Blight, Mildew and Smut

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One of the consequences of being Aldous Huxley’s biographer was that I was invited to Eton, where a 17-year-old schoolboy with the bearing of a middle-aged barrister extended a hand and told me he had read Crome Yellow ‘in my father’s library’. In my mind’s eye I saw a book-lined room opening on to a stone terrace in some country pile like the one in the novel. But then I remembered that the book had been written in a shady back street in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi in the hot early summer of 1921.

Crome Yellow was the first of Huxley’s novels I ever encountered. It never fails to brighten my spirits and is, I suspect, still read, while his more ambitious novels of the next decade, like Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza, are gathering dust. When it first appeared at the start of the Roaring Twenties, bound between bright yellow boards, it made an immediate impact. Short, vivacious and terribly clever it was like being handed a glass of champagne which, ninety years on, is still fizzing.

The novel was greeted in the Spectator as ‘a Cubist Peacock’, a smart phrase that actually means little more than that it was modelled on the country-house novels of Thomas Love Peacock, Headlong Hall (1816) and Nightmare Abbey (1818), and that it was very modern. Huxley always privately thought of himself as an essayist and man of ideas rather than as a novelist, and the Peacockian novel was the perfect vehicle for a bright 27-year-old début writer to show his skill. The Times Literary Supplement worried that ‘he almost invites us to believe that the proper study of mankind is books’, a very Huxleyan dilemma, but despite the fact that the novel has no particular plot to speak of – a young man on a bicycle arrives at a country house for the weekend, meets some clever and mad people, tries to fall in love, and goes home again – it manages to pre

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About the contributor

Nicholas Murray’s biography of Aldous Huxley (2002) has just been reprinted, as has a paperback edition of his book about the British poets of the Great War, The Red Sweet Wine of Youth. Born in Liverpool – the subject of his book So Spirited a Town – he divides his time between Bloomsbury and the Welsh Marches.

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