Art by Alice Penrose
Eleanor Clark considers reimagining unarchived lives in Tom Crewe's The New Life (Chatto & Windus 2023) and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show (Chatto & Windus 2023).
Truths needn’t always depend upon facts for their expression’. So says Tom Crewe, in the Afterword to The New Life. The novel is historical fiction: dissociating truth from fact is Crewe’s mission statement. His factual liberties are open, fundamental yet unobtrusive. Havelock Ellis becomes Henry, and John Addington Symonds loses his second surname. Duly fictionalised, the pair meet, and publish their Sexual Inversion three years earlier than its real namesake. Crewe’s novel tells human rather than factual truths.
Yet can new life truly be found by mining known lives for unknown gold? The New Life is haunted explicitly by Oscar Wilde, and implicitly by E. M. Forster, and early reviews are convinced that this is the point. But, fully realising the liberation of which John and Henry dream – and, crucially, taking their model further – requires us to let our imaginations run even wilder, untethered to fact.
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show does just this. Minna Lemuel tells fairy stories for a living. And yet, she says, ‘I am incapable of lies’. This is Paris, 1848, and Minna is mistress to an Englishman whose wife Sophia arrives to summon him home, only to fall in love with Minna. On the night the women meet, an audience member begs ‘to be enchanted’. Minna replies, ‘No, not a fairy-tale. I have told so many.
This, this is a true story’. And so, Townsend Warner’s historical fantasy comes true.
Minna concurs with Crewe that truths do not depend on facts. While it couches a fantasy of sexual liberation in the past, Summer Will Show is Townsend Warner’s truest expression of lesbian love. The novel exemplifies historical fiction’s power to imagine a life not yet liveable. It is not, then, arguing against the genre, bur rather in favour of pure imagination; for freedom for the lives we know were lived.
Neither Crewe nor Townsend Warner begin at the beginning. Crewe’s opening scene is arresting – a word that becomes especially apt. What is most striking though, is the scene’s unwriting, which forces the reader to empathise with John’s frustration. Both a sex scene and a dream sequence at once, the novel seems to give itself and its protagonist away alarmingly quickly until John ‘was woken by the violence of it, helplessly halfway’.
Like John, we wake and fall into a gap between realities, suddenly unsure where Crewe will take us. Again and again, John describes arousal as ‘that high vanishing feeling’. The phrase unites the experiences of protagonist and reader. Just as desires and ideals evade John and Henry’s grasps, so they themselves become continually high and vanishing, immediate and unreachable.
Crewe’s real beginning is with Henry. In a book about a book about sex, it is perhaps obvious that paper should have an erotic charge. But with Crewe the metaphor feels lean and live. Henry’s first erotic experience is touchless. Marie Tilnott’s paper notes carry more illicit thrill than imagining her body: he ‘could not guess what it had cost her to write out her desire so plainly. He never did know’.
This unknowing becomes a central irony, as Henry is pushed ever closer to realising these costs. Crewe’s embodied writing is his greatest gift, and it is on Henry’s body that the ecstasy and anguish of writing desire are figured: ‘ideas worked their way under his skin, until they became part of his whole response to the world, tingling under the surface’. Henry cannot regret writing Sexual Inversion because ‘the book was right. It was right’. He is not disputing with himself but a separate entity. The New Life wants to work this way on readers, asking us to ponder what it costs to write desire in a world where knowledge, like pleasure, is high and vanishing.
Townsend Warner knew the costs of writing her desires plainly. Summer Will Show could not advertise its dealings with sexuality as plainly as The New Life, but being less sexually explicit does not make it less sexually expressive. Townsend Warner writes dreams and bodies as well as Crewe. Sophia decides to despise Minna, but ‘presently she began to dream of her’. Her desire becomes ‘a furnace, with a steadfast compulsive
heat that must presently catch Minna...and devour her’. This is the beginning of Sophia’s true story, its novelty residing in the unknown.
According to her letters, Sylvia Townsend Warner ‘invented a person’ called Sophia Willoughby more than ten years before writing Summer Will Show. Reader and heroine both wait for the story to start. The relevance of the lengthy first part becomes clear only when Sophia’s furnace of passion recalls the lime kiln over which her feverish children were purged: this is symbolic history. From the moment Minna captures Sophia’s active imagination, the couple take narrative control. Invention, at root, means discovery. ‘Sophia’s discovery of Minna Lemuel’ is also her own (re)invention. Author and protagonist both invent themselves a person in order to discover their New Life.
Such imaginative freedom is where The New Life could take us, if read untethered from our narrow corpus of known lives. New-born movements need flagbearers, but in time flags become leaded kite-tails. Looking at early commentary on Crewe’s novel suggests that the time has come for queer history: what we know, or rather, who we think we know, prevents us from fully imagining the world those flagbearers envisaged. Wilde is of course preeminent, and Crewe recognises this in John’s voice. Crewe need not agree with him that Wilde ‘has brought each and every one of us down with him,’ but allowing John to interrogate this legacy feels important. It is lazy to confine The New Life purely to ‘the age of Wilde’. Why hide in Wilde’s shadow when his contemporaries themselves imagined differently?
Crewe addresses Wilde at length – he has to. But he struggles with the precise terms of address Crewe’s formally conservative style gives way when Wilde’s trial enters the frame. Shorter paragraphs are punctuated with questions that, in a novel where books and bodies are symbiotic, can justifiably be described as disembodied. Uprooting these questions from their context ingeniously lays bare their intrusiveness and cruelty. But this section stands out so unavoidably from the rest of Crewe’s prose that it seems Wilde’s ghost is not fully compatible with the novel’s project.
E. M. Forster is a subtler but similarly unquiet ghost. Reviewers have forced parallels betweenMargaret Schlegel and Crewe’s Edith Ellis, but it is Angelica who recalls Margaret when she argues that ‘it all connects. We must all be free or none of us is’. Forster’s Margaret famously thought that if we could ‘only connect the prose and the passion...both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height’.
The novel assimilates this echo more harmoniously than Wilde’s incursion: if anyone can connect prose and passion, it's Crewe. But to ask whether Angelica is what Margaret could've been had Forster been allowed to publish his desires is to miss what Angelica offers the 2020s.
Indeed, one problem for Crewe’s imaginative connection of prose and passion is that he risks overlooking women’s insights as his characters do. Plans for Sexual Inversion appear in epistolary interludes, but Henry’s decision to ignore women is missing: we have only John’s agreement ‘with your argument for not, after all, dealing with female inversion’.
For John, men are the default: ‘the study of the male case will anyhow shed considerable light on the issue as a whole’. But Angelica’s argument, that exaltation is for everyone or no one, sheds light on the whole.
Angelica is not the only woman in whom the future hides; Catherine Addington is sensitively, believably written, though she is not a radical. Yet it is Catherine telling John that ‘you have always overestimated your difference’ which looks beyond the men’s vision, to a future when people are not fatally divided by sexuality.
The New Life exists in the female as much as the male imagination, but Crewe’s vision of what this means for women is underdeveloped. It is to his credit that his characters display flaws and foibles, particularly as partners. Relationships fall short of the ideal, however daring. Perhaps Angelica’s possessiveness, or her clashes with Edith over principle against pragmatism, serve to illustrate this.
But Crewe grants the male couples moments of domesticity – bed-sharing and breakfast-making – that bring them down to earth more gently. These scenes draw the high and vanishing ideal into focus. The New Life becomes tangible in sheets and teacups. Edith and Angelica have no such moments. Leaving their New Life offstage, Crewe neglects to imagine the connection that will take us forward.
Angelica doesn’t actually want domesticity, convinced that ‘Truth does not respect comfort’. On the one hand, she is right. We can only fully realise this novel’s truths if we leave behind the comfort of half-known history: if we stop cluttering imagined freedoms with over-rehearsed facts about Forster and Wilde. A fully equal place in literature is a fully equal place in the imaginary.
Sophia and Minna find such a place. They love without reference to Anne Lister, the Ladies of Llangollen or even Radclyffe Hall, although The Well of Loneliness trial in 1928 might have afforded Townsend Warner a similar premise to Crewe. Townsend Warner’s refusal to frame her truths with the comfort of known lives is is perhaps partly why she is so often overlooked. Her kite flies untethered, and we have lost it.
Yet though Townsend Warner does not provide her readers with an abundance of comfort, her New Life is so fully realised because Minna and Sophia find comfort together. Setting mundane domestic life against the high historical drama of revolutionary France makes this relationship a symbolic imaginative sanctuary. The novel’s end is more explosive than Crewe’s whispering close - and perhaps it is more realistic for the world to end ‘not with a bang but a whimper’.
But Sophia’s New Life is not high and vanishing. It is low and enduring. Enduring, perhaps, because it is ‘low’. ‘One could love [Minna] for the only sufficient reason one chose’. Sophia chooses Minna not for symbolism or drama but because they can lie on the floor embracing, imagining and drinking tea.
Freedoms exist in fiction before they are realisable in fact. Both Crewe and Townsend Warner prove this. Historical settings illuminate the future whether in Townsend Warner’s symbolic or Crewe’s realist mode. After all, ‘Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter’. But to make best use of fiction’s power, to connect at last the prose and the passion, we must remember that a truly New Life resides in the unknown. There is no freer place to be than the imaginary world of a radical.
ELEANOR CLARK reads English at Merton and comes from a field somewhere in Devon. As these are her only personality traits, most of her friends are fictional, or trees.