Flo McQuibban evaluates Aldous Huxley’s lesser known first published novel Crome Yellow, a satire on the popular literary sets of the time.
Most people acquainted with Aldous Huxley would have encountered his work at some point during their school life, although rarely does one hear of the corpus extending itself beyond Brave New World. As an enthusiast of dystopian literature and cinema (with a particular appreciation for Huxley), I found it embarrassing and boring to never have read beyond his most reputed work. This article is a review of Crome Yellow, the novel that established Huxley’s literary reputation, according to Point Counter Point‘s introduction.
Published when Huxley was only twenty-seven years old, Crome Yellow is a story distinct from Brave New World, albeit being laced with allusions that subversively seep through the cracks and provide the reader with a glimpse into a dystopia that has yet to flower. Huxley noted that his first novel truly established his [Huxley’s] reputation, and it is easy to see why: its funny, intellectual, relatable and, perhaps most importantly, distinctly unpretentious style. Crome Yellow revolves around a slightly grave twenty-three year old Denis Stone, a writer desperate to experience literary recognition and requited love. Based on Huxley’s own experiences at the Garsington Manor in Oxford, Denis and other hopeful artists spend their time at Crome Yellow, a manor functioning as a salon littéraire for a cluster of desperately predictable caricatures.
Each character eases from sombre complexity to hilarity with ease. Whilst Denis is serious and understated, Priscilla Wimbush is a flamboyant hostess with bouncy red hair, big pearly necklaces, and a budding interest in spiritualism and astrology. Her husband, Henry Wimbush, is the owner and proud historian of the house. Mary (which should be her name of course) is young, pure, inexperienced, and on a ridiculously fast-paced quest to get in touch with her sexuality with the help of Ivor Lombard, the sensual philanderer. Anne Wimbush on the other hand is shrill, beautiful and almost charmingly condescending, and Mr. Scogan is the pessimistic philosopher who drafts the outline of a dystopian reality, allowing for the fissure in the novel through which Brave New World plants its seed. Among the other characters are Gombauld, a slightly sexist artist who seeks to find a higher art than abstraction, and Jenny, an elderly lady with a hearing impairment and an intriguing secret diary.
The simplicity of the plot line, which revolves around Denis’ efforts to gain admiration from both the literary community and Anne, is perfectly paired with the intricacy of the characters, the romanticised setting of the sexual landscape, and the mystery of the house. Such a dichotomy, between the apparently simple plot and its rich, textured landscape and characters allows for truly beautiful language, as well as Denis’ desire to find exactly the right word to describe everything. This desire is described simply eloquently on the second and third pages: ‘Some day he would compile a dictionary for the use of novelists. Galbe, gonflé, goulu: parfum, peau, pervers, potelé, pudeur, virtue, volupté.’
The passage in which Denis remembers his love for the word ‘carminative’ (p.113-116), which should have meant that warm and golden sensation of liquid cinnamon trickling down your throat, recounts the discovery of the actual meaning of the word, adding to the poignant and comical account of a young boy’s linguistic inadequacy. I would recommend resisting the urge to look up its true meaning until after the beautiful passage. This contemplative analysis of words and their etymology deepens the intellectual nature of the novel, all whilst remaining tactfully unpretentious by sticking with the concept of ‘less is more’.
When it comes to the pace and difficulty of the book, I found it to vary from moderate to easy. Some passages, particularly to do with satire, were very legible. The amalgamation of the lighthearted atmosphere and the erudite vocabulary made it a pleasant read, but also an educational one. I found I read some sections at a slower pace due to the lengthy sentences and lack of proper formatting (probably done purposefully). This resulted in some passages seeming endless, and whilst they might not have been in essence dull, took on the aspect of being so. These sections deal specifically with the history of the Crome Yellow mansion as told by Henry Wimbush. At times it was noteworthy, and at others, it seemed too big and tedious of a side plot. Whilst reading, what I yearned for was not the history of Crome, but the answers as to whether Mary would liberate herself sexually, if Nick would have the courage to profess his love for Anne, or would Anne succumb to Gombauld’s relentless accosting. Above all else did I want to know what Jenny was spending all her time writing about in her irksome diary. In some instances, I thought the passages on the house’s history were captivating, but found perhaps that together they could have stood as a novel alone, or that they should have been reduced in quantity to alternate better with the main plot.
Ultimately, despite being slightly disappointed by the side plot, and having a few comments about the ending that I would love to discuss with anyone having read the book, I consider this novel to be a great work of art, and a great comedy. As someone who has read Brave New World, it was perhaps easier to appreciate the absurdity in some of the philosophical tangents, but I find that anyone with an interest in dystopian societies will appreciate the subtle nods at creating a more ‘orderly’ future. As a final note, I do not personally consider the book to be set in a dystopian world, although that is always debatable, but rather dealing only with the possibility of a hypothetical dystopia. As such, when I picked the book up, I expected to read something strange and hypnotic, but instead was left with something beautiful and witty. Based on an analysis of its style, content, characters, impact & presence of academic references, I give Crome Yellow a 4.5/5, – with the 0.5 being attributed to its ‘tactful use of satire’. For a true Huxleyan dystopia, I would recommend Ape & Essence.
[Author provided glossary, reflections, and rating scale if required]