The New Life – challenging traditional marriage, sexual freedom, and queer love in 19th century London
The New Life is a brilliant and captivating debut novel, 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.
Available from Simon & Schuster.
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.
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.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist based in Toronto with a focus on tourism, lifestyle, entertainment and community issues. He has written several travel articles and has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He’s willing to take on any assignments of interest, attend parties with free booze, listen to rants, and travel the world in search of the great unknown. He’s eager to discover the new, remember the past, and look into the future.