Author Spotlight: Tom Crewe, ‘The New Life’

    In 1894, philosophers and scholars John Addington and Henry Ellis start working on a collaborative research book that could destroy both of their careers. Drawing on the works of Walt Whitman and historical records from ancient Greece, Sexual Inversion sets out to normalize and investigate homosexuality in their culture — a topic almost never talked about during that time period. Upon the book’s publication, a bookseller is arrested for selling it, and threats to the pair force them to reconsider whether they want to pursue this ‘New Life’ they envision for homosexual people — an eerily similar situation to the queer book bannings happening in 2023.

    Addington and Ellis are an odd pair themselves — while Ellis has no homosexual inclinations himself, his wife is a lesbian, and dates another woman, and Ellis himself has a sexual tendency leading him to want to research more about its origins. Addington himself is gay, a fact his wife knows, and begins to date a blue-collar worker named Frank that he eventually moves into his family house.

    Our Culture spoke to 19th-century historian-turned-novelist Tom Crewe about drawing inspirations on reality, sex in the Victorian age, and parallels to his novel’s themes and today’s reality.

    First of all, congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel for it to finally be out?

    It feels very good, it’s been an overall 10-year process, since I had the idea in 2013, terrifyingly. It’s a very good feeling now that it exists outside of my head and inside somebody else’s.

    So, you have a PhD in 19th century British history, which is helpful as that’s when the novel takes place. Which came first, the PhD program or the idea for The New Life?

    The PhD — it was about something completely different. It was about the late 19th century, but it wasn’t about homosexuality or any of the stuff that’s in the book. But I was still doing my PhD when I had the idea for the book, and certainly, the fact that I had spent many years mentally living in the late 19th century was very helpful, and when I was writing the novel, one of the things I didn’t have to do was to stop and think, ‘Well, what did the streets look like? What did the rooms look like? How might they talk?’ There are anachronisms in the book, I’m sure, but I felt as though I had absorbed so much material that I could somehow inhabit that era without having to stop, open a book, start, and that was very helpful.

    So, the book is fictional, but a note at the end says that John Addington, Henry Ellis, and most of the other characters are based on real people who did this work and thought of these ideas 100 years ago. Did you run into any problems with discerning their fictional selves from the people who actually existed?

    No, I sort of felt a kind of giddy irresponsibility. I determined at the beginning that I’d take such a big departure from the historical record, because I wanted my John character, who is based on John Addington Symonds, I wanted him to live and face the Oscar Wilde trial. I wanted to see what happened if someone who was like Symonds, a proto-gay rights activist — very bold and determined in their thinking, very idealistic, optimistic about the possibility of legalizing homosexuality and changing social attitudes — if that kind of person had lived to see Oscar Wilde on trial, to see him stand up in court and deny being gay, deny having had sex with men, but be found guilty anyway and have this terrible wave of homophobia after. I wanted to know what a person like Symonds would have done in that situation, how he would have responded.

    And bearing in mind that Symonds had begun to write this book with Havelock Ellis about homosexuality before he died, and it came out many years later, in very different circumstances — Symonds’ name was removed. What if he had been alive, what if this book had been in active play at that time, would he have wanted to push ahead with it? Would it seem to him the best possible time to be publishing that argument, and saying that someone like Wilde should not be going to prison? Or would he have allowed himself to be scared off, felt the need to protect his family to be so significant that he would have backed down from these big claims he was making?

    Those were all the issues I wanted to explore, and because Symonds inconveniently died two years before the Wilde trial, I knew at the beginning I had to step away from the historical record, and that meant that all the way through I was inhabiting an invented space, an invented timeline. All of the characters were freed from reality, in my mind, and I felt very comfortable adapting them to my own purposes. I didn’t feel any loyalty to the historical record or any of the people.

    One of the most interesting parts of the novel were the different character dynamics — John’s wife, Catherine, knows that he’s gay but they stay together because it’s harder to leave, and Henry’s wife Edith starts seeing a girlfriend. What was it like to develop these people and their relationships as the book progressed?

    Well, one of the things I really wanted was to put female and male experience side-by-side, so that it wouldn’t be a book that privileged male gay experience. It was going to accommodate this lesbian couple — lesbians were not subject to the law in the same way as gay men, there was no law prohibiting lesbianism — so it was seeing a different kind of gay relationship under a different kind of dispensation, a social stigma rather than a legal penalty. I wanted to put that in parallel with a gay male relationship, but I also wanted to see how those potential solidarities would collapse or be put under strain by the other differences between men and women, and the fact that you might, as a gay man, have all sorts of inhibitions and disabilities and risks, but also a lot of privileges, because you are a man in an institutionally sexist, patriarchal society. I wanted it to be a complex picture and to see where those tensions and strains are.

    Particularly in the relationship between John and Catherine, I didn’t want there to be a kind of instinctive, easy sympathy on the part of the 21st century reader, that we just sympathize with John and thought about how terrible it was for him, and patted ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come. I wanted readers to feel uncomfortable, deeply conscious of the ways in which his behavior affects his wife and his daughters, and the fact that a homophobic, sexist society will always compromise women as well as men, that homophobia hurts women too, and it’s a bigger destructiveness, cramping all kinds of human possibility, wasting Catherine’s life as much as it wastes John’s. I wanted readers to see that John’s attempt to break out of the closet in the 1890s comes at all these terrible costs. The sort of greater sadness is that it’s impossible to do that without hurting his wife, and he knows he’s doing it but has to keep hurting her because that’s the only way he feels he can achieve his aims, which I hope gets at this bigger societal issue that makes it impossible, in a homophobic place, to be who he was without hurting other people.

    Speaking of risk: in a way, Henry is kind of like the ultimate ally — he’s working on this book that would be really dangerous to his career and himself. What do you think was the main motivation of this huge risk and undertaking?

    Henry’s a sort of complicated character — he’s very shy, modest, and I hope there’s a lovely irony that someone who is so shy and modest and hates standing up in public and can’t meet anyone’s eye is brave enough to take on this big task. I think we’re encouraged as readers to see that there must be some connection between him being married to a lesbian and his desire to write this book, that he’s trying to understand his relationship with Edith and how he relates to her and her girlfriend, Angelica, and maybe by writing this book he’s trying to understand her better or understand how this person exists, therefore, in the world. But he also has this wider interest in sex, he sees this book as an installment in a larger project which is all about liberating sexual desire from shame.

    Sex can be a great engine for human happiness, if people aren’t so ashamed or ignorant about it. If they’re allowed to follow their desire, they’d just be happier and more fulfilled people. He sees homosexuality as a great test case for that theory — let these people have a form of non-procreative sex, that has nothing to do with children, that is only about pleasure and desire — if you say that’s okay, you liberate all other kinds of sexual desire that aren’t having to do with having children or traditional marriage structures.

    Then, I think, there’s a third layer, which is that we know Henry has his own kind of kink, this desire to see and hear women urinate. He has his own sort of sexual desire, and he can see that it’s connected to this project about homosexuality — if you liberate homosexuality from shame, if you say that kind of sex is okay, then all kinds of sexual desire, including his own, are okay. I think he has that personal interest, and he can see that if you remove stigma, you remove it from all desire, and that will free him, too. In a way, he’s more ashamed than anyone in the book, more than the gay characters, because he feels he can’t talk to anyone about it. There isn’t that same historical lineage, or cultural tradition that he can draw on, so he feels very alone.

    We think of historical people as prim and proper, all dressed up in fancy clothes, but the most surprising part of the book was how sex-obsessed everyone was. The book even opens in the middle of John having a wet dream — it was interesting to read this humorous tint to historical fiction. Were people in the 19th century more raunchy than we picture them to be? 

    You can completely other people in the past and think of them as aliens, that the past is a foreign country or whatever, but to me it seems obvious that we all exist in the same bodies, that hasn’t changed over time, and sexual desire has remained a constant through all of human history. It feels obvious to me, as a human being, that we live with sexual desire and we are obsessed with sex in various ways, and if we’re not getting any, we think about it a lot and try and get some. Therefore, it seemed obvious to me that these Victorian people would be feeling the same way, and perhaps more so, because they’re more repressed and had more reason to clamp down on gay sexual feeling, and sexual feeling more generally — it was not expressed the same way in the culture and there wasn’t the same openness. It’s highly plausible that there’s more sexual frustration and fixation on sex. Knowing how bodily an experience desire is, it was natural for me to write out from the body, to think of these historical people as flesh and blood creatures, just like me and you.

    There’s so much opposition to the book that Henry and John publish, with a bookseller even being arrested for having it on display. It mirrors the horrific and unjust reality that we’re seeing right now — even hundreds of years later, we’re still banning books and conversations about queerness and history of all kinds of marginalized people. What is it like to have this book come out at a time when there’s so many parallels within the world?

    Well, it’s sort of surprising, because as I said, I had the idea such a long time ago, and you write your book in sort of absolute privacy and intimacy in your own mind. I felt very fixated on trying to do justice to this historical moment, to evoke as well as I could what was happening in the 1890s, and what was happening to these sorts of people. I wasn’t really thinking of the outside world, our contemporary world, and often I used to think, ‘Would anyone want to read this? Will it feel too niche? Would it feel too remote?’ Then one of the crazy things that happen when you publish a book, and this happens to all sorts of people, the book appears in a different moment. Sometimes it coincides with a set of concerns and you can see it in a different light. In a way, it needed other people to tell me how the book spoke to the present moment. And it is very startling that my book should be about this book being banned, and it comes out in America at a time when books about homosexuality are being banned again. And I hope it just makes the point that this is a battle we will always be fighting. It’s too easy to think that my characters are fighting for the world that we have now won. That the world they want is the world we live in — it’s not the case — in a way, it’s what makes the book relevant and will for a long time, is that these battles have always been fought, they’re still being fought in the UK, the US, and also in some countries around the world where no rights have ever been won in the first place. I hope it feels contemporary in that sense, and also, their preoccupation with the future, with a better world, in a time where climate change and our feeling of the future being a place of danger and worry – I hope that feels relevant, too.

    I’m so glad this book didn’t take the easy way out — if it were, say, following the rules of conventional queer fiction, Henry and John would have bonded over the book they were writing and probably gotten together at the end. Other than the fact that this didn’t happen in real life, was there anything else pushing you away from this neat, tidy ending that could have been?

    I just wanted complexity. You know, a good novel is complex and unpredictable. All the way through the novel, I thought about what I was about to do, and thought, ‘What would be the surprising way to do this?’ Often, you feel the weight of cliché just driving you forward, in your sentences, dialogue, and plot, and it’s amazing how quickly you can fall into a clichéd pattern because it’s already there in your head from TV, film, or other books. I was always stopping myself and saying, ‘No, this is the predictable thing. This is the cliché. What feels more truthful, what would be more nuanced and surprising?’

    For example, John begins his affair with Frank, and I remember suddenly thinking, ‘I’m not going to make it a secret.’ They only have one scene together, really, where they’re having a secret affair, and almost immediately it’s discovered by John’s wife, and almost immediately, John moves Frank into the family house. That was a sort of progression of ideas on my part, where I said, ‘What if we just push past all that predictable stuff about secrecy, and distance, and betrayal, and just make it more unusual or complex?’ It’s not just a known reality, it’s in the home, and everything immediately becomes more interesting.

    Finally, what’s next? Are you working on another novel, and will it be a similar historical epic like The New Life?

    I am writing another novel, and I’ve been writing it since early last year, because the publication process is so long. People are always so surprised when I say I’ve been writing it for a year and a half, but that’s because I have had time. I’ve been quite distracted with all the publication stuff, and it’s going quite slowly. It is historical, which is just the way it’s turned out. I don’t really like the phrase ‘historical fiction’, I don’t really think of myself as a historical novelist, and I just believe I’m writing a good novel. To me, it doesn’t matter what on or when you base your novel, it just has to be good. And it’s where your imagination leads you. For the moment, my imagination has led me back into the past, which has always fascinated me and maybe I’ll always write novels set in the past. I continue to write nonfiction for the London Review of Books, where I do some editing, and I’ve always got an essay on the go as well. In fact, I’ve got about four I’m meant to be doing at the moment.

    The New Life is available now.

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