Tim Parks, Helen DeWitt, Tom Crewe

Secret sex lives in Victorian England

Prepare to fall in like with three new books


This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The New Life, Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)

New year, new life. As we march under cover of bravado into 2023, the first piece of good news is an impressive debut novel whose achievement largely matches its ambition. The New Life by Tom Crewe, an editor at the London Review of Books, is a story set in late Victorian England of men and women whom we would now call gay — even queer. The language then was still developing terms, however. “Inverts” is the preferred epithet in the novel, though one character, casually, prefers “sods”.

At the book’s heart is John Addington, married man, father of three, writer and trustafarian (as it wasn’t then called), pushing fifty and only now deciding to live as his homosexual nature dictates. “Is this happening again? Just say,” inquires his long-suffering wife Catherine, as Addington emerges from his study with a “well-made” younger man he first encountered bathing naked in the Serpentine.

Addington, author of a text about “Greek ethics” — a sexual euphemism as convincing as “Ugandan discussions” — begins a correspondence with Henry Ellis, in whom he finds an ear sympathetic to his view that “no man should live his whole life in opposition to his nature — not when that nature is hymned by Plato”. Ellis has his own interest in the subject both academic and not — he does not live with his wife Edith, who is growing increasingly close to her friend Angelica. Addington and Ellis agree to work together on a book, Sexual Inversion, which they hope will provide academic rigour and insight through case studies to show that the English laws on homosexual acts are “no less monstrous than if you were to imprison the colour-blind”.

We learn in the afterword that it is based on real men

Opening in 1894, The New Life helpfully runs right into the trial of Oscar Wilde, where, in Addington’s fuming words, “they have destroyed a man, who three months ago they doted on, because they are afraid of what they might learn about human nature”. The title (as well as perhaps being an echo of Forster’s posthumously published story The Life to Come) refers to the Society for the New Life to which Ellis and his wife subscribe: a fraternity of progressive thought, seeking to “release” humanity from artificial social constraints.

Yet it is not the moral declarations that give this novel its life, but the closely observed representation of the psychological elements of, and the human wreckage that flows from, the highs and lows of sexual need. Addington is one moment in a thrall of ecstasy watching men bathe or just acknowledging his true nature (“imagine if you had no one to describe your life to. That all its meaning was a dark secret”), the next facing up to the havoc that his pursuit of happiness wreaks on his wife.

Like all modern English middle-class gay fiction, The New Life proceeds in the shadow of Alan Hollinghurst. At times the echoes are loud: an opening scene depicting an encounter on public transport; an interest in cross-class and cross-age relations; an overwhelmingly middle-class, classically educated milieu; and a cast where so many characters are “inverts” that it slightly weakens the sense of oppression intrinsic to the story.

Crewe is his own man, though, and although this is not a perfect novel — Ellis for me never came to life quite as Addington did — the book drives with a satisfying pace and a pleasing sense of both conclusion and open endings. That we learn in the afterword that it is based on real men, and a real book called Sexual Inversion, only adds to how impressive it is that Crewe has synthesised a coherent and compelling fiction from his elements.

Hotel Milano, Tim Parks (Harvill Secker, £18.99)

Tim Parks, with eighteen previous novels and thirteen works of non-fiction — not to mention a clutch of translations from Italian — behind him, might be the opposite of a debutant. Indeed, those of us who occasionally but keenly follow his output wondered if he had already published his last novel in 2017’s In Extremis.

Here we happily are again, with Parks’s pleasingly grumpy new novel Hotel Milano. If I tell you that it is set in northern Italy in the second week of March 2020 — just as the country was importing to Europe a big disease with a little name — you will recognise that this is that most spavined of nags, the Covid novel. Do not despair — Parks is an expert, and you’re in safe hands.

Narrator Frank Marriot, who has to keep reminding people that he’s not yet 76 (not quite) has been asked to attend the funeral of “my old friend and rival” Dan, who lived in America but with novelistic brio requested to be buried alongside his mistress in Milan. So Frank heads for the city and the Grand Hotel Milano, unaware that future flight cancellations mean this will not be a flying visit.

On the trip, Frank navigates an erratic knee, erratic thumps from the room above his hotel and even more erratic memories. We learn that Frank, a writer, had published in Dan’s magazine, including a famous (“infamous”) article which drew brickbats and controversy — and also that Dan had had a fling with Frank’s wife Connie.

Fiction set in a hotel inevitably has an otherworldly air

There can be an essence-of-old-man quality to the narrative which occasionally gets creakier than Frank’s knees (in, say, a protracted gag about his phone autocorrecting text), but I found myself more sympathetic to and satisfied by the ramblings of an old man narrator than I usually am by similar ruminations from younger storytellers. Is this because I’m closer to Frank’s age? Because a long life has more to be said about it? Or just because Parks is an experienced writer who knows how to push the reader’s buttons?

Fiction set in a hotel — those provisional places — inevitably has an otherworldly air, which is perfectly fitted to the surreal months of 2020, when “every human being is a bearer of death”.

Frank sustains himself not on the news (“Great upheavals and modern media were made for each other. All the better an upheaval that locked people up along with TV or computer in a state of fear”) but on a diet of Webster (“I have caught an everlasting cold; I have lost my voice most irrecoverably”) and Tennyson, from a volume he buys en route. “All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.”

The dreadful past however, palls next to the dreadful present, where Frank abhors a world with “no barriers to immediate reaction” and where, as a result, “everything is overheated, hasty, polarised”. Death by Covid would seem almost a merciful release. We can only murmur contentedly when he explains why the controversial article in Dan’s magazine led to his downfall, when Frank refused even to issue a half-apology for any offence caused. “But,” he says to Dan, “I did mean to offend.”

The English Understand Wool, Helen DeWitt (New Directions, £12.99)

We conclude the first month of 2023 with a book published too late in 2022 to make end-of-year lists, but which deserves more attention than most that did. Readers of Helen DeWitt’s limited previous output — two novels and a collection of stories in twenty-two years — will fall greedily on anything new. Her novella The English Understand Wool exceeds expectations.

Into fewer than 100 pages, DeWitt squeezes comedy, tragedy, satire and a morality tale. Our narrator is a 17-year-old girl, Marguerite, raised in the high style in Marrakech by a French mother and English father, brought up to be a connoisseur of food, music, clothing (“the English understand wool”) and above all good taste: to be mauvais ton is the worst crime.

What becomes clear is that we are reading not just her story but the manuscript, as it is assembled page by page, of Marguerite’s memoir — and her publisher has suggestions to make about it. “If you don’t talk about your feelings there is nothing to engage the reader and keep them turning the pages.” To which Marguerite responds, to the reader, “perhaps there were people who would like to hear about feelings, but I did not think they were people I would want to know”.

The proof of her rightness is that we have already come this far in her ascetic, aloof narrative. There are lots of traditional reader pleasures ahead — hairpins and surprises — including an answer to the question of why a rich girl needs to write a memoir in the first place.

If the reader is on Marguerite’s side, then so too is DeWitt — or at least, she views the publisher in the story with apt cynicism. DeWitt has spoken in interviews about the travails of getting her smart, uncategorisable fiction published, in an industry where “there’s this language of infatuation that people use. ‘Well, I didn’t fall in love with the book.’ I’m not sure that has ever been my attitude toward any text”.

The irony of course is that readers do have strong feelings — as well as thinkings — about DeWitt’s work, and her cult following has an attachment that can become evangelistic, just as I am now. My name is John Self, and I have fallen in like with this book.

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