are blameless—we haven’t been allowed to be.” Explore the concept of innocence as a requirement for justice or equality. Why is it that John feels that in order to be protected, he and other inverts need to be completely “blameless”? How does the concept of “innocence” play into who is granted justice?

10. Jack confronts Henry after discovering that he is continuing with the plan to publish the book, afraid of what it will mean for him. On page 256 he says “Does it ever occur to you that the New Life might be easier for some people to live than for others? ...The gap is wider if you are in defiance of the law, than if you simple choose to live apart from your wife.” Discuss other instances in the book where it is clear that the “New Life” only offers liberation for some. How could the “New Life” become accessible to all?

Book Group Activities:

1. Chapter 21 begins with letters and quotes from Oscar Wilde’s actual trial, interspersed with John’s memories. Read some of Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde’s letters from My Darling Boy or an online collection like oscarwilde.org.uk. Consider what it would be like to receive these letters and then have them used against you.

2. Alexandra Kollontai, a contemporary of John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis—upon whom the John Addington and Henry Ellis of this book are based—published the essay Love and the New Morality in Russia in 1911 (available for free online). In it she explores the ideas of “erotic friendship” and “game love.” After reading it, how do her ideas relate and expand upon the “New Life” Henry and Edith were trying to create?

3. Walt Whitman features heavily in The New Life as a figure of hope for those who experience “Greek feeling,” as homosexuality is referred to in the book. Read a few of his poems, particularly “Calamus”, “For You O Democracy”, and “Earth, My Likeness,” which John and Henry discuss in their first letters. What do you make of these poems? Which elements hint at “Greek Feeling”? Do you see what about them so moved both John and Henry?

For more information about Tom Crewe, visit tomcrewe.com.

About The Author

Tom Crewe was born in Middlesbrough in 1989. He has a PhD in 19th-century British history from the University of Cambridge. Since 2015, he has been an editor at the London Review of Books, to which he has contributed more than thirty essays on politics, art, history, and fiction. The New Life is his first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 3, 2023)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668000830

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Raves and Reviews

"This debut novel reimagines the real-life efforts of two researchers who advocated for acceptance of homosexuality in the 1800s, decades before the gay rights movement. In exploring their story, Crewe asks: What’s worth jeopardizing in the name of progress?"
 —The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice

"In The New Life, Crewe distinguishes himself both as novelist and as historian... He has, more unusually, found a prose that can accommodate everything from the lofty to the romantic and the shamelessly sexy."
 —The New Yorker

"Intricate and finely crafted… [Crewe] attentively constructs rich, human motivations and contradictions for his fictionalized renderings of John and Henry… The New Life brims with intelligence and insight, impressed with all the texture (and fog) of fin de siècle London.”
—The New York Times

"The spirit of Forster broods over Tom Crewe’s lyrical, piercing debut, The New Life, which lends a contemporary urgency to an exploration of same-sex intimacy and social opprobrium… The New Life is a fine-cut gem, its sentences buffed to a gleam, but with troubling implications for our own reactionary era.”
—The Washington Post

“A literary debut that’s nothing less than remarkable… Crewe’s writing is subtly intricate, gorgeous, though never precious or showy’ at times, it calls to mind the best of Thomas Hardy, but with necessarily modern sensibilities… This is a beautiful, brave book that reminds us of the terrible human cost of bigotry; this is a novel against forgetting.”
—The Boston Globe

"One of the most embodied historical novels I have read ... Crewe’s brilliance – in addition to his ability to make us feel the physical sensations – is in dramatising moral dilemmas with complexity and rigour ...  Lives and experience demand richer forms of storytelling, and this is just what Crewe has given us."
—The Guardian

"A novel that promises to scrape back the polished veneer of late 19th-century England."
—Daily Mail

“Tom Crewe’s book is a beautiful, haunting portrait of love in a time that didn’t understand it, and a reminder of how close we are to the past.”
Town & Country, 30 Must-Read Books for Winter 2023

"[An] auspicious debut... Crewe uses meticulously researched period details to great effect, and rounds out the narrative with solid characters and tight pacing. Readers will look forward to seeing what this talented author does next."
Publishers Weekly

“Electrifying. Tom Crewe’s forensic love of the physical puts the body back into history and makes the past a living, changing place.” 
—Anne Enright, author of Actress and The Green Road

"A very fine new writer."
—Kate Atkinson, author of Life after Life and Shrines of Gaiety

The New Life is filled with nuance and tenderness, steeped in the atmosphere of late nineteenth century London, a world on the brink of social and sexual change. Tom Crewe's brilliant novel dramatizes the relationship between the visionary and the brave, charting the lives of men and women who inspired not only political progress but an entire new way of living and loving.”
—Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn and The Magician

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