Antic HayAldous Huxley
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley (1894–1963)
About the Book
When Theodore Gumbril hits upon the notion of designing a type of pneumatic trouser (‘a comfort to all travellers, indispensable to first-nighters, the concert-goers’ friends’) to ease the discomfort of the sedentary life, he decides the time has come leave his position as a housemaster in a boys’ public school and seek his fortune in the metropolis. But post-First-World-War London seems to be gripped by a fever of hedonism. Gumbril is soon caught up in the delirious world of aesthetes extraordinaire Mercaptan, Casimir Lypiatt and the thoroughly civilised Myra Viveash, and finds his burning ambitions are beginning to lose their urgency–A contemporary commentator coined the word ‘futilitarian’ to describe the type of desultory, pleasure-seeking intellectual Huxley pinned so mercilessly to the literary map in Antic Hay. Wickedly funny and deliciously barbed, the novel epitomises the glittering neuroticism of its decade.
About the Author
Aldous Huxley was born on 26 July 1894 near Godalming, Surrey. He began writing poetry and short stories in his early twenties, but it was his first novel, Crome Yellow (1921), which established his literary reputation. This was swiftly followed by Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925) and Point Counter Point (1928) – bright, brilliant satires of contemporary society. For most of the 1920s Huxley lived in Italy but in the 1930s he moved to Sanary, near Toulon.
In the years leading up to the Second World War, Huxley’s work took on a more sombre tone in response to the confusion of a society which he felt to be spinning dangerously out of control. His great novels of ideas, including his most famous work Brave New World (published in 1932 this warned against the dehumanising aspects of scientific and material ‘progress’) and the pacifist novel Eyeless in Gaza (1936) were accompanied by a series of wise and brilliant essays, collected in volume form under such titles as Music at Night (1931) and Ends and Means (1937).
In 1937, at the height of his fame, Huxley left Europe to live in California, working for a time as a screenwriter in Hollywood. As the West braced itself for war, Huxley came increasingly to believe that the key to solving the world’s problems lay in changing the individual through mystical enlightenment. The exploration of the inner life through mysticism and hallucinogenic drugs was to dominate his work for the rest of his life. His beliefs found expression in both fiction (Time Must Have a Stop, 1944 and Island, 1962) and non-fiction (The Perennial Philosophy, 1945, Grey Eminence, 1941 and the famous account of his first mescalin experience, The Doors of Perception, 1954).
Huxley died in California on 22 November 1963.
ALSO BY ALDOUS HUXLEY
Those Barren Leaves
Point Counter Point
Brave New World
Eyeless in Gaza
After Many a Summer
Time Must Have a Stop
Ape and Essence
The Genius and the Goddess
Two or Three Graces
The Gioconda Smile (Collected Short Stories)
The Devils of Loudun
Along the Road
Beyond the Mexique Bay
Poetry and Drama
The Burning Wheel
The Defeat of Youth
Verses and a Comedy
The Gioconda Smile
Essays and Belles Lettres
On the Margin
Do What You Will
Music at Night
Texts and Pretexts
The Olive Tree
Ends and Means
The Art of Seeing
The Perennial Philosophy
Science, Liberty and Peace
Themes and Variations
The Doors of Perception
Adonis and the Alphabet
Heaven and Hell
Brave New World Revisited
Literature and Science
The Human Situation
The Crows of Pearblossom
With a Foreword by
And a Biographical Introduction by
Antic Hay was one of the first adult modern novels I read. I still possess the vermilion and white Penguin edition, published in 1948 at one shilling and sixpence, that I bought secondhand two or three years later, when I was a sixth-former at a Catholic grammar school, preparing to take A levels and nourishing secret literary ambitions of my own. Huxley’s novel made a powerful impression on me, and I carried bits of it in my head for the next forty-odd years: the joke about the key to the Absolute, for example, and Gumbril’s inflatable trousers, and the image of Rosie, pink and naked on Coleman’s bed, glimpsed by her surprised former lover from the open front door of Coleman’s flat.
It was probably the sexual promiscuity of Huxley’s characters, so different from the moral climate of the lower middle class Catholic subculture in which I grew up, that most excited my adolescent imagination. Though reticent by today’s fictional standards, Antic Hay seemed almost as daring in the late Forties and early Fifties as it must have done in 1923 when it was first published. The character of Coleman, inventively blaspheming, and insisting on the essential degradation of the sexual instinct even in the act of satisfying it, was a particularly exciting component of the novel; and on reacquaintance his seduction of Rosie, at once funny and erotic still seems one of its high points.
But I learned about more than just the sexual mores of London’s Bohemia in the Twenties from Antic Hay. I learned about modern art and French literature and Wren’s architecture and many other things. I greatly extended my vocabulary. Re-reading the novel in middle age, I found it still stimulated and stretched the mind, and had me reaching several times for the dictionary. No doubt much of it was over my head in adolescence, but I was entertained even when I did not fully understand. Huxley was always a formidably clever writer, but in Antic Hay (and in its precursor Crome Yellow) he carried his learning more lightly than in his later novels.
Antic Hay is not a strongly plotted novel. It holds the reader’s attention by the energy and wit of its prose, and the extravagant behaviour of its characters. Their dissipation, ennui and despair are observed with such cool detachment and sparkling humour that the effect is exhilarating rather than depressing. One of the best things ever written about the novel was by Evelyn Waugh, in a symposium published in the London Magazine in 1955. ‘It is placed in London in springtime,’ Waugh wrote. ‘The w
eather, page after page, is warm and airy and brilliant . . . No character in Antic Hay ever uses the telephone. They write letters, they telegraph, they call, and there are always servants to say “not at home” to bores. It is Henry James’s London possessed by carnival. A chain of brilliant young people linked and interlaced winds past the burnished front doors in pursuit of happiness. Happiness is growing wild for anyone to pick, only the perverse miss it.’
Waugh slightly discounted the philosophical and moral pessimism which underlies the euphoric high spirits and frantic partying of Antic Hay – what one might call its ‘Wastelandism’, remembering that T.S. Eliot’s poem had appeared just a year before. Perhaps Waugh was anxious to stress its difference from his own early novels, like Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, for the resemblances are very clear: there is the same mixture of satire and farce, of culture and anarchy, and the same metropolitan setting where high society, bohemia and the bourgeoisie mingle and collide. The early novels of Iris Murdoch (especially Under the Net) and of the Amises père et fils also remind one intermittently of Antic Hay. Huxley’s novel made a seminal contribution to one of the most cherishable strains in English fiction – the intelligent comic novel.
ALDOUS HUXLEY (1894–1963)
ON 26 JULY 1894, near Godalming in Surrey, Aldous Leonard Huxley was born into a family which had only recently become synonymous with the intellectual aristocracy. Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, had earned notoriety as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ and fame as a populariser of science, just as his own probing and controversial works were destined to outrage and exhilarate readers and non-readers alike in the following century. Aldous Huxley’s mother was a niece of the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold, and he was a nephew of the redoubtable Mrs Humphry Ward, doyenne of late-Victorian novelists. This inheritance, combining the scientific and the literary in a blend which was to become characteristic of his vision as a writer, was both a source of great pride and a burden to Huxley in his formative years. Much was expected of him.
Three traumatic events left their mark on the young Huxley. In 1908 his mother died of cancer, and this led to the effective break-up of the family home. Two years later, while a schoolboy at Eton, Huxley contracted an eye infection which made him almost completely blind for a time and severely impaired his vision for the rest of his life. The suicide of his brother Trevenen in August 1914 robbed Huxley of the person to whom he felt closest. Over twenty years later, in Eyeless in Gaza (1936), Huxley’s treatment of the death in the main character’s mother and his embodiment of ‘Trev’ in the novel as the vulnerable Brian Foxe give some indication of the indelible pain which these tragic occurrences left in their wake. To a considerable degree, they account for the darkness, pungency and cynicism which feature so prominently in Huxley’s work throughout the inter-war period.
Within months of achieving a First in English Language and Literature at Balliol College, Oxford in 1916, Huxley published The Burning Wheel. Huxley’s first collection of verse, and the three which followed it, Jonah (1917), The Defeat of Youth (1918) and Leda (1920), reveal his indebtedness to French symbolism and fin de siècle aestheticism. Also discernible, however, beneath the poetry’s triste and ironic patina, is a concern with the inward world of the spirit which anticipates Huxley’s later absorption in mysticism. These volumes of poetry were the first of over fifty separate works of fiction, drama, verse, criticism, biography, travel and speculative writing which Huxley was to produce during the course of his life.
Unfit for military service, Huxley worked as a farm labourer at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor after he left Oxford. Here he met not only D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell, Mark Gertler and other Bloomsbury figures, but also a Belgian refugee, Maria Nys, whom he married in 1919. By then Huxley was working for the Athenaeum magazine under the adroit editorship of Middleton Murry. Soon after he became the first British editor of House and Garden, worked for Vogue and contributed musical criticism to the Weekly Westminster Gazette in the early 1920s.
Limbo (1920), a collection of short stories, preceded the appearance of Crome Yellow in 1921, the novel with which Huxley first made his name as a writer. Inspired by, among others, Thomas Love Peacock, Norman Douglas and Anatole France, Huxley’s first novel incorporated many incidents from his sojourn at Garsington as well as mischievous portraits of its chatelaine and his fellow guests. More blatantly still, Crome Yellow is an iconoclastic tilt at the Victorian and Edwardian mores which had resulted in the First World War and its terrible aftermath. For all its comic bravura, which won acclaim from writers such as Scott Fitzgerald and Max Beerbohm, Crome Yellow may be read, along with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) and Huxley’s second novel Antic Hay (1923), as an expression of the pervasive mood of disenchantment in the early 1920s. Huxley told his father that Antic Hay was ‘written by a member of what I may call the war-generation for others of his kind’. He went on to say that it was intended to reflect ‘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’.
Even as a schoolboy Huxley had been an avid browser among the volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it did not take long for him to acquire a reputation for arcane eclecticism. Moreover, as his prestige as a debunker and an emancipator grew, so Huxley was condemned more roundly by critics of the old guard, such as James Douglas of the Daily Express, who denounced the explicit discussion of sex and free thought in his fiction. Antic Hay was burned in Cairo, and in the ensuing years many of Huxley’s books were censured, censored or banned at one time or another. Conversely, it was the openness, wit, effortless learning and apparent insouciance of Huxley’s early work which proved such an appetising concoction for novelists as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, William Faulkner, Anthony Powell and Barbara Pym. Angus Wilson called Huxley ‘the god of my adolescence’.
From 1923 onwards Huxley lived abroad more or less permanently, first near Florence and then, between 1930 and 1937, at Sanary on the Côte d’Azur. In Along the Road (1925), subtitled ‘Notes and Essays of a Tourist’, Huxley offered a lively and engaging account of the places and works of art he had taken in since his arrival in Italy, and both the title story of his third collection of tales, Little Mexican (1924), and his third novel, Those Barren Leaves (1925), are set in that country. According to Huxley, the theme of Those Barren Leaves is ‘the undercutting of everything by a sort of despairing scepticism and then the undercutting of that by mysticism’. For W.B. Yeats, Those Barren Leaves heralded the return of philosophy to the English novel, but it was with his fourth novel, Point Counter Point (1928), that Huxley cemented his reputation with the reading public as a thought-provoking writer of fiction. Point Counter Point is Huxley’s first true ‘novel of ideas’, the type of fiction with which he has become most closely identified. He once explained that his aim as a novelist was ‘to arrive, technically, at a perfect fusion of the novel and the essay’, arguing that the novel should be like a holdall, bursting with opinion and arresting ideas. This privileging of content over form was one of the many things he had in common with H.G. Wells; it was anathema to the likes of Virginia Woolf. Huxley was fascinated by the fact that ‘the same person is simultaneously a mass of atoms, a physiology, a mind, an object with a shape that can be painted, a cog in the economic machine, a voter, a lover etc’, and one of his key aims in Point Counter Point was to offer this multi-faceted view of his principal characters.
Huxley’s more sombre mood in the late 1920s was epitomised by Proper Studies (1927), the most important of the four volumes of essays he published during the decade, and the one in which he first set himself unequivocally against what he regarded as the vulgarity and perversity of mass civilisation. Between September 1925 and June 1926 Huxley had travelled via India to the United States, and it was this visit to America which made him so pessimistic about the cultural future of Europe. He recounted his experiences in Jesting Pilate (192
6). ‘The thing which is happening in America is a revaluation of values,’ Huxley wrote, ‘a radical alteration (for the worse) of established standards’, and it was soon after visiting the United States that Huxley conceived the idea of writing a satire on what he had encountered. Brave New World (1932) may be read as Huxley’s contribution to the widespread fear of Americanisation which had been current in Europe since the mid-nineteenth century, but this humorous, disturbing and curiously ambivalent novel offers much more than straightforward travesty. Similarly, although Brave New World has become, with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the twin pillars of the anti-utopian tradition in literature and a byword for all that is most repellent and ‘nightmarish’ in the world to come, it was written with Huxley’s gaze very much on the crisis-torn present of Britain in 1931. When placed alongside Brief Candles (1930), a well-received collection of short stories, Music at Night (1931), a typically energetic and wide-ranging volume of essays, and Texts and Pretexts (1932), a verse anthology with commentaries designed to show that even in the highly-charged political atmosphere of the early 1930s ‘they also serve who only bother their heads about art’, Huxley’s polygonal appeal as a novelist, thinker and pundit is brought home. In 1934 he published Beyond the Mexique Bay, an account of his travels in the Caribbean and Central America, and in 1936, Eyeless in Gaza. Stimulated by his conversion to pacifism in November 1935, Huxley’s sixth novel imbricates the fears, foibles, prejudices and dissensions of the age with a fictionalisation of his own history. A commitment to questions which are essentially religious, rather than political or philosophical, is evident in Huxley’s work for the first time.
When Huxley left Europe for the United States in April 1937 he was at the height of his fame as a novelist and the Peace Pledge Union’s leading celebrity. Ironically, he was by now far more concerned with the virtues of non-attachment, anarchism, decentralisation and mystical salvation than with the failings of contemporary society, the role of pacifism in national politics or the art of fiction. If Huxley had been intent on exposing the meaninglessness of life in the 1920s, from the mid-1930s he was preoccupied with seeking the meaning of existence. Ends and Means (1937), in which Huxley tried ‘to relate the problems of domestic and international politics, of war and economics, of education, religion and ethics, to a theory of the ultimate nature of reality’, signalled his departure for the higher ground of mystical enlightenment where he would remain encamped for the rest of his life.