In 1921 twenty-seven year old Aldous Huxley published his first novel Crome Yellow, a novel that came to be much loved by Barbara Pym among others. Huxley is perhaps now best known for his novel Brave New World, a novel I actually read about twenty-five years ago – and can now (typically) remember nothing about. We are however reminded of that later forward looking novel by one of the characters Mr Scogan describing what he sees as the ‘impersonal generation.’
“An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature’s hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.”
Crome Yellow is one of those ‘modern comedies’ which emerged in England after the First World War, written by a new generation, a generation for whom the world was changing. Crome Yellow is a novel of ideas, and the society of the ‘bright young things’ of the 1920’s. Huxley satirises quite deliciously the changing fads and fashions enjoyed by this society.
“One entered the world, Denis pursued, having ready-made ideas about everything. One had a philosophy and tried to make life fit into it. One should have lived first and then made one’s philosophy to fit life…Life, facts, things were horribly complicated; ideas, even the most difficult of them, deceptively simple. In the world of ideas, everything was clear; in life all was obscure, embroiled. Was it surprising that one was miserable, horribly unhappy?”
The Crome of the title is a large country house with a long and colourful history. The house of Crome is famously modelled on Garsington Manor, home to Lady Ottaline Morrell, who frequently invited writers such as T S Eliot and Huxley himself to stay. Here Denis Stone a naïve young poet comes to stay for one of those lengthy country house parties of the times. Parties such as this of course allowed young people like Denis to enjoy a period of generous hospitality all at his host’s expense.
“Like every other good thing in this world, leisure and culture have to be paid for. Fortunately, however, it is not the leisured and the cultured who have to pay. Let us be
duly thankful for that, my dear Denis–duly thankful.”
Denis is certainly not alone; Henry Wimbush and his exotic wife Priscilla have been joined by a host of colourful guests. Each of these guests has agendas of their own and opinions they have every attention of sharing. There is Mr Scogan a cynical philosopher, Gombauld a modern young painter, the pompous journalistic Mr Barbecue- Smith and flirtatious Ivor arrives later. Jenny, whose partial deafness allows her a role as an observer of the rest, Anne who Denis falls for rather hard but who prefers Gombauld and Mary whose virginity has become a burden she feels she must rid herself of – but who? These characters are allegedly based upon some of those famous Bloomsbury figures who surrounded Lady Ottaline and her set –including Huxley himself and the artist Dora Carrington.
While Priscilla is obsessed with spiritualism, her husband Henry concerns himself with compiling a detailed history of Crome, extracts of which we are given – these stories within the story were my favourite bits.
There is very little of any plot as such – the book revolves mainly around the amorous goings on of one of two characters and the ideas, opinions and philosophies which the rest of the party take every opportunity to expound.
Crome Yellow is brilliantly imaged, wittily satirical and memorable; and I was initially prompted to read it by kaggsy’s review of it. I think it took me a little while to settle into it when I first picked it up, so I suspect it would improve greatly upon re-reading but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and so I’m very glad that I decided to read it.