Was Ma Hump to blame?

John Sutherland

  • Aldous Huxley: An English Intellectual by Nicholas Murray
    Little, Brown, 496 pp, £20.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 316 85492 1
  • The Cat's Meow directed by Peter Bogdanovich
    April 2002

Twentieth-century Huxleys have received less biography than one might have expected. Nicholas Murray usefully fills a gap between Sybille Bedford’s thirty-year-old life of Aldous and the awaited definitive biography by David Bradshaw. With the passing of time, Murray can tell us things prohibited to his predecessor by discretion and the libel laws. At the same time, like Murray’s other biographies, this one holds the central ground of its subject very ably and maintains a respectful but clear-sighted perspective. No blackwash, no hagiography, no wild critical assessments.

‘An English Intellectual’ is at first sight a strange way to describe a man who so resolutely avoided the discomforts of his home country. But the subtitle signals the critical thrust of Murray’s book. He opposes the ‘new orthodoxy’ expounded by John Carey in his 1992 polemic, The Intellectuals and the Masses. This biography aims to vindicate Huxley as a humane thinker and artist rather than the crypto-fascist, eugenicist, public-school snob, or (in later life) the ‘fully fledged, fuzzy-brained California mystic’ whom Carey indicted. Huxley – like his brothers, a prize product of Balliol – stands for much that Carey detests in his own university.

Huxley died on the same day as JFK: bad career move, as Gore Vidal might say. Thirty-eight years on, he has nonetheless survived better than his fiction or his ‘philosophical writing’ warrant. Two books above all have kept his posthumous reputation buoyant. Brave New World (1932) is, on the face of it, as clever but ephemeral as most of Huxley’s writing. Its targets have dated badly, or else been overtaken by events. This is particularly true of the ‘hatcheries’, the centres for artificial insemination that have replaced biological reproduction in ‘World State, AF 632’. The idea was based on a paper given in Cambridge in 1923 by J.B.S. Haldane, the mathematical geneticist. It was called ‘Daedalus, or Science and the Future’ and was astonishingly clairvoyant. In what must have seemed a wild flight, Haldane prophesied the production of the first ‘ectogenetic’ (i.e. extra-uterine) child, in 1951. ‘France,’ he goes on to fantasise,

was the first country to adopt ectogenesis officially, and by 1968 was producing 60,000 children annually by this method. In most countries the opposition was far stronger, and was intensified by the Papal Bull ‘Nunquam prius audito’, and by the similar fatwa of the Khalif, both of which appeared in 1960. As we know, ectogenesis is now universal, and in this country less than 30 per cent of children are now born of woman.

The effect of ectogenesis (as forecast by Haldane) is to separate sex from reproduction, and to tilt human psychology away from Darwinian competitiveness towards a universal hedonism (Haldane also anticipated soma, the happiness-inducing drug in Huxley’s novel). Ectogenesis, and the eugenicist organisation that follows from it, stabilises society for ever: no more war; no more social struggle; no more progress. This, essentially, is the donnée of Brave New World. What made that book a bestseller, initially, was its frankness about sex (I can remember it being passed, from hand to grubby hand, in my schooldays in the early 1950s). Once schoolchildren were allowed to know about human reproduction, Huxley’s dystopia was installed alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four in schools all over the English-speaking world. The results have been gratifying for the posthumous estates of both writers.

The other book of Huxley’s to achieve enduring fame is The Doors of Perception, which has won its author a place alongside Timothy Leary in the pantheon of Class-A substance evangelism. As Murray and other biographers stress, Huxley’s experiments with mescalin, under the influence of which he was vouchsafed a vision of the chairness of chairs, were timid. They resemble nothing so much as nervous Victorian dabblings with Mr Sludge the medium. A white-coated psychologist was in attendance. Huxley’s main contention is that ‘religion and alcohol do not and cannot mix.’ Mescalin is ‘much more compatible’. Thousands of eager ‘experimenters’ subsequently took their trip through the magic doors, expecting an epiphany. It’s a nice question as to whether Leary or Huxley has destroyed more young brain cells; Huxley has certainly sold more copies.

Murray discerns three events as having formed young Aldous’s personality: the premature death of his mother, Julia Huxley (née Arnold), when he was 14; his temporary blindness three years later; and – most damaging – the suicide of his older brother, Trevenen, who hanged himself when Aldous was 20. These traumas resurface, symptomatically, everywhere in his fiction. Julia’s cremation is depicted graphically in Eyeless in Gaza. She was the first Arnold to be so disposed of, in a victory of Huxleyite Darwinism over Arnoldian Unitarianism, of evolution over resurrection. The most vivid depiction of Trevenen’s death comes in the last paragraphs of Brave New World. After an orgy of sexual riot followed by self-flagellating disgust, John the Savage, who is too good for the new world, strings himself up in the Surrey countryside: ‘Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east.’

Why did Trevenen’s suicide have such a powerful effect on Aldous, as well as on his brother Julian? Over the next four years many British families would sustain bereavement more stoically. Murray deals with it briskly, but it invites a longer, more speculative examination. The (well-meaning) precipitant was, I suspect, someone mentioned only parenthetically here: Aldous’s aunt, Mrs Humphry Ward.

Aldous’s mother, Julia, was among the first generation of girls able to compete for the benefits of higher education. After attending Oxford High School she was a home student at Somerville. In 1882, she got a first-class degree in English, the first of Thomas Arnold’s female grandchildren so to distinguish herself.

At Oxford she met another offspring of a famous dynasty, T.H. Huxley’s son, Leonard. The young man had been a brilliant undergraduate. Should he marry, he would forfeit a career in law, politics or the university. To support a family he would have to take up schoolmastering, where his agnosticism would hold him back and his first-class mind would be wasted on schoolboys. That, at any rate, was Jowett’s advice. Leonard decided that Julia Arnold was worth the sacrifice of future fame. They married in 1885. He took up a teaching post at Charterhouse, where between 1887 and 1899 the couple had four children.

The children’s aunt was, as they grew up, a dominant presence in their lives. The formidable Mary Augusta Arnold, later Mrs Humphry Ward, or ‘Ma Hump’ as Bloomsberries called her, was 11 years older than Julia. The astonishing success of Robert Elsmere (1888) made her the second most famous woman in Victorian England. Her poignant saga of a young Anglican priest who defects from the Church to rediscover God in the slums of London sold by the hundred thousand in Britain. In America, unprotected by international copyright, Robert Elsmere sold by the million. It was eventually given away free with bars of soap – presumably on the principle that cleanliness was next to godliness.

Aldous, born in July 1894, was Mrs Ward’s godson. He was named after the hero of her novel Marcella, published in April that year. Euphonious though the (invented) name was, it was not, in the light of future events, entirely appropriate. In the novel, Aldous Raeburn – the future Lord Maxwell – is a true-blue Tory and a champion of the 1890s game laws. Handsome, well-bred and aristocratic, he falls in love with Marcella, a young Fabian. ‘I come fresh into your country life,’ she tells Aldous, ‘and the first thing that strikes me is that the whole machinery of law and order seems to exist for nothing in the world but to protect your pheasants.’ Imbued with Ruskinian nostalgia, Marcella revives the lost art of straw-plaiting among the villagers. As always in Ward’s novels, a decent compromise between two kinds of Englishness is achieved: he looks after his pheasants, she her peasants. Tory lion and radical lamb lie down together.

The Huxleys had no need of Mary’s handouts (unlike her many other impecunious relatives) and their pedigree was as distinguished intellectually as that of the Arnolds, if distinctly less pious. Mary could, however, help Leonard escape the dreary fate of a schoolteacher. After fifteen years of marriage, his career had stalled, as Jowett had prophesied. There were no high rungs for him at Charterhouse: the trustees would not countenance an agnostic headmaster. Mary Ward intervened. Her publisher, George Smith, enriched by Elsmere and its successors, was the proprietor of the Cornhill Magazine. Thanks to Mrs Ward’s influence, Leonard was taken on in 1901. He would eventually become editor.

Released from her matron’s duties at Charterhouse, Julia took out a bank loan and established her own experimental girls’ school, Prior’s Field, near Godalming. It opened in January 1902. ‘It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,’ she said. Here, too, was the influence of Mrs Humphry Ward, who had already established schools for ‘cripples’, and the ‘playcentre’ care system for children with working parents. Then, in 1908, when Aldous was 13, Julia contracted cancer. Her illness was kept secret, ‘for the sake of the school’. Even her two younger sons were, apparently, kept in the dark (Julian was at Oxford; Trev and Aldous at Eton). In October she was moved to a nursing home in London, then brought back to Surrey to die. On 26 November, Mary Ward informed her daughters that ‘the summons has come.’ The Huxley boys were called back. Julia left a poignant, vaguely Christian note for her children in a notebook: ‘It is very hard to leave you all – but after these weeks of quiet thought, I know that all life is but one – and that I am going into another room “of the sounding labour-house vast of Being”’ (the quotation is from Matthew Arnold’s ‘Rugby Chapel’). For his part, Leonard was convinced she was going nowhere.

Huxley describes the horror of the post-cremation funeral service in Eyeless in Gaza. John Beavis (i.e. Leonard Huxley) is scornfully nihilistic: ‘There was no immortality, of course. After Darwin, after the Fox sisters, after John Beavis’s own father, the surgeon, how could there be?’ Beavis’s son Anthony – Aldous, as we apprehend – is overwhelmed by the enveloping gloom: ‘He walked as though at the bottom of a moving well. Its black walls rustled all around him. He began to cry.’ Two years after his mother’s death, inflammation of the cornea (keratitis punctata, perhaps picked up from an infected school bathhouse towel) brought on a year’s blindness and a lifetime’s weakened sight. If, as psychoanalysts claim, looking like our dead parents is a way of bringing them back to life, Aldous succeeded. With his thin, angular face and heavy horn-rims he was, throughout life, the spitting image of his mother. It would be neat, if perhaps over-ingenious, to see his blindness as at least partly psychosomatic.

After Julia’s death, Mrs Ward took an even greater role in the lives of her sister’s children. In 1912, Leonard, aged 52, remarried; Rosalind Bruce was thirty years younger than him – younger, even, than Julian and Trev. Among the suggestions in Murray’s biography is that Leonard had been, over the years, sexually incontinent: ‘it appears that his behaviour towards the young girl pupils at Prior’s Field was not always what it should have been’ (the footnote gives as source ‘Sybille Bedford in conversation with the author’). There are corroboratingly dark allusions to Len’s ‘indiscretions’ in Mrs Ward’s letters and her daughter’s diaries. In Point Counter Point Leonard Huxley is portrayed as Philip Quarles’s father, who in Chapter 20 is shown leaving the country for his literary work in London. He has an assignation with his ‘typist girl’ in town. ‘Brought up in an epoch when ladies apparently rolled along on wheels, Mr Quarles was peculiarly susceptible to calves.’ Gladys has a luscious pair. The chapter ends with the old goat paddling in Gladys’s placket: ‘“Naughty!” she said, and made a pretence of pushing his hands away. “Naughty!”’ How much of Huxley’s pervasive sexual disgust was attributable to his father’s ‘naughtiness’?

In the same year (1912), Mrs Ward’s life went haywire. Her wastrel son, Arnold, ran up gambling debts vast enough to deplete even her exchequer. She was forced to churn out romances for the mass market, and her fiction deteriorated into pap. Aldous, now a brilliant scholar progressing from Eton to Balliol, contemplated his aunt with fascination as she prostituted her art and ideals for the good name of the family. Years later, in 1917, he met Virginia Woolf at Heal’s. She wrote in her diary:

we walked up and down a gallery discussing his aunt, Mrs Humphry Ward. The mystery of her character deepens: her charm and wit and character all marked as a woman, full of knowledge and humour – and then her novels. These are partly explained by Arnold, who brought them near bankruptcy four years ago and she rescued the whole lot by driving her pen day and night.

Trev killed himself in 1914. The background to this is tangled and obscure. Trev (‘Huxley No. 2’, as he called himself) was a rock-climber, blond, outgoing, well-liked. He, too, was brilliant. But for all his gifts, he was haunted by a sense of dynastic inadequacy. At Eton he ‘worked beyond his strength’, bringing on that strange Edwardian condition, ‘brain fag’. He developed a stammer. He was, of all the Huxley boys, the one most strongly influenced by the high ideals of Mrs Humphry Ward, particularly in matters of sexual conduct.

Trev went up to Balliol in 1907, following in Julian’s footsteps (Julian would be a lecturer at the college by 1910; Aldous would enter as a scholar in 1913). In 1909 he got a First in Maths. Then, as his career track demanded, he switched to Greats, where, to the amazement of his family, he managed only a Second. For a Huxley-Arnold not to excel was to fail utterly. Trev hung on at Oxford as a postgraduate, helping Aldous, who was still held back by his bad eyes. In 1913, Trev sat the Civil Service exam and did poorly. He was, in the language of the examiners, ‘short rated’. In other words, ‘Huxley No. 2’ was a certified second-rater.

In 1914, afflicted by fits of melancholia, a condition to which the Huxleys were congenitally prone, the young man was removed to the Hermitage, a private nursing home in Surrey. ‘Nerves’ were diagnosed. But the main cause of his distress was not divulged until Julian’s autobiography, Memories, was published in the 1970s. Trev had fallen in love with one of the maids at the family’s country house (she has never been identified). She was attractive and intelligent, but indelibly common. In true Arnoldian fashion, the young man resolved to ‘raise’ her, taking her to plays, concerts and lectures. It was the kind of educational activity to which Mrs Ward had devoted her life; but she had never, of course, advocated marriage across the class divide. Sarah, the Huxley family’s senior maid, threatened to expose the relationship.

In one respect Murray’s account is less informative than David King Dunaway’s in Huxley in Hollywood (1989). Dunaway, unlike Murray, spoke to Rosalind Bruce Huxley, Leonard’s second wife. Even after seventy years, her recollection was brutal: ‘The girl was village educated in a mild way. It couldn’t have worked. His friends could never have been hers; nor hers, his. It couldn’t have lasted, don’t you see? . . . Their friends couldn’t talk to each other. She wouldn’t have been welcome. We sent her off into London somewhere.’

It was a finely calibrated thing. Julian could marry a Swiss governess, Juliette Baillot, but no Huxley could marry a housemaid. They could, of course, use them sexually; that was one of the conveniences of genteel life. Murray describes Aldous losing his virginity to an upper servant in 1913, when he was 19. He had found himself alone in his father’s London house in Westbourne Terrace, and ‘decided to go out for a stroll during which he picked up a girl who he assumed to be an au pair on her evening off. He took her back to the house and made love to her on the sofa.’ Huxley was, in Sybille Bedford’s words, ‘extremely susceptible to pretty women’, and this event marked the beginning of a very active sexual career. In Time Must Have a Stop (1944) such an initiation is painted more darkly. The 19-year-old hero, Sebastian, takes a prostitute back to his father’s empty house, for a ‘shudderingly’ awful experience: loss of virginity amid rubber corsets, ‘bored perfunctory kisses’ and ‘breath that stank of beer and caries and onions’. The ‘au pair’ may have been a whitish lie.

Trev wanted desperately to do the right thing by his housemaid, and it is not inconceivable that he was sent to the Hermitage – as she was sent ‘into London somewhere’ – to separate them. While he was at the Hermitage, he heard that the girl was pregnant, something he seems previously not to have known. On a Saturday morning in August 1914, Trev left the Hermitage for a walk on the Downs. He did not return. Since he had an appointment in London on Monday there was no great alarm. He had perhaps gone up to town early. When no news had been heard of him after a week, a search was mounted. His body was found in a nearby wood. As a mountaineer he knew all about ropes and their breaking strain. He had climbed a tree, tied a rope around a branch 14 feet up, put the noose around his neck and jumped. Both the rope and his neck snapped. His broken and soiled body was found on the ground.

Aldous seems never to have spoken publicly about the event. Only one guarded comment, made soon after the tragedy to his cousin Gervas Huxley, survives.

There is – apart from the sheer grief of the loss – an added pain in the cynicism of the situation. It is just the highest and best in Trev – his ideals – which have driven him to his death, while there are thousands who shelter their weakness from the same fate by a cynical, unidealistic outlook on life. Trev was not strong, but he had the courage to face life with ideals – and his ideals were too much for him.

Horrible as it was, the death of Trev isolated the oppositions which, as a writer, Aldous Huxley would work at for the rest of his career: between ‘cynicism’ and ‘idealism’, between Huxleyan scientism and Arnoldian humanism, between chastity and lechery. His favourite lines of poetry were those on ‘self-division’ by Fulke Greville, which he chose as the epigraph for Point Counter Point:

Oh, wearisome condition of humanity,
Born under one law, to another bound.

During the Great War, Aldous’s relationship with his godmother was stressful. He despised the fiction that she was currently writing, as did all the Bloomsbury crowd with which he associated. And he rejected the Victorian pieties of Elsmere with a Stracheyan contempt; his generation had outgrown them. He had mixed, and increasingly hostile, feelings about the pro-war, anti-Hun propaganda into which she enthusiastically threw herself. Huxley’s attitude had veered over the years. As he told Julian in March 1916, ‘At the beginning I should have liked very much to fight: but now, if I could (having seen all the results), I think I’d be a conscientious objector, or nearly so.’ He was, as always, divided.

Aldous’s first published piece of fiction was a long short story, ‘The Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ (collected as the first story in Limbo, 1920). It opens with the Greenow children being showered with presents by their rich Aunt Loo – a woman with an immense bosom and high ideals. These gifts will eventually, in mysterious ways, poison the hero. Richard is a fiction addict. At the age of eight he swallows down Robert Elsmere ‘in the three-volume edition’. It induces a violent religious spasm. On recovering, he discovers he is a hermaphrodite. By day, he devotes himself to ‘philosophy and mathematics, with perhaps an occasional excursion into politics’. After midnight, as involuntarily as Dr Jekyll, he becomes Pearl Bellairs, the romantic author of such fiction as Heartsease Fitzroy: The Story of a Young Girl. It is on Pearl’s nocturnal earnings that Richard is able to pursue by day his masculine, intellectual pursuits.

During the Great War, Richard is a conscientious objector; his alter ego, Pearl, a bloodthirsty war propagandist: ‘We are fighting for the honour and the defence of Small Nationalities,’ she declares, full of praise for ‘plucky little Belgium’. A psychoanalyst encourages Richard to free associate. The word ‘aunt’ produces interesting results: ‘The seconds passed, bringing nothing with them; and then at last there floated into Dick’s mind the image of himself as a child, dressed in green velvet and lace, a perfect Bubbles boy, kneeling on Auntie Loo’s lap and arranging a troop of lead soldiers on the horizontal projection of her corsage.’ The psychoanalyst concludes that the root of Richard’s problem is that he has, ‘consciously or unconsciously, a great Freudian passion for his aunt’. The hero dies raving and schizoid in a lunatic asylum, the two personalities fighting for possession of his mind.

Pearl Bellairs is a transparent spoof on Mrs Ward. The story is, equally transparently, an allegory of Aldous’s relationship with his aunt. When she died, in March 1920, a copy of Limbo was found by her bedside. It cannot have comforted her last days. Aldous – ever contrary – is reported to have been overcome with weeping at her burial.

Love her as he did, Huxley also resented his aunt. More specifically, he blamed her – obscurely – for the death of Trev. It was her toxic ‘idealism’ that had destroyed him. This theme is worked out at length in Eyeless in Gaza. It was a difficult novel to write (difficult, too, to read) and was preceded by a long period of nervous breakdown and excitement. The main strand of the narrative follows the short life of Brian Foxe, manifestly drawn from Trev, even down to the stammer. His mother, Mrs Foxe, is just as clearly drawn from Mrs Ward. She is addicted to Mrs Ward’s favourite epithet, ‘splendid’, and, like Mrs Ward, she is a Unitarian: ‘the wonderful thing for us,’ she tells the young hero, ‘is that Jesus was a man.’ Mrs Foxe adopts the narrator, Anthony Beavis, after his mother dies early in his life (the death, although it is backdated to 1902, is an exact recollection of Julia’s). She imbues her son, Brian, with a ‘maniacal’ reverence for chastity, ‘the most unnatural of the sexual perversions’, as Anthony smartly thinks. Brian Foxe commits suicide by hurling himself over a cliff (an appropriate choice for a rock climber; it also recalls the broken rope and the long drop that killed Trev). The immediate cause is sexual betrayal. For a bet with his worldly mistress, Anthony has seduced the ‘simple’ girl Brian loves, but, idealist that he is, has never contemplated having sex with. When he learns what Anthony has done Brian has no option but to kill himself: his ideals require it.

The version of Trev’s death presented in the novel raises a number of questions. Whose child was the housemaid carrying in the summer of 1914? Had she been seduced by Trev? Probably not, if he held to his ideals. By Aldous, sexually experienced by 1914? By Julian? By someone else? Even more perplexingly, the novel concludes with an indictment of Mrs Foxe: ‘She had been like a vampire, fastened on poor Brian’s spirit. Sucking his blood . . . If anyone was responsible for Brian’s death, it was she.’ If Mrs Foxe killed Brian, was it Mrs Ward who likewise killed Trev?

The novel ends on 26 July, Aldous’s birthday. Mrs Foxe turns to the hero, her adoptive son, Anthony:

Listen Anthony. You know how fond of you I’ve always been. Ever since that time just after your mother’s death – do you remember? – when you first came to stay with us. You were such a defenceless little boy. And that’s how I have always seen you, ever since . . . I’d like you to take Brian’s place. The place . . . that Brian ought to have had if I’d loved him in the right way.

Anthony is ‘pinned irrevocably to his lie’. He will never be free. Never underestimate, the novel asserts, the harm the love of a good woman can do.

The early traumas of Huxley’s life continued to cast their shadow on his later writing, even in the New World. Aldous and his first wife Maria sailed to America in April 1937 – taking cowardly flight, John Carey alleges. Initially, they were feeling the place out: part tourists, part toe-dipping emigrants, part refugees from a suddenly dangerous Europe. Film work and the outbreak of war led to what would be lifelong residence on the West Coast. In August 1938, Huxley was hired to write the script for MGM’s biopic Madame Curie (rather a comedown for an author whom the Paris Review had just saluted as ‘one of the most prodigiously learned writers not merely of this century but of all time’). In October, he abandoned the long novel he had been struggling with in favour of a short fantasy set in Los Angeles – something which might, with luck, be optioned by the studios for which he now laboured (the philistines would have done the same to Turgenev and Tolstoy, he comforted himself). This project would, over the course of the year, expand into After Many a Summer.

The idea for the novel may have been picked up at a party, perhaps the one thrown by Anita Loos in November 1938. As Dunaway records, Charlie Chaplin and his wife Paulette Goddard were there. (As the party was winding up, Chaplin announced the subject of his next picture, ‘a wretched little Jew mistaken for Hitler’: The Great Dictator, as it would be.) Chaplin, perhaps on this occasion, supplied Huxley with the donnée for his embryonic Californian novel. What Chaplin confided to his newly arrived compatriots (of whom he was soon a bosom friend) was a choice piece of Hollywood Babylon scandal – how the film producer Thomas Ince (‘the father of the Western’) had really died.

The ‘true story’ of Ince’s death has been revisited twice in the last few years. First in Patricia Hearst’s 1996 thriller, Murder at San Simeon; more recently in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow. In the style of a docudrama, the film depicts a weekend pleasure cruise aboard William Randolph Hearst’s 208-foot yacht, the Oneida, in November 1924. Hearst’s guests included Chaplin, Ince (whose birthday it was) and his mistress Margaret Livingston, the journalist (then a Hollywood unknown) Louella Parsons, the novelist Elinor Glyn, some goodtime girls and the usual hangers-on. Also there was the tycoon’s young mistress, Marion Davies.

Hearst, notoriously possessive, suspected Chaplin, notoriously promiscuous, of fishing in his private waters (with good reason, Bogdanovich suggests). The great man may have set up the party on the Oneida to test Marion’s fidelity to her sugar daddy. After a wild fancy-dress party on board, as Bogdanovich tells it, Ince idly put on Chaplin’s trademark bowler while talking to Marion. Hearst had by now jumped to the cocu imaginaire’s hasty conclusion. He rushed to his stateroom desk, took out a revolver and – coming from behind – shot the luckless (and innocent) Ince in the back of the head, fondly imagining that he was squaring accounts with his rival. Too late, he discovered his error. Right hat: wrong man.

The dying Ince was taken back to shore and transported to his Los Angeles home under maximum secrecy. Hearst’s personal physician and other suborned officials certified that the cause of death was a heart attack following severe indigestion. Ince was cremated within hours. Nella, his wife, was given a trust fund by Hearst – in return, supposedly, for waiving any autopsy. Livingston was paid off. Louella Parsons, who had witnessed the murder, was given a lifetime contract on Hearst newspapers. Chaplin, though soft on Communism and a known degenerate, was given a lifelong easy ride by Hearst’s notoriously conservative chain of papers. This is the version that has circulated, as gossip, for decades. ‘History in whispers’, the film calls it – but, nonetheless, historical.

After Many a Summer relocates the crime passionnel onto land. Huxley’s super-rich magnate, Jo Stoyte, is transparently based on Hearst, with his Xanadu monstrosity moved down from San Simeon to LA. Huxley adds to the characterisation of Stoyte/ Hearst a mixture of Hubert Eaton (founder of Forest Lawn, later satirised again as ‘The Dreamer’ in The Loved One) and San Marino’s Henry E. Huntington (railroad magnate, hospital founder and art collector). Stoyte, 60, has a young mistress – his ‘baby’ – Virginia Maunciple.

Fond as she is of Uncle Jo, Virginia falls willing prey to Stoyte’s personal physician Obispo, a cynical philanderer with film-star good looks. Stoyte, who has suspected hanky-panky, sees the couple in flagrante, rushes to his office and pulls from the desk drawer his trusty firearm. He returns to shoot the libidinous Obispo in the head. Alas, Obispo is no longer there. In the interval his place has been taken by Pete Boone, a young (and wholly innocent) adorer of Virginia. Stoyte, in his fit of blind jealousy, has killed the wrong man. Not to worry: he’s rich. For a handsome bribe Dr Obispo signs the death certificate (heart attack). Speedy cremation completes the cover-up. Huxley was repeating what his new film-world friends had told him – too explicitly, some of them thought. Anita Loos had to warn him not to use Marion Davies’s maiden name, Douras, for Virginia.

The Huxleys celebrated Aldous’s 45th birthday with a grand party at their new house in Pacific Palisades in July 1939. Aldous was also celebrating the completion of After Many a Summer. It had taken a brisk ten months. He described his new book and the guests at his party discussed the chances of it being filmed. It was, wise heads thought, too risky. Hearst was powerful, touchy and vengeful – look at what happened to Ince. A highbrow novel read by a few thousand was one thing. A movie watched by millions was something else.

The Hollywood years were lean ones for Huxley the novelist, but the three full-length works of fiction he produced between 1937 and his death in 1963 all pull at old scabs. In Time Must Have a Stop he explores, in Eustace Barnack’s after-death experiences, Julia’s ‘sounding labour-house vast of Being’. Being dead, it transpires, is quite as morally vexing a business as being alive. In Ape and Essence (1948), man’s painfully long evolutionary ascent is catastrophically reversed. In a post-nuclear, theocratic wasteland, the hero, Dr Poole, is faced with the ultimate Fulke Greville dilemma: should he sacrifice his brains (embracing libidinous apehood) or his balls (and enter the ruling but castrated ‘priesthood’)? He chooses – as Huxley did in 1937 – flight. Wise man; or perhaps merely a canny ape.

Huxley’s last novel, Island (1962), is, as Frank Kermode has said, ‘one of the worst novels ever written’. Few have bothered to disagree. Inferior as the book is, the informed reader catches a glimpse of Trev for the last time, in articulo mortis. The narrative opens with the hero, Will Farnaby, having fallen from a tree, ‘lying like a corpse in the dead leaves, his hair matted, his face grotesquely smudged and bruised, his clothes in rags and muddy’. He has thrown himself down from a cliff-face onto the tree (which broke his fall) on being surprised by a snake. Will, however, is not in Surrey but in a South Seas Eden. He survives to endure the barrage of Buddhistic-rationalist preaching that all Huxley’s later heroes have to put up with. Weaker men would throw themselves off the cliff again.

Island contains an appropriately funerary snapshot of Aldous’s Aunt Mary, recalled on her deathbed. It is not a pleasant or warm-hearted recollection. It seems she may have been peevish and angry in her last days. But Huxley’s description is curiously intertwined with another portrait from the Arnold family album:

He sat down and closed his eyes – closed them physically against the present, but, by that very act, opened them inwardly upon that hateful past of which the present had reminded him. He was there in that other room, with Aunt Mary. Or rather with the person who had once been Aunt Mary, but was now this hardly recognisable somebody else – somebody who had never heard of the charity and courage which had been the very essence of Aunt Mary’s being; somebody who was filled with an indiscriminate hatred for all who came near her, loathing them, whoever they might be, simply because they didn’t have cancer, because they weren’t in pain, had not been sentenced to die before their time. And along with this envy of other people’s health and happiness had been a bitterly querulous self-pity, an abject despair.

‘Why to me? Why should this thing be happening to me?’

He could hear the shrill complaining voice, could see that tear-stained and distorted face. The only person he had ever really loved or wholeheartedly admired. And yet, in her degradation, he had caught himself despising her – despising, positively hating.

Huxley runs two deaths together here: that of his Aunt Mary, whom he ‘admired’, and that of his mother, whom he ‘loved’. Julia it was who had cried out, on being told that she had terminal cancer, aged 45: ‘Why do I have to die, and so young!’ But, by all accounts, she eventually died in meek acceptance of her fate. Her last instruction to Aldous had been ‘love much.’ He gave his answer in a squib, in Ape and Essence:

The leech’s kiss, the squid’s embrace
The prurient ape’s defiling touch.
And do you like the human race?
No, not much.