Book Review: “The New Life” Tom Crewe

SPOILER ALERT 

Aubrey Roemmich, General Reporter

On January 3rd, Tom Crewe released his debut novel. A historical fiction that takes place from June 1894 to March of 1896 in London, England titled “The New Life,” which dramatizes the work of two men writing on the topic of male homosexuality and the effects of Oscar Wilde’s infamous trial on public opinion surrounding the topic. Crewe’s novel follows two men: John Addington and Henry Ellis. John is a gay man who has been hiding behind his marriage to a woman for decades. Henry is a young idealist who marries his best friend, Edith who is attracted to other women, to serve as a model of marriage not tied to the politics of sex.   

Ellis is a part of an organization called “The New Life” that is dedicated to exploring topics that lead to different ways of life. Things like socialism, environmentalism, intentional living, etc. are the focuses of this group. As a trained doctor who does not practice, Ellis has always been curious about the topic of sex. He approaches Addington with an idea of writing a medical book dedicated to studying “inverts,” which was the term used to describe homosexual individuals during this period. With Addington being a respected writer, Ellis being a medical man, and both being married to women, it seems safe enough to write and publish this book without fear of being accused of “inversion” themselves.   

The fear of the law is a major theme throughout this novel. At the time, England still had laws banning homosexual encounters of any kind. Even if two consenting adults were behind closed doors, there could be extreme legal repercussions for those individuals if caught. This is what our two main men are concerned with. Their goal of the book was to show that inversion is natural in some men and inconsequential when allowed to exist without constraint, therefore, the law must be changed.   

Despite its early publication date, I would venture to guess that this will be one of the most heartfelt and interesting novels to be released this year. Crewe weaves together a story of two men, along with the many people they love, in an in-depth and nuanced examination of human desire and the politics of love. Each character presented is fully developed and adds many moments of intrigue and intention.   

Crewe’s ability to write his characters with intention, empathy, and thoughtfulness is truly the highlight of this novel. It is easy to love and hate each character. Take for example Edith’s lover, Angelica. Angelica is a stubborn, vibrant, and overly idealistic person who loves Edith above all else and eventually learns to love Henry as well. Henry and Edith’s marriage never becomes intimate, but Edith makes it very well known to Angelica that she cares deeply about Henry, and he remains her husband despite the uniqueness of their arrangement. Angelica at first seems to push back against this and uses their lack of physical intimacy to hurt both Edith and Henry when her emotions get the best of her. Despite her place as a secondary character, Crewe takes the time to delve into Angelica’s motivations and psychology. Instead of making her an easy villain, Crewe invites his readers to both love her vibrancy and condemn her cruelty.   

Crewe’s attention to characters not only creates a wonderful cast of secondary characters, but he definitely does not skip on developing his two main men. Both John and Henry paint imposing pictures of literary excellence. The two men could not be more different, but each adds to the story in such a vital way that without them there would not be a story worth telling. John’s entire story takes place on a backdrop of family drama that sheds light on how women were often victimized by a system that seemed to only oppress gay men. While John’s wife, Catherine, is not the main focus, the reader gets an intimate look at how John hurt his wife while he suffered. John’s suppressed desire blinds him to the pain he causes Catherine and as observers to the marriage the reader can see the ways in which John’s selfish carelessness has destroyed Catherine’s life despite the empathy one can feel for his circumstances.   

Crewe spares no expense in showing the intricate and complicated way social, political, and societal factors contribute to systemic oppression and how oppression is consistently multifaceted. Crewe creates characters, backgrounds, and plot details that invite the reader into the book’s world. While this novel is historical fiction, its content easily applies to today and its pages are littered with lines that will ring true through generations.   

My favorite line from the whole novel comes after John and Henry have found out that a bookseller has been arrested for selling their book because of its “obscene” material. As Henry worries over what will become of him, John, and the bookseller, the narrator allows us a glimpse into his mind. “He remembered that it was truly the fault of all these other people behind and before him, going through life picking up prejudices like flowers from a verge, never giving them a thought though they stank of death” (296).  

This exact sentiment is what the novel is most preoccupied with. The ways in which individuals internalize ‘normal society’ and alienate people who do not conform to those beliefs. Most of what we perceive as normal is simply an appeal to tradition that prevents progress and growth. We water our prejudices with appeals to tradition then prance around carrying boutiques of thorns that prick and scratch everyone they come in contact with. It is people like John Addington and Henry Ellis who shed light on the inherent injustice of those systems and beliefs. Despite the danger it put them in personally, the courage it took to simply write their book was astronomical, but it is those moments of courage that echo through ages.   

“The New Life” as a novel is rich and complex in both its language and themes. Tom Crewe created a world of fiction based off real people and events, which allows readers to learn about the past while applying these themes to the present. Henry and Edith Ellis’ relationship remains a pillar of the novel. Their steadfast devotion and understanding of each other provides a model for any and all relationships. On the final page, Henry reveals his fear that his and Addington’s project had ultimately failed. Edith assures him that his project did not fail, it was simply too advanced for its time.   

The final few lines reflect: “She stared at the sea. ‘What a pity we cannot all join you there, in the future.’ ‘We are already there,’ he said. ‘The New Life.’ (pg. 382)”   

“The New Life” by Tom Crewe is a deeply moving novel that takes the time to look into the intricacies and complications of love. This novel will be well loved by those who enjoy literary fiction, historical fiction, and are interested in LGBTQIA+ issues. This novel may be set in the past, but its theme’s relevance are only growing. 

 

Aubrey Roemmich is a Dakota Student General Reporter. She can be reached at [email protected]