In “The New Life,” a 19th-century gay man fights for acceptance as Oscar Wilde is tried for sodomy
In Tom Crewe’s fascinating debut novel, The New Life, the young author provides a fictionalized account of a late 19th-century gay man who set out to change the way England viewed homosexuality.
The novel is based on the lives of two men living in fin de siècle London: John Addington Symonds, a classicist, and Havelock Ellis, a physician, who in real life co-wrote a groundbreaking defense of homosexuality called “Sexual Inversion,” published in German in 1896.
The New Life conjures, with some dramatic liberties, the inspiration and writing of “Sexual Inversion,” and the lives of the two men — one gay and one straight — their families, and British society at the peak of the Empire.
It’s a beautifully realized mood, wrapped in the rhythms and cadence of its time.
LGBTQ Nation spoke with the author from his home in Camden, on a cool and cloudy evening in London.
LGBTQ Nation: The character in the story that our readers may know best, though we never meet him in the book, is Oscar Wilde, who went on trial just as the protagonists are about to publish “Sexual Inversion.” Tell us about how Wilde led you to Symonds.
Tom Crewe: I was reading a biography of Oscar Wilde about 10 years ago, and I came across the figure of John Addington Symonds. I think he was mentioned or he was in a footnote. I went ahead and ordered a biography and read it in a sort of big gulp and was just fascinated by this other guy’s life at the end of the 19th century that I didn’t know about and not many people know in comparison to Wilde.
I was so struck by Symonds’ voice, I suppose, because unlike Wilde he was incredibly articulate about what it meant to be gay at that time. We don’t have Wilde reflecting on what it meant to be a gay man in the 1890s in Britain. But we do have Symonds thinking about that. Unlike Wilde, Symonds was interested in trying to change the law and change society. I was just very struck by the sort of significance of that figure. And sadly, he didn’t seem to be remembered. And the fact that he also had an active sex life and boyfriends. I thought, this is the kind of life I’m interested in fictionalizing.
LGBTQ Nation: What were your sources for describing Symond’s sex life and boyfriends?
TC: Well, we have a wonderful record because he wrote an autobiography, which was locked up after his death in the London library for nearly 100 years before it was released. And he sees it as his mission, setting out to write an autobiography, to account for his life as a gay man. His homosexuality is the central fact of his life and he tries to explore that over the course of his lifetime: his earliest sexual feelings and schoolboy crushes, through his tormented 20s, through to the point where he accepted his sexuality, and indeed embraced it. We have that incredibly candid record.
We also have the record as himself in “Sexual Inversion,” which he wrote with Havelock Ellis, and he puts in an anonymous case study of himself. I use those details in the novel when John hears his own case study read aloud in the courtroom. We know all the sexual acts he’s has practiced in his lifetime because he writes them down in this case study. Incredibly revealing.
He also wrote two privately published books, which essentially are gay rights texts, all about gay life in ancient Greece and what the ancient Greeks thought of homosexuality. And then one where he sort of takes that question into the present and tries to explore why modern society stigmatizes homosexuality and why they’re wrong to do so and what should happen about it. So we actually have an incredible record of his thoughts on the subject, both kind of more theoretical and political, and also personal and emotional and sexual.
LGBTQ Nation: How would your protagonists describe “Greek love” or the “Greek way”?
TC: Well, late 19th-century thinkers of various kinds were interested in the Greek model for life. They believed that the Greeks were more in touch with nature and more in touch with the body, that they lived through the body more than other people. And that meant that they had a different relationship to morality, because they were more accepting and in tune with what their body wanted, and they weren’t bothered about this kind of superstructure of Christian thought that’s been built around the body in a much more punitive way of thinking. Someone like Walt Whitman, who was not overtly — or was not seen to be overtly — articulating gay thought, could in the mainstream, kind of endorse that way of thinking about the Greeks.
But for those who were more self-consciously thinking about homosexuality in relationship to the Greeks, they saw that the ancient Greek world was a culture that tolerated homosexuality, accepted it as a normal feature of life, but also celebrated it. Didn’t just tolerate it and accept it, but actually celebrated it and made it crucial to the models of friendship and love. Some of the greatest philosophers — Plato writes extensively about love between men.
So they were very interested in reclaiming this side of the Greeks, because everyone thought that Greeks were wonderful. Certainly, everyone in Britain thought it was a wonderful civilization, that had been studied for centuries, was taught at Oxford and Cambridge, and you learn the great thought and you looked at the statues — the most admired civilization they could be. And what these figures like Symonds and Edward Carpenter were pointing out was, ‘You’re doing all this, you’re so admiring, but you’re missing out on the fact that this was a society which celebrated homosexuality. And you’re a society that puts gay people in prison.’ So they wanted to try and bring people’s attention to that disjuncture, that gap between the idealized Greece and what they saw as the real Greece, the Greece that gave hope for a society which might think differently about homosexuality.
LGBTQ Nation: You mentioned Edward Carpenter, who was a contemporary of Symonds — a utopian socialist and a poet and another out gay rights activist when there were very few like him and Symonds at the time. We meet him when Symond’s character takes his younger lover for a weekend in the country at Carpenter’s bucolic farm, where Carpenter lives with his own younger man, and it all feels quite modern.
TC: He’s a really fascinating figure. You know, one of the things I wanted to do in the novel was get away from the idea, which is sort of an inheritance from the Wilde trial, that everything about being gay in the 19th century was disaster and secrecy and gloom and sadness and tragedy. And martyrdom. The fact is that most gay men never got arrested, didn’t get into trouble with the law, and found some way of living a gay life. And I hope that in the novel, you see various gay men managing to get by in one way or another, and Carpenter’s a very interesting example of that.
He’s initially a vicar, a priest in the Church of England, and comes from a wealthy family. He becomes a socialist, and around the same time accepts his sexuality. Then has a fascinating life where he becomes very well-known, and is very significant for socialists in Britain. He’s a prominent poet and lecturer, an anti-colonialist, a radical thinker about vegetarianism, humanism. Sort of what would become the classic countercultural things in the 60s, Carpenter was doing in the 1880s and 1890s.
And one of the things he does is move to the country outside Sheffield, sort of sets up shop in this house. From there, he builds this gay network — lots of young men come visit him. He has his boyfriend George, who he lives with for more than 40 years. And again, none of these people get into trouble with the law. And Carpenter is even friends with the local vicar of the church and, you know, the community nearby know that there are two men living in this house, and they get by and they don’t get into trouble. And he’s, as I say, he’s a very famous man when he dies in the ’20s. The prime minister sends his regards. Members of the Cabinet attend the funeral. It’s a fascinating example of this gay man who is living in plain sight and getting away with it.
LGBTQ Nation: The Wilde trial inspires two very different reactions from the protagonists. It’s a warning to Symonds’ co-author Ellis that they’re trying to achieve too much too quickly, but for Symonds’ character, it’s an opportunity to take a stand. Who do you identify with?
TC: I think both of them have different aspects of my personality. Henry is like a part of me that is more reluctant to dare, or to be more self-conscious about himself and about sex. And then John is the other side when you might be, on a different occasion, bolder, and think ‘Oh, to hell with it,’ and believe something is so right you just have to do something about it.
I do think the book is trying to bring out the sort of terrible dilemma of progress. How do you achieve that? What’s the best way? By keeping your head down and kind of working slowly but surely? Or taking a stand and risking something?
And maybe the book’s point is, in a way: the real tragedy is, it doesn’t really matter. It’s really about the society, or living in the society, that makes it possible. I hope it’s a novel as much about society as about these individuals, about how it twists these people and forces them into corners and represses them and turns them against each other. And maybe, ultimately, leaves them with no choice at all.