Why bother writing a historical novel, with its added burden of research and its added risk of anachronism, when every novelist has her own life to plunder, which no one else will ever be able to plunder so well? One noble motive is to reconstruct the consciousness of a person who at the time would not have been represented from the inside. Tom Crewe’s debut novel, The New Life, imagines what it felt like, day to day, for two late Victorians, the belletrist John Addington Symonds and the sexologist Havelock Ellis, to collaborate on Sexual Inversion (1897), one of the earliest English-language monographs on homosexuality to be written in a tolerant, scientific spirit.
Symonds and Ellis were an odd couple. Symonds, vain, excitable, and prolix, wrote swoony poetry and scholarly-but-not-too-scholarly books about ancient Greece and the Renaissance—a sort of Walter Pater, but with a more diffuse, less gemlike flame. He was born into money and was sick much of his life with tuberculosis, and he was attracted sexually to men, in most cases younger and working class.
Ellis, almost twenty years his junior, was by contrast shy and phlegmatic, and though he, too, wrote essays on literature—an early link between the men was Symonds’s admiration for an essay that Ellis wrote about Walt Whitman—he was a little more grounded. He had studied medicine in preparation for devoting his life to the study of human sexuality. As for his own sexuality, he enjoyed watching women urinate. He shared a deep emotional bond with his wife, the socialist and feminist writer Edith Lees, but as he himself wrote, “it was certainly not a union of unrestrainable passion.” Husband and wife sometimes shared a roof but rarely a bed and often lived in different parts of the country altogether. “How I should loathe a creature I was always near!” Edith confided to Havelock, and she wrote an essay recommending what she called the “semi-detached marriage.” Both had affairs with women, a challenge not always met with equanimity by either of them.
In real life, the collaboration between Symonds and Ellis was hardly novelistic: it took place entirely by mail, and Symonds died in 1893, four years before Sexual Inversion was published. Crewe, an editor at the London Review of Books with a Ph.D. in Victorian political history, freely adapts the facts, supplying a bibliography in the afterword for readers in need of mere accuracy. His Symonds, whom he calls John Addington to mark the difference between history and fiction, is a few years younger than the historical Symonds and is still alive when his and Ellis’s book is published. Crewe calls Ellis by his given name, Henry, instead of Havelock, and arranges for the collaborators to meet in person once Oscar Wilde goes on trial in 1895, imagining that the scandal around Wilde, who was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years’ hard labor, would have prompted second thoughts and necessitated a conference.
In historical fact, the panic set off by the Wilde scandal did mire Sexual Inversion. Symonds’s literary executor bought up and destroyed almost all copies of the first English edition, hoping to protect Symonds’s widow and children from stigma. The second edition appeared with only Ellis’s name on the title page, and even though he tried to restrict its sale to medical specialists, an English court banned it as “obscene libel,” the judge in the case dismissing it as “filthy.” The next several English-language versions were published only in the United States.
Given how unspeakable much of human sexuality—and just about all of homosexuality—was in nineteenth-century England, at least in public, there are no doubt aspects of Symonds’s and Ellis’s stories that only a novelist’s imagination could get at. But a simple restoration of the sexual, in this case, would risk restoring coals to Newcastle. Sexual Inversion itself has survived, after all, and as Ellis boasted in the preface featured the first case histories ever published of British homosexuals who weren’t inmates of prisons or mental hospitals. Scholars believe that Symonds appears anonymously in the book as case 18 (as he aged, “the tyranny of the male genital organs on his fancy increased”), and Edith Ellis as case 31 (“she is not attracted to intellectual women, but at the same time cannot endure silly women”).
Symonds’s autobiography has also survived, though it was locked away in an archive for decades (he himself had requested delay, worried that immediate publication would be “injurious to my family”), and though not everything in it is explicit, a great deal is, sometimes startlingly so.* “Shy and modest, tender in the beauty bloom of ladhood, is his part of sex,” Symonds writes, of a nineteen-year-old he spent a night thrashing around in bed with. “When the wandering hand rests there, the lad turns pleadingly into my arms as though he sought to be relieved of some delicious pang.” (Symonds claimed he did not relieve the pang.) Ellis, too, left an autobiography. By comparison with Symonds, he was coy, minimizing his “slight strain of what I may call urolagnia” as no more than “the germ of a perversion,” useful to him as a scientist because it helped him understand the full-blown perversions of others. Still, like Symonds, Ellis did put his sexual life on the record, including, without too much euphemism, his and his wife’s extramarital romances.
What is Crewe up to, then, when he opens his novel with an erotic dream of John Addington’s, in which he is jammed up against the back of a strange man on a crowded subway train? Because Crewe is writing in the twenty-first century, he is able to focus on details that would probably have seemed to Symonds too coarse to mention: the cold sweat that trickles from Addington’s armpits as the dream encounter turns sexual, the smells and perhaps even the tastes of the back of the man’s neck (“pomade and eau de cologne, cigarette smoke, salt”). After an orgasm, Addington wakes up and regards his own genitals with a disenchanted, matter-of-fact sexual realism that probably became available to writers only in the past half-century or so: “His cock, struggling to keep its shape, drifted drunkenly between his thighs, sticky at the tip.” Into this Rothian self-perception Crewe mixes a Victorian anxiety about what was then known as “seminal loss”: “emissions exhausted him.” The combination of registers makes for a tour de force of writing, a chapter that’s historically informed but also sharply noticed and immersive. The capacity for unexcited observation of the sexual that Crewe lends to his hero may be a little anachronistic, but it translates the scene and deepens it for a modern reader.
Sex in Crewe’s novel, it turns out, is not so much an object of recovery as a touchstone that helps the story bridge the interval of time separating Symonds’s era from ours—the functional equivalent of a spring day, the same in 2023 as in 1894, adjusting a month or so for climate change. We know what sex is like, or anyway believe we do, and we know Victorians also had it, so it seems capable of bringing the characters in nightshirts and frock coats closer to us. There’s some trickery with camera angles here. The sexual candor may look familiar to us but probably felt novel and uncanny to the Victorians. Symonds and Ellis saw themselves as advancing and improving upon the research pioneered by German-language sexologists such as Carl Westphal, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Albert Moll, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and when the authors of Sexual Inversion imported into the United Kingdom these writers’ objectivity on the subject of sex, they also brought over a new genre of life writing: the case history.
A case history rarely names the person whose story it tells (among the exceptions are those taken from the public records of criminals), specifying only such details as age, profession, class, and in some cases regional origin. Protected by anonymity, the subject feels a new liberty to disclose. “I like embracements, ‘spooning,’ and real kissing, followed by mutual masturbation,” runs the confession of “an Englishman, 30 years of age, high bred, refined and sensitive,” in Sexual Inversion. “I rather prefer men who are carried away by their lust and bite my flesh at the supreme moment,” admits “an Englishman, aged 34, of no profession.” In his novel Crewe imagines this line about bitten flesh read aloud in a courtroom.
I remember hearing a number of years ago about two mutual friends who inadvertently scheduled a date with each other on a hookup app where many listings showed photos of bodies but not faces. The case history similarly cleaves the sexual from the personal. Sometimes the sexual, even in isolation, retains personality, as when a thirty-six-year-old Irishman in Sexual Inversion confesses that he can’t fall for someone who doesn’t have “intelligent teeth”—another line that Crewe borrows. But more often the genre, through its constraints, risks suggesting not only that the sexual is essential to a homosexual adult—which of course it is—but that it is his or her essence.
The format seems to have caught on among late Victorian homosexuals to such an extent that Symonds worried that stories told to researchers were beginning to take on a “fixed style.” The hero of Maurice, E.M. Forster’s posthumously published novel about an upper-middle-class Englishman who almost despite himself comes to acknowledge and embrace his homosexuality, composes such a story for a hypnotist he hopes will cure him. While writing it, Maurice feels twinges of paranoia and depersonalization:
He was convinced that someone had looked over his shoulder while he wrote. He wasn’t alone. Or again, that he hadn’t personally written…. He seemed a bundle of voices, not Maurice, and now he could almost hear them quarrelling inside him.
Maurice’s “statement,” as Forster calls it, does not appear in the novel. Maybe the genre seemed too complicit with medicine, its compartmentalization at cross-purposes with the integration and consolidation of self that Forster, as a novelist, longed for.
Maurice is a natural object of comparison with The New Life. Forster drafted it in 1913 and 1914, only two decades after the period in which Crewe’s novel is set, and therefore knew firsthand the states of mind that Crewe is simulating. There are a number of commonalities. Crewe uses the word “homosexual” sparingly, and Forster claims in an appendix that he never uses it, though in fact it does appear a couple of times, when characters discuss medicine and law. Most of Crewe’s homosexual characters prefer to call themselves “inverts,” a term that appears in Forster’s novel once, in the mind of a contemptuous doctor. The Victorian anxiety about “emissions” that Crewe describes John Addington as suffering from was one that Forster, like the historical Symonds, had trouble shaking off; Lytton Strachey, less neurotic, tut-tutted over Forster’s characterization of masturbation as “malpractice” in an early draft.
Crucially, Forster felt he had much in common with Symonds, writing in a 1912 diary entry that he felt “nearer to him than any man I have read about—too near to be irritated by his flamboyance which I scarcely share.” Forster didn’t read Symonds’s autobiography until 1961, after restrictions around access to the manuscript were loosened, but he recognized long before that they shared a way of understanding homosexuality, thanks in part to their education. According to Symonds’s case history, when he read Plato on love at age eighteen, “a new world opened, and he felt that his own nature had been revealed.” In Maurice, the hero’s dreamy (but ultimately unsatisfying) college boyfriend has a come-to-Plato moment that’s eerily similar: “Never could he forget his emotion at first reading the Phaedrus. He saw there his malady described exquisitely, calmly.” To boys who attended the elite public schools of late Victorian England, where public-spiritedness was vigorously inculcated and sodomy nearly institutionalized, it made sense that the same Socrates who preached against letting the horse of vulgar lust steer your chariot made a point of asking to be introduced to the cute new boys at the gym.
When Symonds grew up, he worked out the social rules of classical Greek homosexuality in a brilliant treatise, A Problem in Greek Ethics, of which he printed only ten copies, in 1883. Those rules were tricky—idealism entwined with hypocrisy, the one declining into the other by sophisticated, almost imperceptible degrees, with every participant vulnerable to sudden, somewhat unpredictable condemnation by peers who were doing more or less the same thing—but must have felt familiar, even exhilarating. The greatest philosopher in history had struggled with the same feelings that plagued teenage boys in late Victorian England! But the difficulty of the struggle, Plato suggests, is what makes it so noble, a twist that saddled Forster and Symonds with a nagging suspicion that the morally superior thing to do with homosexuality was leave it unconsummated. “But surely—the sole excuse for any relationship between men is that it remain purely platonic,” protests Maurice’s superseded college boyfriend when he learns that the relationship between Maurice and a gamekeeper hasn’t remained so.
Some of this is in Crewe’s novel. John Addington, too, is thunderstruck by Plato as a boy and grows up to write a treatise on Greek homosexuality. The sight of working-class men swimming naked in Hyde Park reminds him of “Greece in the time of Plato.” It also reminds him, however, that “‘poem’ was Whitman’s word for a man’s cock,” and in general Whitman seems nearer than Plato to Addington’s mind. Addington, too, has tried to do the platonic thing and go without consummation, but by the time Crewe’s novel starts, those years are mostly behind him, and Crewe has tidied up some of the disingenuousness and treachery that were part of living the platonic compromise in Victorian England. In real life, Symonds turned in a former headmaster for having an affair with one of Symonds’s classmates, even though he himself went on, a decade later, to have an affair with a schoolboy the same age, considering the latter relationship pure apparently because neither party brought the other to orgasm.
In general, the possibility of betrayal by a friend or lover worries Addington less than I suspect is historically plausible. When he is picked up by a young, blond type-compositor in a park, a friend warns that it might be a trap, but the course of new love runs smooth—smoother than gay love usually does, even in the twenty-first century. The compositor briefly worries, after Addington buys him a suit, that he will now want someone rougher, and after it starts to look as though the publication of Sexual Inversion will cause a fuss, he mildly wishes Addington were willing to give the book up, but that’s as close as the two come to a quarrel. In Forster’s novel, by contrast, after the gamekeeper goes to bed with Maurice, the gamekeeper spends a day halfheartedly threatening him with blackmail.
A fully accurate representation of the claustrophobia of yore, however, might not make for an amiable story, which The New Life is. Crewe has shaped and pruned, as an artist must, and the gist of his retelling seems honest to me. The progress of the characters through the phases of their relationships can seem a little schematic, like the movements of actors who have been given blocking instructions but haven’t yet found a natural-looking way to carry them out, and Crewe sometimes describes the light in a room a little too poetically for my taste. But the reader is drawn forward by the wish to know which secrets will and won’t be disclosed, and which loves will and won’t be requited, and Crewe has found a tone for the dialogue that suggests the 1890s without being weighed down by them. He even pulls off a Wildean line: “Once you are used to it, it is a little like reading about Ireland, or socialism,” Addington’s daughter declares, broad-mindedly, after soldiering through the Homeric catalog of sex acts in the book her father and Ellis have written. (If this turns out to be another line Crewe has borrowed, let my confusion stand as testimony to the artistry of his weaving.)
Crewe’s touch is less sure with material things. To dispose of undergraduate poems in the nineteenth century, I recommend fire, not throwing them off a bridge in a chest, which may float. For the most part, the characters go on psychological journeys that are plain and maybe a little too straightforward, journeys that let others see them more fully without bringing them to new understandings of themselves. But there is a striking moment of recognition, or maybe misrecognition, in a late scene, a fundraising dinner for the legal defense of Sexual Inversion. Before an audience of supporters of a free press, Addington stands up and gives an unplanned speech about the pain and dishonesty of the closet. Ellis, listening silently, is overcome with embarrassment: “Henry wanted to make Addington stop. The tone was wrong. The matter. It was too intimate, too near. The silence in the room was not pregnant with applause; it was like a bruise, darkening.”
Addington himself, a few minutes later, senses that he has gone too far, but carries on. By the time he ends, in tears, he has won over the room but lost the confidence of his collaborator, who sits thinking, “This reckless man.” Crewe seems to be suggesting that righteousness in full gush, when it shows up before it is capable of political victory, feels like not just imprudence but rudeness or even shamelessness. The suggestion assimilates the controversy over Sexual Inversion to the political quarrel in our day between liberals and radicals—Are radicals merely indulging in displays of pureheartedness? Are meliorists compromised by their willingness to compromise?—which may feel timeless but probably isn’t. Still, the conflict of perspectives brings the moment to life, and maybe a touch of anachronism is necessary when imagining a state of mind forbidden in its own historical moment. Even Maurice, after all, is a little jury-rigged in the end, launching its pre–Great War couple into a happily ever after that wasn’t to dawn for another half-century.
Henry James, who knew Symonds’s secret, may have had him in mind in the short story “The Real Right Thing,” when he imagined the ghost of a writer frightening his widow and a young would-be biographer away from his archive. ↩