Angus Wilson once described Aldous Huxley as ‘the god of my adolescence’. When I read those words as a teenager, I was sure I’d one day want to borrow them. It’s a hundred years since the publication of Huxley’s first novel, Crome Yellow, and I’ve been rereading his books at twice the age I was when I first encountered them. On the cover of one, I found the sturdy imprint of my mother’s rounded handwriting – ‘raisins’, ‘toilet rolls’, ‘carrots’ – a shopping list from the early 2000s. Among the pages of another, a note from my younger sister calling me by an old, abandoned nickname and wishing me luck in my GCSEs. On rereading, I can see that my dedication to Huxley’s writing was a bit of an affectation: I was dreaming of friends like him. Yet there is also much in his early books that I missed the first time.
Crome Yellow was written in the heat of a Tuscan summer in 1921 and published that November. Its title is a pun on the pigment chrome yellow: the colour of American school buses, saffron rice and New York (or Hartlepool) taxis. It is set over the course of a few summer days at the fictional Crome House, modelled on the real-life Garsington Manor. (I kept a promise to my teenage self and made a pilgrimage there when I studied at Oxford, took a shy photo from the pavement, and left feeling a little dispirited.) In tremendous ingratitude, the novel caricatures Huxley’s host at Garsington, Ottoline Morrell, presenting her as a vacuous dupe of pseudoscience. It also sends up Bertrand Russell, who appears as Mr Scogan, a creepy character given to self-satisfied monologues. Others from Huxley’s social circle are just as lazily concealed. The novel lost him friends.
Huxley himself appears in the form of Denis Stone, a navel-gazing, ineffectual, lovelorn young writer. Scogan scoffs at Denis’s plans to write a novel, so that Crome Yellow anticipates its own critique:
‘Of course,’ Mr Scogan groaned, ‘I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.’
Denis blushed scarlet. Mr Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling.
The book is filled with encyclopedic trinkets, both real and invented, as well as stories within the story, including the tragic tale of the marginalisation faced by an aristocratic couple with achondroplasia. Ableism is a broader theme. A deaf houseguest named Jenny is present throughout, mostly silent, scribbling in a red notebook while the others talk around her. Near the end, Denis finds her jotter unattended and peeks inside:
On opening the red notebook that crystal image of himself crashed to the ground, and was irreparably shattered. He was not his own severest critic after all. The discovery was a painful one.
Jenny has sketched searing caricatures of each of them, and Denis’s is particularly humiliating. She might be thought of as embodying what feminist scholars half a century later would call ‘standpoint theory’: the idea that the most perspicuous and objective accounts of the world often come from the most marginalised. Huxley too was disabled. He’d spent the First World War as a farm worker at Garsington after his application to enlist was rejected because of his partial blindness.
Huxley’s various portrayals of mansplaining are astute. In his third novel, Those Barren Leaves, a bumptious older man, described as ‘potentially anything he chose to be, but actually, through indolence, unknown’, periodically breaks off his pontificating to turn to the young woman beside him, an accomplished novelist, and say: ‘I give you the notion, gratis, as the subject for a story.’ She is politely grateful.
In these early novels Huxley is trying very hard to be cool, and his cynicism is laid on so thick in places as to be disorienting, but there are moments of gravity. When, in his second novel, Antic Hay, a poet recites a stanza that ends with the line ‘Land of your golden dream’, he is cautioned by a friend that ‘You can’t possibly say “dream”, you know … Not in this year of grace, nineteen twenty-two.’ They had lived through the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic. The Russian famine of 1921-22 had killed five million people and driven some to cannibalism.
Huxley’s early writing was described as ‘futilitarian’ and lambasted by his elders even as it was lapped up by his peers, among whom he became an overnight sensation. His father disapproved of Antic Hay. Aldous replied (OK, boomer):
It is a book written by a member of what I may call the war-generation for others of his kind; and … it is intended to reflect – fantastically, of course, but none the less faithfully – the life and opinions of an age which has seen the violent disruption of almost all the standards, conventions and values current in the previous epoch.
Frank Swinnerton, Huxley’s contemporary, argued that his early work was
a direct outcome of the mood of dissatisfaction, even despair, by which honest thoughtful young people were seized as they saw the consequences of four years of slaughter … They all feel the world is a revolting place, and a hopeless place … they are all in a condition of gloom and disapproval regarding the world into which they have been flung. It is a world in a mess … The air is full of criticism and bad words.
A century on, with millions dead from Covid, a deep economic slump, and the climate crisis bearing down fast, ‘honest thoughtful young people’ may find themselves in a similar condition.