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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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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 present a lively cast of eccentric characters who make it breathe and prevent its light Socratic elements from growing too serious. In fact, for all its showy displays of learning, and bits of Latin and French, it is quite free of any disabling gravitas. The protagonist, Denis Stone, arrives at Crome after a hot July train journey through comically named English rustic halts, reflecting as he goes on the confusions of being young and ambitious for literary fame: ‘He was twenty-three, and oh! so agonizingly conscious of the fact.’ The prevailing tone of mockery alternating with youthful self-doubt will permeate all his observations and encounters at Crome, the grand house in the English countryside owned by Henry and Priscilla Wimbush, which has filled up for the weekend with painters, philosophers, playboys and unattached young women. An early encounter occurs between Denis and the languidly knowing Anne, with whom he finds he is fruitlessly in love. He takes her into the garden and quotes Andrew Marvell at her, which provokes the retort: ‘You have a bad habit of quoting . . . As I never know the context or author, I find it humiliating.’ Denis ruefully confesses, as one rather suspects Huxley was often forced to do, that this is ‘the fault of one’s education’, and that he is intoxicated by words and by the literary associations that condition everything he sees. He is fully aware of this unwholesome obsession with books: ‘One reads so many and one sees so few people and so little of the world.’ He estimates that over the past five years he has read twenty or thirty tons of them. Anne watches him striding up and down in front of the flowerbeds, expounding, as though she were at a lecture. ‘He was a nice boy, and today he looked charming – charming!’ He batters on with his complaint that Books are driving out Life: ‘In the world of ideas everything was clear; in life all was obscure, embroiled. Was it surprising that one was miserable, horribly unhappy?’ Anne thinks she quite admires his white flannel trousers. Later, asked by a very earnest bluestocking to name the crème de la crème of the fashionable young poets, Denis replies languidly that his favourites are ‘Blight, Mildew and Smut’. Mr Scogan is another man of ideas whose set speeches about the Rational State, for example, are amusing lampoons on the progressive thought of the day. The shrill, mincing, ‘old-maidish’ voice in which these ideas are expounded calls to mind Bertrand Russell, and here we reach the Crome Yellow Problem. When she read the novel, Lady Ottoline Morrell was horrified. Huxley’s spirited satire struck her as an unpardonable liberty. His cast of mad aristocrats, pontificating and life-hating vicars, priapic elder statesmen, comic gardeners, bohemian painters and batty spirit-world travellers were all drawn from life. Her life. For whatever the architectural differences between Crome and Garsington Manor, whose hospitality Huxley had frequently enjoyed, the country house of the novel was obviously Lady Ottoline’s Elizabethan manor in the Oxfordshire countryside at which, on a bicycle, Huxley had first arrived as a brilliant Balliol undergraduate in the autumn of 1915. If Scogan was loosely modelled on Russell, was not the bombastic painter Gombauld a little too reminiscent of Mark Gertler? Was not Jenny Mullion a little like Dorothy Brett and Mary Bracegirdle like Dorothy Carrington? The bon viveur Ivor Lombard immediately brought to mind the rich and pleasure-seeking philanderer Evan Morgan. But above all the hostess of Crome, Priscilla Wimbush, with her extravagant gowns, her over-the-top coiffure and ‘mountainous orange head’ was certainly the figure exhibited in Augustus John’s scary canvas of Ottoline, now in the National Portrait Gallery, with its massive bonnet and beak-like nose. Ottoline fired off an angry letter to Huxley, accusing him of making fun of the salty observations of the Garsington estate workers, of holding up the vicar’s sermons to ridicule, and representing the former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith as ‘an old man feebly toddling across the lawn after any pretty girl’. One has some sympathy with Ottoline, whose fate it has been to be satirized by the very people who had been recipients of her often enlightened and far-seeing patronage. She turns up in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love as Hermione, as Lady Septuagesima in Osbert Sitwell’s Triple Fugue (published three years after Crome Yellow) and in Gilbert Cannan’s Pugs and Peacocks, published in 1921. In an extraordinarily disingenuous reply Huxley pretended to be astonished that anyone could possibly have discovered such correspondences between Garsington life and his ‘little marionette performance’, which was never intended to be taken as real. ‘I ought to have laid the scene in China,’ he protested. ‘Nobody could have any doubt then that it was a marionette show.’ He did concede that Denis was ‘a caricature of myself in extreme youth’, but he insisted that the remainder of the cast were ‘puppets’. Then, with a candour of a kind more usual with him, he added that he actually had no wish, or even capacity, to represent real people, ‘for I am not a realist, and don’t take much interest in the problem of portraying real living people . . . the personages are just voices . . . They are puppets, devoid of all emotions.’ Huxley is too hard on himself, for if Crome Yellow were just a parade of cardboard characters enunciating all those beautifully polished parodic speeches the reader would quickly lose interest. What prevents that happening is the skill with which he brings to life an upper-middle-class English summer in 1920 still overshadowed by the recent Great War. The comic scenes and encounters – including some brilliant set-pieces like the tale of the ancestor of the house Sir Hercules, a dwarf who surrounds himself with people of restricted growth and hunts with pug dogs – are done with a consummately light and witty touch and are vividly dramatized and pictured: we can see the house, the characters sleeping on the leads in the moonlight, the bustle of the annual Crome Fair on the sloping lawns, the awkwardness and pain of young lovers, the clash of personalities and ideas at supper or in the breakfast room, the very English social comedy. Denis himself, and his tentativeness as he tries to come out of his protective shell and mingle with the crowds at the Bank Holiday Fair at Crome, is authentic and felt: ‘His soul was a tenuous, tremulous, pale membrane. He would keep its sensibility intact and virgin as long as he could.’ At the end of the novel he engineers a spurious telegram that will call him away: ‘It was an act performed, a decisive step taken – and he rarely took decisive steps.’ It is a convincing portrait of a cerebral but hesitant and self-doubting youth trying to pick the lock of life, and Huxley knew that it was indeed ‘a caricature of myself ’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Nicholas Murray 2012


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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