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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in