Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley, the third son of Leonard Huxley, a teacher at Charterhouse School and subsequently editor of The Cornhill Magazine, was born in Godalming on 26th July 1894.

His mother, Julia Frances Huxley, was the daughter of Thomas Arnold (1823–1900) and the granddaughter of Thomas Arnold (1795–1842) of Rugby School. His grandfather was T. H. Huxley and his aunt was Mary Humphry Ward. His eldest brother was Julian Huxley.

Huxley attended Prior's Field, a progressive school founded by his mother. He arrived at Eton College in the autumn 1908. Soon afterwards his mother died that according to one biographer, destroyed his faith in life. In 1911 Huxley was struck down by a staphylococcic infection in the eye that left him purblind for eighteen months. According to David King Dunaway: "At home Huxley taught himself to read Braille, to touch-type, and to play the piano. His eyesight improved to one-quarter of normal vision in one eye (he spent half a century experimenting with alternative therapies and surgery)."

Huxley won a scholarship to Balliol College, to read English language and literature. However, he could only study by dilating his eyes with drops and using a large magnifying glass. While at Oxford University Huxley contributed articles to The Athenaeum. This brought him into contact with John Middleton Murry who introduced him to writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield.

Huxley began spending time with Philip Morrell and Ottoline Morrell at their home Garsington Manor near Oxford. It was also a refuge for conscientious objectors. They worked on the property's farm as a way of escaping prosecution. It also became a meeting place for a group of intellectuals described as the Bloomsbury Group. Members included Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, John Maynard Keynes, David Garnett, E. M. Forster, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, Dora Carrington, Gerald Brenan, Ralph Partridge, Bertram Russell, Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy and Arthur Waley. Other people who Huxley met at Garsington included Dorothy Brett, Mark Gertler, Siegfried Sassoon, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson and T.S. Eliot.

One of the members of this group, Frances Partridge, later recalled in her autobiography, Memories (1981): "They were not a group, but a number of very different individuals, who shared certain attitudes to life, and happened to be friends or lovers. To say they were unconventional suggests deliberate flouting of rules; it was rather that they were quite uninterested in conventions, but passionately in ideas. Generally speaking they were left-wing, atheists, pacifists in the First World War, lovers of the arts and travel, avid readers, Francophiles. Apart from the various occupations such as writing, painting, economics, which they pursued with dedication, what they enjoyed most was talk - talk of every description, from the most abstract to the most hilariously ribald and profane."

Leonard Woolf first met Huxley at Garsington Manor. He later commented: "The Oxford generations of the nineteen tens and nineteen twenties produced a remarkable constellation of stars of the first magnitude and I much enjoyed seeing them twinkle in the Garsington garden. There for the first time I saw the young Aldous Huxley folding his long, grasshopper legs into a deckchair and listened entranced to a conversation which is unlike that of any other person that I have talked with. I could never grow tired of listening to the curious erudition, intense speculative curiosity, deep intelligence which, directed by a gentle wit and charming character, made conversation an art."

Aldous Huxley fell in love with Dora Carrington during this period. "Her short hair, clipped like a page's, hung in a bell of elastic gold about her cheeks. She had large blue china eyes, whose expression was one of ingenuous and often puzzled earnestness." Although she enjoyed his company she was not looking for a physical relationship with Huxley. He told Dorothy Brett: "Carrington and I had a long argument on the subject of virginity: I may say it was she who provoked it by saying that she intended to remain a vestal for the rest of her life. All expostulations on my part were in vain."

After obtaining a first at Oxford University, Huxley taught at Repton School and at Eton College, where among his students were George Orwell and Harold Acton. He also published four volumes of poetry: The Burning Wheel (1916), Jonah (1917), The Defeat of Youth (1918), and Leda (1920). Lytton Strachey liked Huxley's poetry but claimed that "he looked like a piece of seaweed" but he was "incredibly cultured."

Huxley married, Maria Nys, a Belgian refugee who he had met at Garsington Manor, on 10th July 1919. The following year she gave birth to a son, Matthew (April 1920). They lived in a small flat in Hampstead, and as well as contributing to literary journals he began work on his first novel, Crome Yellow (1921). Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the novel was "the highest point so far attained by Anglo-Saxon sophistication" and that Huxley was "the wittiest man now writing in English".

Crome Yellow brought Huxley instant fame but upset his friends who appeared in the novel. This included Dora Carrington (Mary Bracegirdle). In the novel Huxley recreated his many discussions with Carrington. She explained what she was looking for in a man: "It must be somebody intelligent, somebody with intellectual interests that I can share. And it must be somebody with a proper respect for women, somebody who's prepared to talk seriously about his work and his ideas and about my work and my ideas. It isn't, as you see, at all easy to find the right person."

Ottoline Morrell felt betrayed by Huxley for writing about her in Crome Yellow. The character, Priscilla Wimbush, was described as having a "large square middle-aged face, with a massive projecting nose and little greenish eyes, the whole surmounted by a lofty and elaborate coiffure of a curiously improbable shade of orange." Ottoline was also furious about his rude and unfunny descriptions of her friends, Dorothy Brett, Dora Carrington, Bertram Russell and Mark Gertler. She told Huxley that his book reminded her of "poor photography".

Huxley followed Crome Yellow with Antic Hay (1923) and Those Barren Leaves (1925). According to David King Dunaway, all three novels "satirized social behaviour in post-war Britain using friends and family as fodder for incisive characterizations... The comic lightness of the novels was undermined by much wider social concerns.... Moreover, a dark thread runs through Huxley's musings on corruption in the smart set; his characters are torn between pleasures of the flesh and an austere dedication to the spirit, and Huxley was willing to expose human frailty, to illuminate hypocrisy."

Huxley continued the idea of writing about people he knew in his next novel, Point Counter Point (1928). Characters in this novel included Lucy Tantamount (Nancy Cunard), John Bidlake (Augustus John), Everard Webley (Oswald Mosley), Mark Rampion (D. H. Lawrence), Mary Rampion (Frieda Lawrence), Denis Burlap (John Middleton Murry) and Beatrice Gilray (Katherine Mansfield).

Beatrice Webb praised the writing of Huxley but disliked the subject matter of his books. She put in him the same group as D. H. Lawrence, Compton MacKenzie, David Garnett and Norman Douglas: "clever novelists... all depicting men and women as mere animals, and morbid at that. except always that these bipeds practise birth control and commit suicide. so it looks as if the species would happily die out. it is an ugly and tiresome idol of the mind, but it lends itself to a certain type of fantastic wit and stylish irony.

Huxley's books sold very well and with his royalties he purchased a villa in Bandol on the south coast of France. He also had a summer home at Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany. After the death of his friend, D. H. Lawrence, Huxley arranged for the publication of The Letters of D. H. Lawrence (1932). As well as novels, plays and short stories, Huxley wrote a large number of articles for newspapers and magazines.

In summer 1932 Huxley published Brave New World. It was an international best-seller and established him as Britain's best-known novelist between the wars. Translated into twenty-eight languages, the novel was inspired by Men Like Gods, a utopian novel by H. G. Wells. However, George Orwell argued that the novel "must be partly derived from" We by the Russian writer, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Huxley denied that he had ever heard of this book.

David King Dunaway has pointed out: "The novel, the first about human cloning, is a dystopia set five centuries in the future, when overpopulation has led to biogenetic engineering. Through computerized genetic selection, social engineers create a population happy with its lot. All the earth's children are born in hatcheries, and Soma, a get-happy pill, irons out most problems."

Time Magazine saw it as an attack on the culture of the United States with Henry Ford as the new God (worshippers say "Our Ford" instead of "Our Lord"): "Huxley's 1932 work - about a drugged, dull and mass-produced society of the future - has been challenged for its themes of sexuality, drugs and suicide. The book parodies H.G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods and expresses Huxley's disdain for the youth and market-driven culture of the U.S. Chewing gum, then as now a symbol of America's teenybopper shoppers, appears in the book as a way to deliver sex hormones and subdue anxious adults; pornographic films called feelies are also popular grown-up pacifiers."

Beatrice Webb was also highly critical of the book: "I have been reading Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, and pondering over this strangely pathological writing, pathological without knowing it. The febrile futility of the particular clique he describes reminds me of that far more powerful book The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. Far more powerful because Mann is describing a society of sick people ... Huxley's group do not know that they are sick and are presented as a sample of normal human life. What with their continuous and promiscuous copulations, their shallow talk and chronic idleness, the impression left is one of simple disgust at their bodies and minds.... And the book, apart from arousing a morbid interest in morbidity, is dull, dull, dull. In a few years' time it will be unreadable - it represents a fashion. In this characteristic of fashionableness Aldous Huxley is like his maternal aunt, Mrs Humphry Ward; also in his tendency to preach."

Aldous Huxley's next novel was Eyeless in Gaza (1936). Huxley then suffered from "writer's block" and it was several years before he could complete another novel. In 1937 Aldous and Maria Huxley travelled to North America, spending time in New York City and San Cristobal, where he finished, Ends and Means (1937), a book explaining his pacifist beliefs.

In January 1938 the Huxleys moved to California and was employed by Hollywood film studios. He wrote the screenplays for Pride and Prejudice (1940), Madame Curie (1943), Jane Eyre (1943), A Woman's Vengeance (1948), Prelude to Fame (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951). He found working with studio executives difficult who he described as having "the characteristics of the minds of chimpanzees".

Huxley's next book, The Devils of Loudun (1952), was "a historical recreation of a story of demonically possessed French nuns and exorcists". Based on the true events in the small French town of Loudun in 1631, it features the activities of Father Urbain Grandier. As Time Magazine pointed out: "In The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley with skill and scholarship resurrects one of the forgotten scandals of Christendom. The result is a brilliantly quarrelsome tract that is also one of the most fascinating historical narratives of the year."

Maria Huxley developed cancer. She told her friend: "To me, dying is no more than going from one room to another." She died on 12th February 1955. The following year he married Laura Archer (1911–2007), an Italian violinist, writer, and psychotherapist. He published his last novel, Island in 1962. He claimed "this is what Brave New World should have been, and wasn't".

Aldous Huxley died in Los Angeles, on 22nd November 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey (1994)

He (Mark Gertler) did not know where he was, and in his bafflement began discussing his troubles with D.H. Lawrence, Gilbert Cannan, Aldous Huxley, Ottoline Morrell and others. So he and Carrington were to find their way into the literature of the times. In Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow (1921) Gertler becomes the painter Gombauld, "a black-haired young corsair of thirty, with flashing teeth and luminous large dark eyes"; while Carrington may be seen in the "pink and childish" Mary Bracegirdle, with her clipped hair "hung in a bell of elastic gold about her cheeks", her "large china blue eyes' and an expression of "puzzled earnestness". In D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1921), some of Gertler's traits are used to create Loerke, the corrupt sculptor to whom Gudrun is attracted (as Katherine Mansfield was to Gertler), while Carrington is caricatured as the frivolous model Minette Darrington - and Lytton too may be glimpsed as the effete Julius Halliday. Lawrence became fascinated by what he heard of Carrington. Resenting the desire she had provoked and refused to satisfy in his friend Gertler, he took vicarious revenge by portraying her as Ethel Cane, the gang-raped aesthete incapable of real love, in his story None of That. "She was always hating men, hating all active maleness in a man. She wanted passive maleness." What she really desired, Lawrence concluded, was not love but power. "She could send out of her body a repelling energy," he wrote, "to compel people to submit to her will." He pictured her searching for some epoch-making man to act as a fitting instrument for her will. By herself she could achieve nothing. But when she had a group or a few real individuals, or just one man, she could "start something", and make them dance, like marionettes, in a tragi-comedy round her. "It was only in intimacy that she was unscrupulous and dauntless as a devil incarnate," Lawrence wrote, giving her the paranoiac qualities possessed by so many of his characters. "In public, and in strange places, she was very uneasy, like one who has a bad conscience towards society, and is afraid of it. And for that reason she could never go without a man to stand between her and all the others."

(2) Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again (1964)

The older generation would be there (Garsington Manor): Bertie Russell, Goldie Dickinson, Bridges, Lytton, Maynard; and then early in the afternoon there would be an irruption from Oxford of undergraduates or young dons. The Oxford generations of the nineteen tens and nineteen twenties produced a remarkable constellation of stars of the first magnitude and I much enjoyed seeing them twinkle in the Garsington garden. There for the first time I saw the young Aldous Huxley folding his long, grasshopper legs into a deckchair and listened entranced to a conversation which is unlike that of any other person that I have talked with. I could never grow tired of listening to the curious erudition, intense speculative curiosity, deep intelligence which, directed by a gentle wit and charming character, made conversation an art. And out of the Oxford colleges of those years came, besides Aldous, L. A. G. Strong, David Cecil, Maurice Bowra.

(3) Aldous Huxley, letter to Dorothy Brett (1st December 1918)

I saw Carrington not long ago, just after the armistice, and thought her enchanting; which indeed I always do whenever I see her, losing my heart completely as soon as she is no longer there. We went to see the show at the Omega, where there was what I thought an admirable Mark Gertler and a good Duncan Grant and a rather jolly Vanessa Bell. Carrington and I had a long argument on the subject of virginity: I may say it was she who provoked it by saying that she intended to remain a vestal for the rest of her life. All expostulations on my part were vain.

(4) Time Magazine (29th September, 2008)

Huxley's 1932 work - about a drugged, dull and mass-produced society of the future - has been challenged for its themes of sexuality, drugs and suicide. The book parodies H.G. Wells' utopian novel Men Like Gods and expresses Huxley's disdain for the youth and market-driven culture of the U.S. Chewing gum, then as now a symbol of America's teenybopper shoppers, appears in the book as a way to deliver sex hormones and subdue anxious adults; pornographic films called "feelies" are also popular grown-up pacifiers. In Huxley's vision of the 26th century, Henry Ford is the new God (worshippers say "Our Ford" instead of "Our Lord"), and the carmaker's concept of mass production has been applied to human reproduction. As recently as 1993, a group of parents attempted to ban the book in Corona-Norco, Calif., because it "centered around negativity."

(5) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (28th October, 1928)

I have been reading Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point, and pondering over this strangely pathological writing, pathological without knowing it. The febrile futility of the particular clique he describes reminds me of that far more powerful book The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. Far more powerful because Mann is describing a society of sick people ... Huxley's group do not know that they are sick and are presented as a sample of normal human life. What with their continuous and promiscuous copulations, their shallow talk and chronic idleness, the impression left is one of simple disgust at their bodies and minds.... And the book, apart from arousing a morbid interest in morbidity, is dull, dull, dull. In a few years' time it will be unreadable - it represents a fashion. In this characteristic of fashionableness Aldous Huxley is like his maternal aunt, Mrs Humphry Ward; also in his tendency to preach.

(6) Time Magazine (6th October, 1952)

In the course of the year 1631, in the little French town of Loudun, an entire convent of Ursuline nuns went insane, or rather, to use the analytical term of that day, they were possessed by devils. And since the chiefest of these was a demon of desire for the parish priest - a dashing esthete adored by the women of the town and detested by their husbands - it was indisputably evident to the man's enemies that he was a wizard, and that something had to be done about him.

In The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley with skill and scholarship resurrects one of the forgotten scandals of Christendom. The result is a brilliantly quarrelsome tract that is also one of the most fascinating historical narratives of the year.

Father Urbain Grandier, the center of the disturbance, looked for all the world like "a fleshier, not unamiable and only slightly less intelligent Mephistopheles in clerical fancy dress." Since his arrival at Loudun in 1617, he had fully exploited his devilish good looks. He not only made himself free with scullery trulls and upstairs maids; he also abused the confessional and other sacred precincts, it was said, with docile ladies of the parish. He had even taken a rich "wife," though his enemies had difficulty in proving it, because Grandier himself had served as both priest and bridegroom.

Furthermore, the fellow had angered the local Carmelites by taking over from them the hearing of confession in the town, and the Capuchins by discrediting their cloister's miracle-working image. There was, however, some consolation, for the priestly popinjay had made an enemy of Cardinal Richelieu by walking ahead of him during a religious procession. And just as rashly, he had a child by the daughter of his best friend, the public prosecutor of Loudun.

The Prioress' Revenge. Yet it was Sister Jeanne, prioress of the Ursulines, who brought the long delusion of Grandier to an end. In Huxley's interpretation, her native hysteria was aggravated by the abnegations of convent life; she began to have daydreams, and later night sweats, about the handsome priest. She offered him the post of director of her convent, and Grandier refused. Thereupon, as Huxley reads the evidence, Sister Jeanne's fantasies turned into a mania for sadistic revenge.

Appointing a confessor who was a sworn enemy of Grandier, Sister Jeanne began to confide to him her symptoms of a demonic infestation that clearly indicated Grandier as the infester. Soon 16 other nuns, under the vivid suggestion of their prioress' example, found themselves with demon: here Leviathan in the center of a forehead; there, Enemy of the Virgin in the neck; Asmodeus (in Hebraic lore, king of the demons) snuggled in a groin; Concupiscence at home in the left rib.

Clearly the demons had to be exorcised. Grandier's enemies opened the exorcisms to the public, who were properly edified to watch the nuns scream, throw convulsions, expose their navels to the priests and to the crowd. At last, with the circus in full swing, word of it reached Richelieu. The order came quickly to arrest Grandier and try him for witchcraft.

(9) Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions (1980)

When I met Aldous Huxley in 1935 or 1936, in the house of a mutual friend, Lord Rothschild, in Cambridge, I expected to be overawed and perhaps sharply snubbed. But he was very courteous and very kind to everyone present. The company played intellectual games, so it seemed to me, after nearly every meal; it took pleasure in displaying its wit and knowledge; Huxley plainly adored such exercises, but remained uncompetitive, benevolent and remote. When the games were over at last, he talked, without altering his low, monotonous tone, about persons and ideas, describing them as if viewed from a great distance, as queer but interesting specimens, odd, but no odder than many others in the world on which he seemed to look as a kind of museum or encyclopaedia. He spoke with serenity and disarming sincerity, very simply. There was no malice and very little conscious irony in his conversation, only the mildest and gentlest mockery of the most innocent kind. He enjoyed describing prophets and mystagogucs, but even such figures as Count Kevserling, Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, whom he did not much like, were given their due and indeed more than their due; even Middleton Murry was treated more mercifully and seriously than in the portrait in Point Counter Point. Huxley talked very well: he needed an attentive audience and silence, but he was not self-absorbed or domineering, and presently everyone in the room would fall under his peaceful spell; brightness and glitter Went out of the air, everyone became calm, serious, interested and contented. The picture I have attempted to draw may convey the notion that Huxley, for all his noble qualities, may (like some very good men and gifted writers) have been something of a bore or a preacher. But this was not so at all, on the only occasions on which I met him. He had great moral charm and integrity, and it was these rare qualities (as with the otherwise very dissimilar G. E. Moore), and not brilliance or originality, that compensated and more than compensated for any lack-lustre quality, and for a certain thinness in the even, steady flow of words to which we all listened so willingly and respectfully.

The social world about which Huxley wrote was all but destroyed by the Second World War, and the centre of his interests appeared to shift from the external world to the inner life of men. His approach to all this remained scrupulously empirical, directly related to the facts of the experience of individuals of which there is record in speech or in writing....