Since its initial publication in 1921, Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow has delighted readers with its ironic wit aimed at a diverse carnival of pretentious British upper-class characters. Huxley's satiric novel exposes the social hypocrisy of a rigidly class-conscious British establishment that was trying to forget World War I had ever happened. His characters hide their insecurities behind masks of pseudo-intellectuality. Even the book's title, Crome Yellow, is a clever metaphor inferring the stark differences between appearance and reality. Indeed, the personas depicted by Huxley are not what they seem at first glance, but they do represent human nature's duality of public and private faces. Human nature does not change. Consequently, Crome Yellow's humor is just as relevant today as it was in 1921 when the novel earned Huxley a deserved reputation as a sharp-tongued social commentator. In America he was compared to H. L. Mencken, a writer Huxley admired, corresponded with, and emulated. Crome Yellow's relevance is also of great importance to readers of Huxley's landmark novel Brave New World (1932). It is in Crome Yellow where Huxley first predicts the terrible future that he will later fully develop in his science-fiction classic. Crome Yellow, like Brave New World, is a novel that will continue to charm, entertain, stimulate, and enlighten readers.
London-born Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963) was a poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, and humanist philosopher. He attended Eton and Oxford and briefly taught at Eton before devoting himself solely to writing. Huxley married in 1920 and his only child, a son, was borna year later. He first published poetry, but earned a living with essays and short stories for various magazines. His essays gained attention for their acidly sarcastic social criticism. Crome Yellow's critical success earned him advances for future novels and he spent most of the 1920s living in Italy and France. In 1928, his fourth novel, Point Counterpoint, was an international bestseller. His fifth novel was Brave New World (1932), which is one of the most read books in literary history. His novels have been called "novels of ideas," and they certainly cover a wide range of topics. Huxley relocated to Los Angeles in 1937 with his family and best friend, the philosopher Gerald Heard. Huxley's writing in America became increasingly philosophical and his fictional works became extensions of his non-fiction books. In 1944, Huxley's anthology with commentary, The Perennial Philosophy, helped popularize mysticism in the United States. Huxley's first wife, Maria, died in 1954. A year later he married concert violinist Laura Archera. Huxley passed away from throat cancer on November 22, 1963. He was initially buried in California, but his ashes were later interred in Britain with his parents. In 1968, his 1962 utopian novel, Island, was reprinted and became a bestseller of over a million copies.
Today, it is Brave New World (1932), for which Aldous Huxley is chiefly remembered. Huxley's genes nearly guaranteed his intellectual ability as his grandfather was the renowned scientist and champion of Darwin, T. H. Huxley, and his mother's uncle was the celebrated poet and social critic, Matthew Arnold. Moreover, his mother's sister was the very popular novelist, Mrs. Humphrey Ward. Three telling events shaped the young Huxley: his beloved mother, Julia, died when he was fourteen; at seventeen he suffered an eye ailment that left him blind for eighteen months and forever impaired his vision; and at twenty he endured the suicide of his adored older brother, Trevenen, who had fallen in love with a woman out of his class whom he could never hope to marry. These traumas turned Huxley inward and shy, and his writing, which deftly aimed at the hypocrisies of a rigidly impossible class-conscious British society, became his emotional outlet. Huxley and others blamed the upper classes for the travesty of World War I. Crome Yellow, written when Huxley was twenty-six, is semi-autobiographical, with the author represented by the character Denis-although Huxley was far more talented and less naïve than his fictional counterpart.
Crome Yellow gave Huxley the status of what today could be described as a "cult-figure" (high critical praise, but modest sales). The novel's title, which refers to the fictitious estate called Crome where the story takes place, is itself a bit of subversive wit. The term "chrome yellow" describes a yellow pigment that has an initial brightness that tends to fade when exposed to sunlight and turns brown or green over time. Hence, the title's symbolism refers to the novel's characters, who at first appear flashy, but will soon turn dark or fade away. As Peter Bowering has said of the novel, "the 'yellow' of Crome is more than a little jaundiced."
The characters in Crome are a bit sick under their superficial surface sheen. They are a bizarre group, especially when observed secretly by Denis, the pseudo-poet: "Denis peeped at them discretely from the window…. His eyes were suddenly become innocent, childlike, unprejudiced. They seemed, these people, inconceivably fantastic. And yet they really existed, they functioned by themselves, they were conscious, they had minds. Moreover, he was like them. Could one believe it? But the evidence of the red notebook was conclusive"
The red notebook belongs to Jenny, an almost deaf (or is she really), nearly mute young woman who records her contempt for everyone at Crome in it. Denis opens Jenny's red notebook on the sly and sees the nastily accurate caricatured drawings and vicious verbal descriptions of him and the others: "And so this, he reflected, was how Jenny employed the leisure hours in her ivory tower apart. And he had thought her a simple-minded, uncritical creature. It was he, it seemed, who was the fool." Foolishness is exactly what Huxley wishes to expose.
Indeed, Huxley's main theme is like the distorting and fading colors of chrome yellow pigment. First impressions do not last. He depicts men who indulge in exercises of intellectual futility, and women who are either Freudian moderns or Victorian predators or both. In fact, Huxley was satirizing his own experiences at Garsington Manor, the palatial estate of Lady Ottoline Murrell. Her guests were the inspiration for the characters of Crome Yellow. After its debut, Lady Ottoline (the fictional Mrs. Wimbush) did not speak to Huxley for a long time.
Huxley views Crome as a microcosm of the much larger macrocosm that was then Great Britain. He also sees in the characters who populate Crome personalities that are recognizable in any society past or present. His characters exhibit creations foibles and follies that we can all recognize and laugh over. Readers will also perceive the more serious and painful repercussions of their behaviors that his satire implies between the lines.
The characters of Crome Yellow are vividly drawn from Huxley's experiences. Denis exemplifies the man who agonizingly analyzes every action and reaction while trying to imagine what others are thinking. He is a hopeless romantic who feels and thinks too much to ever relax and be happy, saying, "I can take nothing for granted, I can enjoy nothing as it comes along. Beauty, pleasure, art, women-I have to invent an excuse, a justification for everything that is delightful."
Anne is the "liberated" but cynical femme fatale who responds to Denis' equivocation with matter-of-fact smugness: "One enjoys the pleasant things, avoids the nasty ones. There's nothing more to be said." Of course, there's much more to be said, but being rich and spoiled simplifies Anne's view of reality.
Mary is also "liberated" and a reader of Havelock Ellis, the then-shocking sex researcher. She is an amateur psychologist who analyzes her own subconscious: "I constantly dream that I'm falling down wells; and sometimes I even dream that I'm climbing ladders…. The symptoms are only too clear…. One may become a nymphomaniac if one's not careful." What actually seems clear is that Mary is not sure if she is coming or going.
Mr. Barbecue-Smith is the pseudo-mystic who has won over Mrs. Wimbush with his books of saccharine aphorisms with titles like Humble Heroisms and Pipelines to the Infinite. He repeats to Denis such gems of wisdom as, "The flame of a candle gives light, but it also burns." "The things that really matter happen in the heart." It is hard to imagine that anyone could take Barbecue-Smith seriously, but Huxley's point is exactly that he is taken seriously.
Huxley's superficial idealists are contrasted with the pessimists Mr. Wimbush, Mr. Bodiham, and Mr. Scogan. Wimbush makes memorials of the past because his present is such a bore. Bodiham is the fire-and-brimstone rector of Crome who believes in an angry God. His God is also spiteful, vindictive, and wants everyone to burn in hell. Finally, Mr. Scogan is the cold rationalist who is the forecaster of a Brave New World. In Scogan's future, there will be three cloned types of humans: (1) "Directing Intelligences," who will con the (2) "Men of Faith" into convincing the remaining (3) "Herd" to follow blindly. Scogan argues that "men of intelligence must combine, must conspire, and seize power from the imbeciles and maniacs who now direct us. They must found the Rational State." Through Scogan, Huxley hints at the coming of fascism, as well as his future novel.
In the 1920s, Huxley's books were sharply attacked by those who resented his criticisms of British society. He was also criticized for his then unprecedented discussion of previously unmentioned topics such as British traditions, upper-class arrogance, class divisions, religion, psychoanalysis, and especially sex. Huxley considered it his duty to respond to these critics. He wrote in 1930: "I have frequently been accused. . .both of vulgarity and wickedness--on the grounds. . .that I reported my investigations into certain phenomena in plain English and in a novel…. [T]hose who are shocked by truth are not only stupid, but morally reprehensible as well; the stupid should be educated, the wicked punished and reformed" (Vulgarity in Literature). Huxley did not hesitate to challenge the false complacency of postwar England.
Shortly after Crome Yellow's publication in 1921, T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922. The Waste Land is now considered the landmark definition of modern postwar despair and alienation. Crome Yellow is not as well remembered today as The Waste Land is, but the success of Crome's satirical cynicism set the tone that helped prepare readers for Eliot's verse. Many authors in the 1920s, including Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and Conrad Aiken, followed Huxley with their own fiction that was critical of British society. Huxley's cult popularity among the cognoscenti created a readership for their work.
Huxley's influence in the 1920s and after was enormous. The American literary critic Malcolm Cowley said that, in 1928, "Point Counterpoint, by Aldous Huxley, was compulsory reading." Christopher Isherwood (The Berlin Stories) was a Cambridge student in the late 1920s who was also strongly influenced by Huxley. In one of his short stories Isherwood "exposed" a theory on the true authorship of the New Testament: "I refer to this exploded forgery with all due reference to Professor Pillard, who has, by the Historical Method, clearly proved that it is the work of Mr. Aldous Huxley." For Isherwood and his peers, Huxley was a hero for attacking the staid British establishment.
Huxley also expressed his opinions straightforwardly in essays. After World War I, he wrote that authors should tell the truth in a simple and realistic way that emphasized substance over style. In essays such as "The Subject Matter of Poetry" and "Tragedy and the Whole Truth," Huxley made two assertions: (1) everything and anything between the mundane and the magnificent is suitable subject matter for literature if the artist writes about it as sincere truth; and (2) the artist's striving for reality in art is not a new technique or fashion, but an approach that was as old as classical antiquity. Huxley stated that "[writers today] are at liberty to do what Homer did--to write freely about the immediately moving facts of everyday life…. There is nothing intrinsically novel or surprising in the introduction into poetry of machinery and industrialism, of labour unrest and modern psychology: these things belong to us, they affect us daily as enjoying and suffering beings." Consequently, numerous aspects of real life were suitable for fiction and Huxley included them in Crome Yellow. Huxley called this approach to writing as "Wholly Truthful art."
Wholly Truthful art reflects the "tea-tabling" technique of writing. To "tea-table" is to reveal important and even emotional information without resorting to a traditionally histrionic tragic scene-but to do so instead over afternoon tea or during some other mundane moment. Jane Austen had mastered tea-tabling a century earlier. Huxley recognized that much of real life occurs, however emotional the situation, quietly more often than loudly. In Crome Yellow, Denis reads the apocalyptic red notebook in complete silence but with profound emotional shock. No one else finds out that Denis has read it. Yet even if someone had seen him as he read the notebook, he or she would have simply witnessed him engaged in the quite ordinary act of reading a book. Nonetheless, in this act the commonplace and the tragic are combined. Huxley wrote that "Wholly-Truthful art overflows the limits of tragedy and shows us, if only by hints and implications, what happened before the tragic story began, what will happen after it is over, what is happening simultaneously elsewhere (and 'elsewhere' includes all those parts of the minds and bodies of the protagonists not immediately engaged in the tragic struggle)." In Crome Yellow the tragedy of Crome's cursed past is conveyed in a dry, matter-of-fact manner. The cold, unemotional way Sir Henry tells the horrific story of poor Sir Hercules renders the terrible details even more horrible.
Crome Yellow is a satire of understated comic efficiency that evokes from its readers sly smiles more often than laughter. Even so, the novel's pervasive slyness becomes more penetrating in its cumulative effect as it demonstrates for the reader the oddities of human relations. Crome Yellow is a wry, allusive, erudite, and masterfully funny novel that displays the lengths to which people will go to escape reality by hiding behind various neuroses and psychoses.
Behind the satire and the cynicism, Aldous Huxley was attempting to understand the human spirit so that he could learn how to improve himself and influence others to do the same. Huxley's questing after spirit in his art and essays is now a major fount of study in Europe, particularly in Germany, where metaphysical approaches to literature resonate with great importance. Throughout his life, Huxley belied the cynicism of his fiction by actually being a thoughtful, kind, and generous spirit who thought that the money he earned was meant to help others, and he gave it away to good causes and good people. From Crome Yellow forward, Huxley wished to expose human nature in order to change it.
Christopher Isherwood joined Huxley in Los Angeles in 1939, and in his diary Isherwood often wrote about Huxley as if he were his surrogate older brother: "How kind, how shy he is-searching painfully through the darkness of this world's ignorance with his blind, mild, deep-sea eye. He has a pained, bewildered smile of despair at all human activity. 'It's inconceivable,' he repeatedly begins, 'how anyone in their senses could possibly imagine--' But they do imagine-and Aldous is very, very sorry." Crome Yellow is written with the very tone Isherwood describes, and its bitter wit is just as relevant now as it was when Huxley wrote it. Haves and have-nots still exist. Corrupt politicians still thrive. Pretentious pseudo-artists and intellectuals still sell their recycled ideas as if they were new. Wars still happen. Huxley hopes to instruct us while we laugh-even if through tears-and Crome Yellow is in its final lesson just as humane as Huxley himself.
David Garrett Izzo has published numerous books and articles about writers and poets who began to write in the period between the world wars, including Aldous Huxley. He has also published a historical novel, A Change of Heart, in which Huxley is the central character.