Here’s a book which was my last read of 2022 and which I loved so much that it just had to be in my Books Of The Year Top 10 even though it is not published until January 2023…
This extraordinary debut opens with a sex scene in a public place which instantly brought back the memory for me of watching the 1986 French film “Betty Blue” (although it’s known as a different title in France) at the cinema which also begins with a steamy sexual encounter going on. It brought back the same sense of unease which filled the cinema as without any preamble and little context the description of the act become more shocking, more distancing and challenges the reader/viewer who begins to feel they are a voyeur. It’s a device which obviously isn’t used that often (which was why a film I saw decades ago came to mind) and I can see why (surely even porn films have some build up to the act).
It materialises that, in this instance, this encounter is actually a dream experienced by John Addington, in the last years of the nineteenth century. Addington, a middle-aged married man is obsessed by his sexuality. His wife knows of homosexual encounters in his past and he struggles to channel these feelings into watching naked men swimming in the Serpentine until a meeting in Hyde Park causes him to confront his desires.
Alongside this narrative strand we meet Henry Ellis on his wedding day. He is an advocate for change in Victorian society, both he and his wife-to-be believe in a New Life with greater freedoms.
I’m a sucker for Victorian-set novels especially when they highlight the double standard of the era and they trace along the darker sides which this novel certainly does. The byline for the book on Amazon proclaims it – “A daring new novel about desire and the search for freedom in Victorian England” and that pretty much fits the bill.
The benchmark I seem to always use for such novels is Michel Faber’s sublime “The Crimson Petal And The White”. Does it match this book by conveying the feel of the time? Does this feel authentic? Is the author able to bring the characters and events to life? In this case, this book is certainly comparable in terms of quality and also up there with other classics in this field -such as John Fowles’ “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and Michael Cox’s “The Meaning Of Night”. Also, like Faber’s work the subject matter and its handling means that it becomes a difficult book to recommend to all. Looking back at my review of “The Crimson Petal..” I said “Reading groups will be divided because of the graphic elements. The reader will know within the first pages whether they feel they will be able to accompany Sugar on her momentous journey.” Substitute the character of Sugar for John Addington and it still feels apt. This book is not as explicit but there is something about sex in Victorian settings which still shocks.
I didn’t know this until after reading the novel but it is very loosely based on John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis who collaborated on a book called “Sexual Inversion” as do the main characters here. Written just as the Oscar Wilde scandal is kicking off there will be serious repercussions for our Addington and Ellis.
I loved the characterisation. Addington tries the patience despite being a soul in torment. Ellis’ passivity will frustrate whilst their wives and lovers are richly drawn and add much to the depth of the novel and the issues raised here. In one or two places the theories of the time clog the flow a little but I think that this is a very important addition to the genre of modern Victorian-set literature. This is an outstanding literary debut from the former editor of the London Review Of Books.
The New Life will be published by Chatto and Windus on the 12th January. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.