“Only connect!” Margaret Schlegel declares throughout E.M. Forster’s “Howards End,” a mantra that doubles as the novel’s epigraph and a theme the literary eminence mined across his career, amid the twilight of the British Empire. The spirit of Forster broods over Tom Crewe’s lyrical, piercing debut, “The New Life,” which lends a contemporary urgency to an exploration of same-sex intimacy and social opprobrium.

London, 1894: a tale of two marriages. John Addington – a scholar and translator in his early 50s, ensconced in a Paddington brownstone – has long grappled with his attraction to other men. His wife, Catherine, has stalwartly looked the other way as they’ve raised three daughters to go to Newnham College, Cambridge, one of the rare gateways for women who aspired to independence. A resident of Brixton, Henry Ellis marries feminist Edith in a civil service, a platonic union that nurtures them, although they maintain separate residences and invite Edith’s volatile lover, Angelica, into their relationship. Edith prefers the company of women, while Henry hides his own proclivity.

The Ellises had met through the Society of the New Life, a progressive order committed to throwing off the yokes of convention, particularly in matters of sexual agency. Reform is in the air: The New Life advocates through debate and field trips abroad. (Edith’s lectures draw crowds, despite a London fog, a visual motif the author metes out brilliantly.) Crewe, an editor at the London Review of Books who holds a PhD in 19th-century British history from Cambridge University, knows this milieu like the back of his hand, conjuring it in all its immediacy and richness.

His characters shine. Edith, for example, sallies forth like Eleanor Lavish, the assertive romance writer portrayed by Judi Dench in the film version of “A Room With a View.” (Crewe playfully tucks Forsterian Easter eggs throughout “The New Life.”) “He had seen her at meetings, noticed her comings and goings,” Crewe notes of Henry and Edith, “but became properly conscious of her only that morning as they boarded the train, her small, compact figure rising in front of him on the step: the hair pinned so that only a wisp emerged from beneath her hat; the ruffed shoulders of her nettle-colored jacket; the absence of scent … so clear-cut, so present against everything.” Crewe is perspicacious about marriage and other partnerships, the rituals couples employ, for good and ill.

A tension kindles between his precise, graceful sentences and his graphic scenes of sex, capricious as the music of an Aeolian harp. John bemoans his fate: “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.”

Early in “The New Life,” John crosses his Rubicon when a handsome young compositor, Frank, accosts him in Hyde Park, and they embark on a passionate romance, despite a strict social divide reminiscent of those in “Maurice” and “Howards End.” John persuades Catherine to allow his lover to move in; Crewe satirizes the myopia of the professional class while weaving in the very different realities of working people.


Henry and John know each other by reputation – both publish articles and revere Walt Whitman – and decide to collaborate on a book, grounded in Greek philosophy and arguing against homosexuality’s status as a crime. (A casual encounter could land a convicted man in a labor camp.)

For their research, they enlist Frank and others to tell their stories anonymously. Henry plays it safe: He ascertains John is gay so shares his chapters via mail. The letters flow back and forth across the Thames, Crewe’s nod to the epistolary form popularized by “Dracula” and other 19th-century fictions. Just when the pace slackens, Crewe deftly flicks the reins, and “The New Life” jolts forward, as with the scandal of Oscar Wilde’s trial. When the colleagues finally meet, they lament Wilde’s verdict; John thunders: “The country has choked itself on ill-feeling. Gorged on misery and heavy morals. Laughed themselves sick.” They publish “Sexual Inversion” and wait on tenterhooks for the consequences, personal and political.

Hence the topicality of this novel. “The New Life” is a fine-cut gem, its sentences buffed to a gleam, but with troubling implications for our own reactionary era. Progress – even incremental steps forward – faces fresh threats, as we’ve learned from the recent Capitol insurrection and an activist Supreme Court. Crewe keeps one eye on the past and the other on the future; his book brims with élan and feeling, an ode to eros and a lost world, and a warning about the dangers ahead.

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Hamilton Cain is contributing books editor at Oprah Daily and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.

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