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A Man of Letters

By Eleanor Clark and Rachel Rees

Having greatly enjoyed reading and reviewing Tom Crewe’s debut The New Life, it’s been a privilege to discover more about its formulation, and about its writer: Crewe is surely here to stay as novelist as well as ‘all round essayist’. This self description underpins a lot here: the essay is a vital but often overlooked literary form. Historically, essays have been responsible for many powerful attempts to think through literature (both in the sense of asking ourselves what writing is and does, and literally that of thinking from within literature) and its relationship to wider culture and politics.

It is also an ‘an all round essayist’ that Crewe reveals himself fitting so neatly into his own characters’ mindsets. Perhaps that ability to cast oneself as a man of letters, to carve out a space in the London literary scene, explains Crewe’s remarkable success in recapturing the socio-cultural and political atmosphere of fin de siècle London: these are roles that are far less socially prominent in 2023 than in 1894. They are also roles claimed by fewer writers. The majority of novelists start out with diverse day jobs; it is a minority who will ever live solely on the proceeds of the pen.

And yet Crewe is not in the least an old fashioned man or an old fashioned writer. Which is why I am surprised by his response to the question of form. In question 5 we reflected on an apparent contrast between a form that the 1890s would have recognised and a subject matter by which the 1890s would have been shocked and challenged. Crewe writes that to read ‘a contradiction or a tension, or even a frisson, in the traditional novel containing anything “direct”’ is to ‘have misunderstood the concept of a form’. Perhaps subject matter is the wrong term: sexuality was certainly never absent from Victorian writing. But the language in which Crewe can render this subject - allowing him to dwell exquisitely, and explicitly, on bodily experience - would simply not have been published before the 1960s (I am thinking of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial). This novel could only ever have been historical, written years after the fact. It seems to me therefore undeniable that a frisson exists. An exciting frisson which makes perfect sense in a book about sex, and an illicit, intimate tension, but a frisson and a tension nonetheless.

I do not think this is a contradiction or incongruity in a negative sense. Rather, just as I outlined in my reflections on Sylvia Townsend Warner, I think that consciously choosing tension between form and content can do valuable socio-political work in a novel. Many writers of ‘genre fiction’ in the early twentieth century, especially women like Townsend Warner, chose ‘conservative’ formats while writing more directly about sex and gender than previous generations often had. This seems deliberate. They are introducing new ideas to conservative middle class minds, sneaking radicalism into the drawing room under a tea cosy.

It would absolutely be a misunderstanding of form to argue that choices of modes and genres are not political; on the contrary, productive tension between objects of address and styles of address is one of literature’s greatest political tools. Crewe himself reflects that literature is most successful as social criticism when the ‘desire to critique has been effectively subordinated to an interest in character and situation’. However, I wonder whether in many cases the role of genre is to trick readers into thinking that this has been done. Take the example of Naomi Mitchison, who was semi-seriously suggested as a Nobel Laureate when she veiled her communist sympathies inside historical novels about ancient Sparta but derided by the TLS and placed on an MI5 watchlist when she allowed a heroine to campaign for socialism, Scottish independence and abortion rights in contemporary Scotland.

As I mentioned in my review, Angelica is for me the character in The New Life who comes closest to commenting on these issues. I agree that it is easier for her to make commentaries because the personal fallout of Sexual Inversion’s publication does not directly impact her. However, that Crewe sees her as ‘on the edges of the story’ despite the fact that she makes some of the most provocative, aphoristic and universal statements in the novel surprises me.

In fact, I think Crewe does realise Angelica’s potential to point beyond the novel’s bounds, but in such a way as to separate her narrative function from her personality. The novel’s very last sentence is an image of her ‘approaching’ us, an ethereal beckoning of the future. This final image struck me almost as much as the opening scene, and whilst it may be an ‘edge’ in that it is the end of the novel, it does not make Angelica seem marginal or peripheral to John and Henry’s story. Rather it puts her at the beating heart of what this novel would like to be on the next page, were it to have one.

Actually, The New Life does have a next page. For one thing, Crewe wants more people to read the Afterword - and indeed, the Afterword is where I began my review, so vital is its declaration. But, more poetically, this is most certainly a novel that will stay with you, and which I hope will stay with us all, as we think about where historical fiction and sexual politics are going in our new century.

— Eleanor Clark


You've written that The New Life was the novel you wanted to write long before you actually did. Was this because the theme, characters and setting came together at once, or might you have made the same arguments in a novel about different people or at a different historical moment?

More prosaically, it is only that I had the idea for the novel in 2013, but didn’t begin writing it until early 2017. In the between-time, I was finishing my PhD, briefly working as an intern for an MP, and then establishing myself as an editor at the London Review of Books, for which I also began to write long essays. Yet I never lost sight of my idea. I managed to occasionally read relevant books, but it was slow work. It didn’t get much easier, or faster, once I was finally started.

We were really struck that sexualities in The New Life are about more than sex itself: you give us dreams, fantasies and erotic or romantic attractions involving no sexual contact at all. Do you think a vogue for sex scenes in contemporary literature might narrow our approach to sexuality?

Are sex scenes having a vogue? I don’t read enough contemporary literature to know one way or another. If they are, I wonder why the ones in my book have attracted so much comment (something I have been surprised by). What seems obvious, to me, is that sex occupies a much larger place in our heads than in our physical lives. Certainly this is the case if you are repressed. Any novel that reckons with sexuality should aim to capture that reality.

Your website describes the novel as being about 'two Victorian marriages', but many of the characters are people who can't or won't live with traditional models of marriage. Do you see your book as more about the ways people formulate their relationships or about strongly identified individuals?

Marriage is a great gift to the novelist; it is a generative setting for two characters, in the same way as a country house is for the cohort of a murder mystery – it creates a world within a world. Though the marriage is much more interesting than the country house, because it always remains permeable to the world beyond itself. I think my novel – like most novels, probably – is about people trying to assert their individuality, trying to understand what sort of individuals they are or might be, but making their discoveries as an outcome of their human relationships, rather than of self.

In the novel, Angelica declares that ‘Truth does not respect comfort’. She is one of the most outspoken characters in your novel regarding truth, and this exclamation provides an interesting counterpart to your contemplation of truth in your Afterword ('Truths needn't always depend on facts for their expression'). In light of this, do you see Angelica as voicing or qualifying your vision of truth in the novel? Is she a character you resonate strongly with, or do you resonate more with others?

Angelica speaks nobly for ‘truth’, but she is not directly implicated in the drama unfolding at the end of the novel – therefore it is easier for her to do so. This is the kind of emotional truth that I was alluding to in my Afterword. I am very fond of Angelica and Frank, my characters who come in from the outside and enter two established marriages, but I think that is precisely because they sit on the edges of the story. I had to inhabit the minds of John and Henry, and so they have more of me in them. In my everyday life, I have John days and Henry days.

Your book has been compared by The Times to Alice Winn's debut In Memoriam, as you both contrast a more traditional style and structure (The Times calls it 'pleasantly old-fashioned') with your direct address of underexplored histories of sex and sexuality. Could this be the start of a movement or shift in contemporary fiction, or just coincidence?

I have no idea. What I do firmly believe is that the ‘old-fashioned’ novel, in the hands of its best practitioners, offers greater rewards for the reader than any other fictional form. As a writer, that’s the hoop I’m shooting for. If anyone believes there is a contradiction, or a tension, or even a frisson, in the traditional novel form containing anything ‘direct’, they have misunderstood the concept of a form.

Your academic background is in history: did you find that an accumulation of facts sat naturally with the imaginative process, and that your research experience was liberating, or did it constrain the assertion that 'Truths needn't depend on facts for their expression'?

The practice of history is itself an imaginative exercise: the effort to see a pattern in inchoate and always inadequate material evidence, and then to create it in words. Of course, writing a novel required an alternative skill-set, but it did not radically change my relationship with the past, which still had to be made into a pattern. The difference was that the shape of the pattern was dictated by new considerations – the ethical and professional imperative not to distort or falsify was absent.

How comfortable have you been with marketing and reviews for The New Life focusing on real figures like Wilde? How much was that part of your vision?

I don’t mind Wilde being brought into it – I assume he attracts more people than he puts off, though I may be wrong about that. Anyhow, what happened to him is at the heart of my novel, even if he never appears. I have been surprised, however, by the number of reviewers who seem not to have realised that the story I tell is entirely invented, as much as I am playing with elements from the historical record. I do make this clear in the Afterword, but perhaps they skipped it.

Beyond The New Life, you write and edit for the London Review of Books. Was professional non-fiction writing something you always wanted to do, or did you somewhat fall into it?

I always wanted to be a writer. At one point, I thought being an academic and producing works of history would satisfy me, but then I saw that it wouldn’t. For a long time I had been reading the LRB, and I knew that I wanted to write like that: to give people pleasure as well as information; to be a writer, not only an expert. To get a job at ‘the paper’ (as we call it), was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was soon being encouraged to write on unfamiliar subjects, and began to think of myself as an all-round essayist. Writing so much for the LRB slowed my progress on the novel, but it improved me to such an extent that it was eminently worth it.

Your novel is set at a time when people made careers out of being 'social critics' - indeed some of your characters could be described that way. As an editor at one of the remaining serious literary reviews, you've chosen the novel as your vehicle for a kind of social criticism. Do you think that reflects a change in literary culture and its relationship to society, or is it simply a personal choice?

There is a difference between choosing a novel as a vehicle for social criticism, and writing a novel that implicitly, by virtue of its subject and materials, makes a social criticism. I have done the latter. Novelists have always taken aim at their society; they have tended to be most successful when their desire to critique has been effectively subordinated to an interest in character and situation.

The South, especially London, tends to monopolise literary and cultural discussion. As well as the Oxford Literary Festival, you're speaking in Bath, Salisbury, Stratford-upon-Avon, London Piccadilly, and Manchester (the only Northern city to make the list). As someone from Middlesbrough, do you think more should be done to include the North in these discussions, and how would you like to see that done?

Of course, the North should be better represented (and I am open to invites). But the question of which literary novelist comes to visit is low down the list when we look at this problem, which is acute in terms of the differentials in social and educational advantage, access to libraries and other cultural institutions etc. The government is to blame.

Quick Fire

What's the one novel you wish you'd written?

Barchester Towers. What fun it must have been (I would also have made a few cuts).

Howards End or The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Howards End, easily (how much does anyone really enjoy Dorian Gray?).

Favourite novel of the 21st century so far?

It’s not a novel, but let’s say Martin Amis’s Experience.

What work of literature have you reread most often?

I’m not at all a re-reader – there is always the next masterpiece to be got to, and life is short. I’ve read some of Turgenev’s novels more than once, but only because I was writing about him. That said: I do think it’s time to go back to Austen.

If The New Life had a theme tune, what would it be?

Something sharp, romantic, dramatic, with an undertow of menace. (ChatGPT suggested either Wicked Game by Chris Isaak or Take Me To Church)

ELEANOR CLARK reads English at Merton College, Oxford and comes from a field somewhere in Devon. As these are her only personality traits, most of her friends are fictional, or trees.

RACHEL REES reads Classics & English at University College, Oxford. She has so far made it through her degree without touching any Shakespeare, and is happier that way.

Art by Jemima Storey


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