Disability and death marred childhood of Brave New World novelist Aldous Huxley
- Credit: Lebrecht Music & Arts
Adam Sonin explores the career of writer Aldous Huxley, whose best known work, Brave New World, has been translated into 28 languages.
Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963) was the third son of Leonard Huxley (1860-1933), an assistant master at Charterhouse, editor of Cornhill Magazine and son of eminent scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895).
Aldous’s eldest brother was the zoologist, philosopher and first director of UNESCO, Sir Julian Sorell Huxley (1887-1975), whom David Attenborough worked for in his early days as a BBC trainee.
His mother, Julia (1862-1908) was the niece of the poet Matthew Arnold and, according to a family biographer, they were “children from whom nothing but the best would be tolerated”.
In 1908, a precocious, pale, blue-eyed boy with an oversized head started his academic life at Eton College.
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This coincided with the unexpected death of his mother, which Huxley said was “as if a great explosion had taken place in the family”. His brother Julian’s wife, Juliette, later commented that “it was to Aldous the irreparable loss, a betrayal of his faith in life”.
Three years later, in 1911, Huxley suffered a serious eye infection which was left untreated over term-break at school.
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As a result he was left partially blind for 18 months. While recuperating at home, he taught himself to touch-type and learnt to “read Braille and even Braille music, which is very difficult”.
Years later, the writer commented that “everything has its compensations and I remember with pleasure the volupte of reading Braille in bed, in the dark and with one’s book and one’s hands snugly under the bed clothes”.
Abandoning any future inclination or ambition he had towards science or medicine, Huxley turned to the idea of writing, which was “a very important event in my life”.
He started off by writing “bad verses” and then “wrote an entire novel which I never read because I couldn’t see what I had written”. Sadly the 80,000-word manuscript no longer exists but was “a rather bitter novel about a young man and his relationship to two types of women”.
Huxley was privately tutored at home but felt cut off from “a great many ordinary kinds of outlets for social communication with people of my own age”. After about two years he regained very limited sight and managed to win a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he read English literature and language, often, quite literally, through a “rather powerful magnifying glass and went through university on that basis”.
The writer and journalist Beverley Nichols best captured the image of his rake-thin 6ft 4.5in friend: “Quantities of Aldous Huxley reclined on my sofa, spreading over the cushions, and stretching long tentacles on the floor.” Huxley graduated with a first class degree and won the Stanhope essay prize in 1916.
Despite his imposing physical presence, Huxley had an unforgettable mellifluous voice, exuded a quiet charm and demonstrated an immense yet gentle curiosity for all matters. His formidable mental archive led Bertrand Russell – an occasional fellow guest with Huxley at Garsington Manor, home of English aristocrat and society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell – to comment that he could tell which volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica the student Huxley was reading by the prominence of subjects with that letter in their conversation.
At Garsington, Huxley consorted with the Sitwells, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes and others in the Bloomsbury circle. It was here he met his future wife, a Belgian refugee named Maria Nys, who had been living at the house. The couple married in 1919 and a year later had their only son, Matthew.
After his Oxford days, Huxley had stints as a secretary at the Air Board and teaching posts at Repton School and Eton College. As a teacher at Eton College, Huxley’s pupils included the writer George Orwell and historian Steven Runciman.
While working at the Air Board in the Strand, he lived at his father’s house in 16 Bracknell Gardens, Hampstead, in “a most pleasant room, looking on the garden”. A plaque commemorating Huxley at the house was erected in 1995 and celebrates “men of science and letters”.
Huxley worked as a literary journalist for John Middleton Murray at The Athenaeum and then for Vanity Fair and Vogue.
At this time, the couple, now married, were living in a tiny studio flat at 18 Hampstead Hill Gardens, which they shared with a pug and a kitten – both given as wedding gifts.
By the age of 26, Huxley’s poetry had matured significantly. Virginia Woolf praised the “high technical skill and great sensibility” and Marcel Proust placed him in the first rank of young British authors.
After his first novel, Crome Yellow (1921), was published, bringing instant fame, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “This is the highest point so far attained by Anglo-Saxon sophistication. Huxley is the wittiest man writing in English.” Such high praise and he was still only in his 20s.
Years later Fitzgerald was to base one of his characters on Huxley, satirising him as Boxley, the ineffectual scriptwriter, in his posthumously published work, The Love of The Last Tycoon (1941).
A round-the-world tour in 1925 brought Huxley before readers in Bombay, Kyoto and Los Angeles and with his royalties he purchased a small villa in southern France and a Bugatti convertible for Maria, specially stretched to accommodate his long legs.
Having spent time living on the continent and in London, the spring of 1937 saw the Huxleys set sail for America. They arrived in New York and embarked on a five- week road trip across the country. The Bugatti had been given to friends and they drove a humble car made by Ford.
Huxley then went on a speaking tour of America, something which initially terrified him, and finally settled in California, attracted by its clear bright air which aided his sight. Promises from Hollywood studios regarding adaptations of his books were unfulfilled, but work as a screenwriter was plentiful. He met the new immigrant community of Hollywood, which included playwright Bertolt Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and film director George Cukor.
Films Huxley worked on include Madame Curie, a bio-pic drafted in 1938 (and later rewritten by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Pride and Prejudice, also for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1940), and Jane Eyre (1943), whose screenplay Huxley wrote with the director Robert Stevenson and John Houseman.
He was even signed up by Walt Disney to develop the script for Alice In Wonderland. However, Huxley was not fond of this life and wrote to his brother of his experiences with studio executives stating that they “have the characteristics of the minds of chimpanzees, agitated and infinitely distractible”.
The Huxleys’ Hollywood circle included screenwriter Anita Loos, actress Greta Garbo, comic film star Harpo Marx, the Chaplins and later composer Igor Stravinsky, who they met at the Farmer’s Market. Life, however, was modest and fairly austere.
Loos wrote of a picnic the group once took, recalling, “with dramatis personae so fantastic that they might have come out of Alice in Wonderland”. Incidentally, Huxley once warned Stravinsky, before he was to meet Evelyn Waugh, that the novelist could be “prickly, pompous and downright unpleasant”.
Huxley’s best known work, Brave New World (1932), has been translated into 28 languages. Despite this, news of his death was buried by the media as it coincided with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (and incidentally the death of the Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis).
Along with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Huxley’s face appears on the cover of The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club.