The New Life by Tom Crewe - review by Richard Canning

Richard Canning

A Very English Scandal

The New Life


Chatto & Windus 376pp £16.99

A few established novelists continue to write first-class literary fiction on LGBTQ themes. But the high-water mark of the 1990s has long past. Most LGBTQ fiction today is happily housed within subgenres like young-adult fiction, horror, crime or romance, though a few examples can be found in historical fiction, at its best both readable and well researched.

This debut novel by Tom Crewe, an editor at the London Review of Books, reveals a new talent in the field. It is underpinned by extensive research: Crewe has a PhD in Victorian history. Better still, The New Life has a great story at its heart. It describes two unusual marriages, presenting a wide canvas of sexually marginal fin de siècle English figures, spanning backgrounds, classes, educations and dispositions. John Addington (essentially the real-life writer John Addington Symonds, shorn of his surname) has forever hedged on his same-sex feelings, seeking to sublimate these in his research on fellow travellers from the Italian Renaissance and ancient Greece. Although he has begotten four children, his marriage to Catherine is at best functional and will be tested to the utmost by his cavalier decision to move in a new working-class sexual partner, Frank, sometime printer, now Addington’s personal secretary.

Meanwhile, Henry Ellis, a version of the self-proclaimed sexologist and committed libertarian leftist Henry Havelock Ellis, lives apart from his bisexual wife, Edith, unperturbed by her pursuit of the glamorous Sapphist Angelica. He’s entirely heterosexual – albeit with rarefied tastes – but proves fearless in co-authoring the groundbreaking book

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