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'Entre-Deux-Guerres' - Aldous Huxley's 'Crome Yellow' - Pt I

Entre-Deux-Guerres - Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow - Pt I

Garsington Manor


"I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not."

-Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 3.


"Before the 'great war' of 1914-18 was over it altered the face of our civilisation. It left the European nations impoverished, shell-shocked, discouraged and unsettled … In seeking to understand the reasons for this great decay, we have of course to marshal in our minds all that nexus of disastrous events of which the Great War was the first, and of which Great War No. 2, now in preparation, will be the next."

- Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937).


Aldous Huxley's first novel, published in 1921, is a desiderium of a peculiarly English class of aristocrats and intellectuals who lived in an era that withered away a century ago. It limns a frothy pastel portrait solidly in the tradition of the English country house novels of Thomas Love Peacock, in which a diverse group of characters descend upon an country estate to leech off their host. There is little plot development, as they spend most of their time eating, drinking, and holding forth on their personal intellectual conceits, but a plethora of effervescent classical allusions undercuts any sense of pastoral innocence. Like his contemporaries Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Ronald Firbank, and P. G. Wodehouse, Huxley drew on his immediate social circle to sketch out faded, yet fascinating profiles of the various 'free thinkers' who regularly assembled at Garsington Manor, home of the notorious society hostess, Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Morrell.

Situated high on a hill near Oxford, with a sweeping view south-west across the Thames valley to the Chilterns, the three-storey manor house was originally built by William Wickham in the 1630s on the site of a medieval property formerly owned by Geoffrey Chaucer’s son and monastic buildings once under the auspices of Abingdon Abbey. Ottoline and her husband Philip, a Liberal MP from a wealthy family of solicitors, purchased the estate for £8,450 in 1913. Working with the architect Philip Tilden, they completely restored the house in the 1920s, adding a formal Italianate garden inspired by the Villa Capponi, near Florence. The parterre contains twenty-four square flower beds with Irish yew trees at each corner, a large ornamental pool enclosed by yew hedges and set about with statues, beyond which lies a wild garden with lime-tree avenues, various shrubs, a stream and fish pond. With its mullioned and arched windows, the historic house was considered to be much more ancient, probably because many Oxford builders continued to use 16th century windows in gentry-houses of the early 17th century.

The Morrells enjoyed an open relationship and both took a series of lovers, despite which their marriage remained remarkably firm. Dismayed by the patriotic hysteria and rampant xenophobia of the time, Philip protested against the outbreak of war in the House of Commons and the Morrells decided to made their home a refuge for conscientious objectors. It soon became a well-known retreat for many writers and artists both during and after WWI, some of whom were known collectively as the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia and Leo Woolf, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, E.M Forster, John Middleton Murry, and Katherine Mansfield. Ottoline's patronage and promotion was also of great assistance to a host of other prominent painters, authours, and scholars, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Bertrand Russell, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Lytton Strachey, the Sitwell siblings, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Dylan Thomas, and the portrait painter Mark Gertler.

When Sassoon's poem To Victory was published in The Times in January 1916, Ottoline was so impressed she wrote him a gushing letter of admiration. In August, Robbie Ross, a mutual friend and Oscar Wilde's executor, introduced him to Ottoline, who welcomed his arrival as that of “an angel,” longed for ever since their first correspondence. Sassoon, whose Garsington nickname was ‘Cyprian Oyde’ (cyprianoid, or carp-like) because he was always complaining about something, wanted to make a public stand against the war and soon found himself among like-minded pacifists such as Russell, who encouraged him to write his Soldier's Declaration. Sassoon and Ivor Novello, who enjoyed a brief relationship in the 1920s, first met each other at Garsington, where all manner of salacious scuttlebut and ribald gossip soon began to proliferate. There were rumours that Ottoline had dispatched her live-in lover, Russell, to a house called Conscience Cottage; that a diseased peacock (actually, a less than fresh turkey) was served to her guests at a dinner party; and that Ottoline had once dared Grant to dive beneath the murky waters of the fish pond to find out whether she was naked, when in fact she was dressed in a perfectly respectable bathing costume..Not only did Ottoline conduct an ongoing affair with Russell for years, but Philip begrudgingly accepted the situation (as did Russell’s wife), and apparently fathered two children out of wedlock over the course of one particularly fecund summer. Eliot's neurasthenic wife Vivien also had a brief fling with Russell, whose extreme halitosis never seemed to repulse his many female admirers. The malicious tittle-tattle multiplied exponentially, enveloping the old manor house and its hospitable owners within a web of scandal and mockery. Those who gathered there were hardly strangers to drama and intrigue and would hardly have been surprised when Garsington was variously described as a “cesspool of slime,” “the setting for a Mozart opera,” “Shandygaff Hall,” and “a Boccaccio palace.”

The Christmas celebrations of 1914 got particularly out of hand when Mansfield and her husband Murry, the Russian-born émigré writer and translator S.S. 'Kot' Koteliansky, Gertler, Frieda and D.H Lawrence were all staying at Gilbert Cannan’s windmill cottage in nearby Buckinghamshire, and someone suggested staging an improvised play. The gathering became so inebriate that the assembled guests were unable to carve the Christmas pig and the play descended towards a bacchanalia. Mansfield flirted so outrageously with Gertler that Lawrence used it for the episode in which Gudrun elopes with the artist Loerke in Women in Love. It may also have given rise to Virginia Woolf's 1941 novel Between the Acts, while Gertler's relationship with the bisexual Dora Carrington was the inspiration behind Cannan's novel Mendel. Koteliansky was close friends with Gertler, Lawrence, and the Woolfs, all of whom he corresponded with extensively. He also adored Mansfield and, although his romantic affection for her was not reciprocated, the two maintained a close relationship until her untimely death in 1923. Complicating the situation was the fact that he was also business manager of The Adelphi, a prominent literary journal founded by Murry that published pieces by Mansfield, Thomas, Lawrence, and many other luminaries of early twentieth-century English letters.

The back-biting was constant and intense, with Mansfield proving to be an especially polarising figure. Although Ottoline was close to both her and her husband, a row ensued in 1917 when Murry told his wife that Ottoline was in love with him, and again in 1918 when he published a hostile review of Sassoon, leading Ottoline to write that “A mighty quarrel is raging between John Middleton Murry and myself.” it is not clear why Eliot felt such sustained hostility to Mansfield, who took a vitriolic dislike to Vivien, as she explained in a 1920 letter to Violet Schiff - “The Elliots [sic] have dined with us tonight. The are just gone and the whole room is quivering. John has gone downstairs to see them off. Mrs. E's voice rises “O don't commiserate Tom; he's happy.” I know it's extravagant … but I dislike her so immensely. She really repels me... And Elliott [sic], leaning towards her, admiring, listening, making the most of her - really minding whether she disliked the country or not … I am so fond of Elliot [sic] … But this teashop creature … ” Writing to Pound two months later, Eliot noted that Murry was “much more difficult to deal with when Katherine Mansfield is about, and I have an impression that she terrorises him. He told Ottoline that [she] was the only living writer of English prose ... I believe her to be a dangerous WOMAN; and of course two sentimentalists together are more than two times as noxious as one.”


Katherine Mansfield, 1916


Two years later, in another letter to Pound, Eliot outlined his editorial policy for The Crietrion - “I am not running the paper for Binyon any more than for K. Mansfield. Of course I don't mind printing a story by [her], though I prefer Binyon and have no use for either ... I myself should much prefer to have something from Murry; he is at least in every way preferable to his wife. The latter is not by any means the most intelligent woman Lady Rothermere has ever met. She is simply one of the most persistent and thickskinned toadies and one of the vulgarest women Lady R. has ever met and is also a sentimental crank.” Although an obituary notice appeared in the April 1923 edition, in June of that year Eliot wrote to Richard Aldington that “I think her inflated reputation ought to be dealt with.” In 1924, dissension arouse among the sponsors of Murry's Adelphi magazine who believed it had degenerated into a vehicle for his views and Mansfield's literary remains, which lead to Koteliansky's resignation as business manager. The Criterion made no mention of Mansfield's final collection The Dove's Nest and Other Stories, but much later in 1929 her letters and journals were sympathetically reviewed by Orlo Williams and Eliot generously wrote a foreword to Murry's Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies in 1959.

Although Eliot was never less than courteous towards Ottoline, some of her guests took great delight in mocking their hostess. Lawrence depicted her in Women in Love as the character Hermione, who treated her guests “like prisoners marshalled for exercise,” while Sassoon ridiculed her imposing height, beaked nose, and titian hair, describing her as an English eccentric wobbling her way down a ladder to greet him in a pair of billowing pink silk bloomers. Gertler wasn't afraid to let Ottoline know the brutal truth about the chattering writers and artists who filled her home and her friendships with Lawrence and Sassoon were ruined as a result. "I am known as a dangerous and designing woman, immoral and unclean," she wrote in January 1918. "Nobody likes me ... " What were Garsington's younger inhabitants (some of whom lingered for months, and even years, at the Morrell's expense) to make of an extravagant older woman who talked in drawling “bassoon“ tones about the Soul, while indulging in romantic affairs not only with Russell, but also Augustus John, Henry Lamb, and even a hunky young stonemason who worked in her garden? How could Lawrence forgive a society hostess who thought his German wife should be put in a sack and drowned? And how could Sassoon resist sniggering when Ottoline presented him with a handwritten manifesto, solemnly urging him to "live the noble life: to live freely, recklessly, with clear reason released from convention"?


Assembled Guests at Garsington


In her authoritative study Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale, Miranda Seymour has documented how WWI provided Ottoline with a moral cause against which to campaign and Garsington gave her both the ways and means to do so. Despite their many detractors, the Morrells provided a safe haven for their many pacifist friends, providing farm jobs and living quarters for conscientious objectors and showering hospitality on the village community. In January 1916, following the Military Service Act which required all males between nineteen and forty-one to defend their country, Philip applied his legal training to represent Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and David Garnett successfully at their induction tribunals. Since farm work was considered to be in the national interest, the Morrells not only provided employment for pacifists, but combined it with free hospitality and congenial company. They transformed Garsington into an intellectual oasis, planting the gardens with colourful flowers and excavating an oblong fish pond enclosed with high hedges of clipped yew. The entrance hall was daubed in grey flecked with salmon pink, suggesting a winter's sunset, while the sitting-room's fuschia furnishings emulated those of Bolsover, another ruined castle owned by Ottoline's half-brother, the Duke of Portland. Toilets, however, were in short supply. Lord David Cecil observed that, if forced to choose between a bathroom or a piece of sculpture, Ottoline would always opt for the statuary.

Much was expected from a hostess whose wealth was inaccurately assumed to be astronomical. It was Lawrence who re-imagined Garsington as "the Boccaccio palace where they told all the Decamerone," with Ottoline as its gracious benefactor. He requested a converted cottage with a handsome workroom and adjoining bathroom, to be furnished and heated to the standard that his boisterous baroness wife required. Informed that the Morrells could not afford to gratify this request, Lawrence was forced to settle for being a mere guest of the manor. Despite the cruelty of his portrait of Ottoline as Lady Hermione, he was charmed by Garsington's natural beauty. "My God it breaks my soul," he wrote to Cynthia Asquith, "This England, these shafted windows, the elm trees, the blue distance ... " Clive Bell, one of Bloomsbury's most promiscuous spouses, settled discontentedly into the cottage that Lawrence had rejected. Bitterly resenting his demotion to the status of a farm worker, he was less appreciative. Ottoline's interior decor reminded him of a parrot house, while he considered her love affairs outrageously pathetic.

Lytton Strachey, one of the chief purveyors of gossip about Garsington, had a more complex attitude. "I imagine wonders," he told Ottoline in June 1915, "ponds, statues, yew hedges, gold paint … you needn't be afraid of my critical eye." While he trilled to her from his comfortable first-floor bedroom, reserved solely for his personal use, that "only the tongues of angels" could convey his gratitude and joy, he grumbled to others about the detestable guests, abysmal food, ridiculous parlour games, and imbecilic hosts - "They're so stupid, so painfully stupid ... " Why then, inquired a puzzled Virginia Woolf, did he visit Garsington so frequently and stay for so long? As with so many of Ottoline's guests from Bloomsbury, the real answer was that Strachey found himself embarrassed by his indebtedness to a woman for whom he felt a genuine affection. It was much easier to indulge the scornful laughter of her other guests. Sassoon was more conflicted. Invalided home from the front in August 1916, he too was quick to recognise Garsington's charm - "Here I sat, in this perfect bedroom with its old mullioned windows looking across the green forecourt ... Garsington was just about the pleasantest house I had ever stayed in - so pleasant that it wouldn't be safe to think about it when I was back at the front." He hoped to secure Russell's support for his own courageous stand against the war the following year and appealed to Ottoline for her assistance. "It is tremendously fine of you," she encouraged him, before warning that "People are sure to say all sorts of foolish things. They always do - nothing of that sort can really tarnish or dim the value and splendour of such a true act."

Born in 1872, Ottoline's personal act of sacrificial splendour was her heroic creation of Garsington as a safe haven from the war. When it was finally over, her primary raison d'être ceased to exist. Sassoon was walking through the water meadows in November 1918, when the church bells clamoured out the news of peace. Ottoline confessed her confused response to Russell - "I feel as if it came and found us all like ghosts looking out from a hill on those devastated fields …" The armistice brought an end to Garsington as a refuge for conscientious objectors. Inadequately supervised by Philip, the farm, which had always struggled to support the manor house, fell into debt. To live life on the grand scale without sufficient income proved, as Ottoline conceded and Huxley had predicted, "damnably difficult." The farm work had helped with the upkeep of the estate, but it became too expensive to maintain and the Morells were forced to sell the property in 1928. Ottoline seldom mentioned Garsington again, but described the house in her memoirs as "a theatre, where week after week a travelling company would arrive and play their parts ... How much they felt and saw of the beauty of the setting I never knew." Long after her death in 1938, her friends acknowledged the beneficent influence of a residence that possessed the intoxicating atmosphere of an opera set. "Soon the party drifted out to the lawn," wrote Juliette Huxley of one particular summer night that would live forever in her memory -

“There was a full moon, stars in a great still sky and the dark ilex tree brooding like an ancient god. The music floated, powerful and alluring, through the open windows, its rhythm pulsating: one after the other, the guests obeyed the compulsion ... shawls became wings, smoking jackets and ties abandoned to a strange frenzy of leaps and dances by the light of the moon. The goddess of that moon was Ottoline.”


Lady Ottoline Morrell


In 1937, the prophetic artist and writer Wyndham Lewis wrote -

“We are not only 'the last men of an epoch' (as Mr. Edmund Wilson and others have said): we are more than that, or we are that in a different way to what is most often asserted. We are the first men of a Future that has not materialized. We belong to a 'great age' that has not 'come off.' We moved too quickly for the world. We set too sharp a pace. And, more and more exhausted by War, Slump, and Revolution, the world has fallen back. Its ambition has withered … We are all taking in each other's washing. Soon as a society we shall none of us have any money to pay the laundry bill, that is the fact of the matter.”

It is significant that many of Huxley's subjects in Crome Yellow earned their living either as biographers (Strachey) or portrait painters (the Bells, Grant, Gertler, and Lewis). There is always a knot of pathos inherent in their art, since their subjects will never again appear as youthful and glamorous as at the precise moment of painting. This desire to capture the eternal present is always accompanied by the knowledge that it is already slipping into the past. Ottoline was the incandescent queen of a cultural universe that was rapidly disintegrating, her courtiers splintering into back-biting factions that spun off on their own independent orbits. In Part II, I will investigate in more detail how Huxley's novel provides a freeze-frame image of the outlandish personalities he met at Garsington, before they charted their separate trajectories, flaming out like flamboyant and incendiary asteroids across the skies of the distant past.

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