Critical Evaluation

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Aldous Huxley published this, his first novel, when he was twenty-seven years old. Themes announced in this satirical, loosely knit work were to characterize his future production also: How can people of the modern world find the solutions required by the present to the age-old problems of humanity? What constitutes value? To what extent can historical imperatives be avoided, or, if they still mean something, to what extent can they continue to be implemented? In his justly famous novel of 1932, Brave New World, Huxley poses these problems in a way far more integral to the plot. In Crome Yellow, such questions—and putative solutions—are put in the mouths of various characters. Since none of these (even Denis Stone, the protagonist and from whose point of view events are seen) is clearly sympathetic, it is not possible to discern in which direction Huxley himself throws his weight. It is more a case of “a plague on all your houses”—nobody escapes Huxley’s satirical deconstruction. Romanticism is especially attacked, and such attacks are repeated and developed throughout what might be considered the trilogy formed by his first three novels—Crome Yellow, Antic Hay (1923), and Those Barren Leaves (1925)—and even through the seven-novel series, including Point Counter Point (1928), Brave New World, Eyeless in Gaza (1936), and After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), that constitutes Huxley’s novelistic output up to 1939. Yet there are many Romantic elements in his writing.

Huxley’s work is rife with such contradictions. It well illustrates the poet William Butler Yeats’s aphorism that, if rhetoric is what results from one’s arguments with others, poetry is the outcome of one’s argument with oneself. For example, Huxley knew enough history to deplore the historicism of contemporary thinkers, yet was unable himself to avoid sweeping statements concerning historical tendencies. In Brave New World, the vision of the lockstep future is a nightmare, but the few nonconforming characters are not impressive either. Crome Yellow might have been a better book had Huxley found an organizing idea—Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types comes to mind—to impart a positive spin to the relativism of his people; as it stands, they tend to cancel each other out rather than complement and augment one another.

Huxley’s popularity began with the publication of Crome Yellow and grew with each successive novel, especially with the people of his own generation, which indicates that Huxley spoke for his peers, that his unresolved contradictions were theirs as well, and that they welcomed such a mirroring—which was, after all, a focusing of their confusions and despair.

Crome Yellow also is an entertaining work, in part because of its setting, an ancient and splendid English country house standing amid sumptuous gardens in a beautiful countryside, at the end of a train ride that passes through stations with such names as Spavin Delawarr, Knipswich for Timpany, and Camlet-on-the-Water. In the grand house itself, there are secret doors, winding staircases, parapets, and towers. As they dine in style or stroll the garden paths, Huxley’s characters may articulate radical notions concerning the end of civilization as they know it, and the feeling resulting from the massive destruction and loss of life during World War I may color their behavior, but much proceeds according to traditions that have succeeded through many generations, and a sense of coziness and safety mitigates the dire predictions that are voiced in much of Crome Yellow.

The characters are certainly entertaining—or the caricatures, one might almost call them, for Huxley is a gifted cartoonist in prose. The red sketchbook that Jenny Mullion keeps, and...

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at which Denis steals a look, is an emblem of the novel, which is itself a kind of sketchbook filled with uncomfortably accurate lampoons. Like cartoon people, the cast ofCrome Yellow is composed of static people, of types; no one is changed by his or her experiences in the course of these 150 or so pages. Huxley is interested in human diversity, but not much given to representing its development.

Huxley capably demonstrates throughout Crome Yellow his own diverse talents, as satirist, parodist, purveyor of little-known details from history; as poet, versifier, memorizer of—or inventor of—fascinating conversation; as theorist, philosopher, psychologist. At times, these demonstrations amount to nothing more than a half-baked genius strutting his stuff, as certain critics allege; so it must appear to readers, then and now, who are unable to identify with a pert wit fresh out of Eton and Oxford. To many of his contemporaries, who included a number of the brightest intellects as well as the “bright young things,” Aldous Huxley, in Crome Yellow, was the first to announce the coming of a new sensibility, one that would spurn traditional Great Britain and Europe, and that would not let its own lack of constructive thought deter it from remarking on the wholesale flaws in the thought it was meant to inherit.

As one reviewer at the time wrote, many of Huxley’s contemporaries found him “amusing,” a word that meant a lot more than “funny.” It was their highest term of praise. In an era when the values that had persisted throughout the lengthy Victorian period were now perceived as having failed and led directly to the holocaust of World War I by the more prescient members of the British public, it seemed enough to say so in an engaging and provocative way: Without sounder grounds of value, “amusing” had to suffice. As the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, who had championed Darwin, and the relative of Matthew Arnold, who in his famous poem “Dover Beach” (1867) had announced the withdrawal of faith in Christendom, Aldous Huxley inherited a considerable burden of family responsibility for the condition of the present. He was to spend his life seeking solutions, and Crome Yellow makes a start by clearing the air of the outdated and the stultifying.