Article abstract: Through far-sighted, iconoclastic thought and prolific, diverse writings, Huxley not only recorded but also transcended his age, greatly enriching intellectual life for the twentieth century and beyond.
Aldous Leonard Huxley, the third son of Leonard Huxley and Julia Frances Arnold, descended from two distinguished families: one known for high achievement in the sciences and the other equally renowned for contributions to education and literature. On his father’s side, Thomas Henry Huxley, the eminent biologist and popularizer of English naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, was Aldous’s grandfather. On his mother’s side, Dr. Arnold of Rugby was his great-grandfather, Matthew Arnold (poet and educator) was his great uncle, and the novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward was his aunt. His schoolmaster father became an editor of the Cornhill Magazine, and his mother founded a very successful school for girls.
Huxley attended Hillside Preparatory School and then was sent to Eton at age fourteen. He was an intellectually precocious youth who had already almost reached his full height of 6 feet 4 inches. A few months later Huxley suffered the first of three losses that deeply affected him. In November of 1908, his much-loved mother died of cancer at age forty-five. Years later, he expressed some of the devastation he experienced in Eyeless in Gaza (1936), perhaps his most autobiographical novel.
In 1911 came another life-altering trauma. He contracted a serious eye disease that resulted in near blindness for eighteen months, forced him to leave Eton, and left him visually handicapped for the rest of his life. Not knowing whether he would ever see again, Huxley faced this crisis with courage and patience by teaching himself to read Braille. Although he eventually recovered some sight, his visual impairment caused him to abandon his plan to become a doctor.
A third tragedy occurred in 1914 when his older brother, Trevenen, committed suicide at age twenty-four, a victim of depression over his failure to achieve first-class honors at Oxford University and a place in the Civil Service. An unhappy love affair may have been an additional factor, but Huxley believed it was “just the highest and best in Trev—his ideals—which have driven him to his death.” Failure to achieve academic distinction might be a disappointment for an ordinary person, but to be a Huxley was to be aware that one is not ordinary, and Trevenen, a particularly sensitive young man, was destroyed by his failure to live up to his brilliant promise. Huxley’s other brother, Julian, achieved eminence as a biologist and a writer.
These early shocks left their mark on Huxley: His visual impairment caused him to turn toward literature rather than science, and much of the literature he created reflected a concern with physical suffering, malignant disease, decay, and death. Additionally, his brother’s death seemed a demonstration of the potentially tragic conflict between ideals and reality and of the way that ideals can take on a life of their own and even kill if held too rigidly or unrealistically. It is unsurprising to find that skepticism about conventional social values as well as pleas for agnosticism, tolerance, and pacifism became characteristics of his works.
Despite the need to read with a magnifying glass, Huxley attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he wrote and published poems and short stories, finished with first honors in English, and won the Stanhope Historical Essay Prize. His allowance ended when he graduated from Oxford, and his lack of money prevented him from marrying Maria Nys, a young Belgian he had met at Lady Ottoline Morrel’s country house, Garsington Manor. A brief, unhappy stint as a schoolmaster at Eton and Repton from 1916 to 1919, during which time he continued to write, convinced him that the only way remaining to make a living was to become a professional writer. After his marriage to Maria at Bellem, Belgium, in 1919, Huxley began working as a literary journalist for various publications, at the same time working on his novels, short stories, and essays. Finally, after the publication of three works of fiction (Limbo, 1920; Chrome Yellow, 1921; and Mortal Coils, 1922), three collections of poems (The Burning Wheel, 1916; The Defeat of Youth, 1918; and Leda, 1920), and a book of essays (On the Margin, 1923), Huxley signed the first of many three-year contracts with Chatto & Windus Publishers (an arrangement that continued throughout his life), which finally provided financial security for Aldous, Maria, and their three-year-old son, Matthew. Huxley eventually produced forty-seven books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays.
Huxley’s satirical novels of the 1920’s established him as a major, although controversial, writer. Critics attacked Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and Point Counter Point (1928) for promoting attitudes of sexual permissiveness, emotional detachment, postwar disillusionment, cynicism, brutality, and even hatred of existence. They complained that his characters lacked depth and were unsympathetic. (A few of his friends, such as D. H. Lawrence and Lady Ottoline Morrell, recognized themselves in the novels and were not pleased). The...
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