Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

As I admitted here recently, I’m a bit embarrassed to reveal that there are books on Mount TBR that have been there for over 30 years – and Aldous Huxley’s “Crome Yellow” is one of them… I picked up his collection of short stories, Mortal Coils, last month on a whim, and loved it so much that I decided to follow it with CY. I confess I was attracted to CY all those years ago because it’s regarded as such a roman a clef; a thinly veiled portrait of many of the Bloomsbury group, and all set in a house based on Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell. The narrator, poet Denis Stone, is modelled on Huxley himself; the painter Gombauld on Mark Gertler; Mary Bracegirdle on the artist Dora Carrington; and so on.

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CY is still being written about in these terms which in many ways is a shame, because this tends to obscure the book a little and make it hard to read without referencing the apparent source of the characters; and it’s a very good read in its own right.

The book opens with Dennis travelling down to Crome, a typical English country house of the period, to visit the Wimbushes. Priscilla is an eccentric woman, something of a patron of the arts and artists, and rushing from one fad to another – the current passion being for horoscopes and mysticism. Her husband Henry is lost in family history, and enlivens the narrative with a couple of wonderful tales of Crome’s previous inhabitants.

Also staying with them are a motley collection of guests and as soon as Denis arrives it becomes clear that he’s suffering from a passion for Anne, niece of the Wimbushes. However, he’s almost incapable of expressing any feelings in words and stumbles around trying to find the chance to confess his love. Meanwhile, Mary is trying to decide who she should resolve her issues about sex with, trying to decide between Gombauld and Denis as a likely partner. Anne seems somewhat detached from all men and simply wants Denis to be a friend. Then there is the wonderfully-named Mr. Barbecue-Smith, writer of fashionable books who manages to write 1,500 words an hour by going into a kind of trance and getting in touch with his subconscious. Mr. Scogan is a believer in a scientific future, and when the discussion about free love is taking place Huxley puts some remarkably prescient words in his mouth:

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.”

It’s a way of reproduction to which Huxley would return in “Brave New World”.

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“Crome Yellow” is satire at its best, and if it is a glimpse of early Bloomsbury characters, it catches them at the time when Victorian standards were collapsing, with people incapable of really deciding where to go next. Huxley is cruellest to Priscilla, in his physical description of her and also his lambasting of her various crazes; he’s also quite hard on Mary with her desire to resolve the sex question in a clinical manner. However, he can be forgiven because he doesn’t spare himself, giving Denis plenty of insecurities about his writing and his successes (or not!) as a writer and a man. And Huxley’s preoccupation with the process of writing is evident here, as it was in “Mortal Coils”.

Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language, he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them!

Denis leaves Crome at the end of the book in a flurry, having failed in his love life and also feeling a failure as a writer. “Crome Yellow” was a clever, funny and in some ways touching read (I always find anything involving Carrington desperately moving); and it was more evidence of Huxley’s skill as a writer. Now, if I could only find where I’d put my copy of “Point Counter Point”….

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