Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 29, 2014

Crome Yellow, by Aldous Huxley

Crow MellowCrome YellowJust recently, Finlay Lloyd publishers sent me a copy of Crow Mellow by Julian Davies, which the blurb says is a satire based on Aldous Huxley’s early social satire, Crome Yellow, but transplanted to contemporary Australia.  Crow Mellow looks like fun to read, especially since there are playful illustrations on every page, but it’s much too long ago since I read the original Crome Yellow for me to spot the resemblances, so I decided to re-read the original first.

My copy is an ancient grey Penguin Classics edition, one of four Huxleys that my father bought me as a present when I was a teenager.  My recollection is that I enjoyed them all, especially Brave New World, but I suspect that I was too young to really appreciate Huxley’s wit.  Considering that he was only in his middle twenties when he wrote it, it’s rather amazing that he wasn’t too young to write it!

The blurb draws attention to the science fantasies of Mr Scogan because this debut novel anticipates the Huxley of Brave New World, but I was more interested in the way that Huxley used  this character to satirise himself within his own novel.  Denis Stone is a middle-class young graduate with literary ambitions, paying a visit to Mr Wimbush’s country house.  He fancies himself as a poet, and is writing his first novel.  When Mary Bracegirdle, thinking it would be nice to have a little literary conversation, asks what he is writing and he replies that he is writing verse and prose, Mr Scogan pounces, unerring in his target:

“Of course,” Mr. Scogan groaned, “I’ll describe the plot for you. Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a ‘novel of dazzling brilliance”; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future.”

Denis blushed scarlet. Mr. Scogan had described the plan of his novel with an accuracy that was appalling. (p.17)

Huxley then goes on to write exactly this novel in a splendid parody of the English Country House novel…

Moscow, Chekhov's shed (24)

Chekhov’s cottage at Melikhovo 40km from Moscow

Blake Morrison, in an entertaining article for The Guardian, listed 7 reasons why grand country houses are literary obsessions to this day.  They not only provide a setting that allows for multiple characters under one roof (which is especially handy for whodunnits), there are other opportunities too:

  • They are quintessentially English, even though other cultures also set their fiction in large country houses.  (Though I don’t agree with him about Chekhov’s country estate being equivalent: I’ve been there and it’s nowhere near the size of an English mansion, it’s not even two storeys.  In fact, it was so cramped that the poor man had nowhere to get away from all the visitors and ended writing some of his masterpieces in a little cottage as far away from them as he could get);
  • All those bedrooms and staircases and dark shrubberies offer great opportunities for illicit sex [or hopeful fantasies about it];
  • There can be rightful ownership disputes and envy (again handy for murder mysteries) and ambitions to marry heiresses;
  • Poets have rambled on about the wholesome virtues of country life since the days of he ancient Romans;
  • Rich Americans [or other interlopers] can muscle in where they don’t belong;
  • Their age and architecture makes them ideal for ghost stories and whodunnits;
  • Characters can include a mixture of classes.  Morrison refers to Upstairs/Downstairs i.e. servants can play a role, but country houses also played host to guests with little or no money and variations in what the Brits call ‘background’.

In one way or another, Huxley plays with all of these elements.  With its  eccentric 16th century privies influencing the architecture of its three towers, the house is as quintessentially English as you can get, and as Denis discovers to his envious dismay, Anne, heir presumptive has (a) plenty of dark shrubberies to fool around in with Ivor who is not only an interloper but a foreigner and (oh no!) a Catholic as well, and (b) a studio where the Provençal Gombaud (whose talent has an artist far exceeds poor Denis’s) can entertain the ladies.  When she falls over outside in the dark, even Denis gets to grope Anne a little bit.  There is a lot of poetry for Huxley to mock, most splendidly when Denis shares his efforts to use the word carminative in one of his odes, and Mr Wimbush invokes the ghosts of his ancestors with his whimsical tales from his History of Crome.

As to the characters, all of them are sponging off their host while indulging their pretensions.  But behind the humour, Huxley has something serious to say about England in this brittle between-the-wars period.  After the carnage of WW1, the young women have very little to choose from in the way of husbands, and the memory of the lost is being squandered in asinine arguments about what form the local war memorial should take.  The nihilism of the period is overt: As Mr Scogan has so rightly intuited, Denis the poet has nothing to say.

Crome Yellow is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006 edition, which is the one I’m using).

For a different response to this book, visit Book to the Future, (a finalist in Best Australian Blogs for two years running, congratulations Michelle!)

Author: Aldous Huxley
Title: Crome Yellow
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics, 1936 edition, reprinted 1967.
No ISBN
Source: Gift from my dear old dad.

Availability
Fishpond: Crome Yellow (Modern Classics)


Responses

  1. Sounds wonderful. I have an edition here and it’s also free for the kindle.

    • Freebie! That’s good. Actually I noticed the other day that Amazon has stopped charging for quite a few of its out-of-copyright texts: they used to charge a dollar or so, maybe Gutenberg put a stop to it?

      • No idea. I just go with the flow.

  2. I also reread this book a couple of years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly, probably more than the first time around. For one thing, by now I have more literary experience with English country house books, of which there are many, both serious and otherwise. The plot doesn’t matter much as the dialog and offhand remarks are so wonderful.

    • Hi Nancy, is there a Country House literary tradition in the US? I am wracking my brains to think of one, but all I can think of is Gone With the Wind and I’m not sure that it counts in the same way because it doesn’t feature a horde of guests descending on the house…

      • You can find occasional imitations, but not the same thing. For example, a family reunion at a country inn or everybody converging for a wedding or funeral. Gone with the Wind falls in that category because the big barbeque at the beginning is an event with invited guests, not everybody staying together for a week end or longer.

        • Yes, it seems to be that all those extra bedrooms allow for a gathering of characters over a few days, in a way that few other forms do. Some authors have used the European pension in the same way, e.g. Katherine Mansfield’s short story collection, In A German Pension. Because then you can get a mix of characters…

  3. I have also had this book since a Huxley buying binge in my early twenties. I likely would not have appreciated it at the time but this review has peaked my interest so I will have to move it to the TBR pile.

    • Ah, Rough Ghosts, you have piqued *my* interest! You have a pile of books AND you have a TBR pile as well. Are you a book hoarder too, like I am?

      • I rarely part with any books – read or unread – unless I know I will never read them or I really did not like them. I also buy hard copies of library books that I absolutely loved. I have two book cases in my living room, my bedroom and my daughter’s first bedroom which I turned into an office. I won’t consider myself a hoarder until you can’t get down the hallways or find the stovetop. Right?

        And trust me, if the book’s a dud it’s off to the charity sale.

        • I like your definition. That gets me off the hook too…

  4. I have the vintage Penguin copy of this in my Penguin collection and was curious what it was about. It might make it to the top of the Penguin list to read after this review. Enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks Lisa.

    • Hello Pam, you know, I thought of you and your collection as I was reading this! I tried hunting about online for my copy’s ISBN, but I couldn’t find one, too old to have one, I suppose. But in the process I found that the original 1936 pb had an orange cover, whereas my reprint (as you see) is that distinctive Penguin sage grey. Which one have you got, and is the cover picture the same?


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