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Aldous Huxley: Antic Hay

Huxley’s second novel continues the satirical trend that he had started in his first novel, though this time there is a more serious intent, namely the complete disillusionment of the post-war intellectual generation in England. The main characters try, in various ways, to amuse themselves but generally fail. The hero is Theodore Gumbril, whom we find, at the beginning of the novel, a teacher at the beginning of term at a minor public school. He realises, watching the other teachers and pupils at the opening chapel ceremony that he cannot possibly stick out a full term and walks out. He has a small income and can live with his father, an old-fashioned architect who despises the new architecture and who prefigures Prince Charles, seventy-five years later.

Much of the book is spent with Gumbril and his friends trying vainly to find amusement and meaning in their lives. Gumbril himself invents pneumatic trousers, which are trousers with inflatable rubber in the back for comfort. His dealings with a capitalist promoter are virtually the only contact the characters have with the real world of business. But the book is mainly concerned with Gumbril and his intellectual friends. Firstly, there is Lypiatt who is a painter, a poet and a musician and a failure at all three. He takes himself and his art very seriously and is chagrined that no-one else does. Shearwater is a medical man, obsessed with the kidneys whose functioning he is trying to find out more about. Coleman is the larger than life dilettante, always trying to shock everyone but, somehow, his attempts at shocking people seem outdated. Finally, at least as far as the men go, there is the critic Mercaptan, more concerned with the bon mot and ad hominem attacks than real criticism. In short, all are types found readily at the beginning of the twenty-first century as well as the twentieth century.

Gumbril, Shearwater and Lypiatt are in love with the one strong woman in this novel, Myra Viveash, while the other two are strongly attracted to her. Her husband is big-game hunting in Africa and she is a socialite who likes to see and be seen but also to string her admirers along, which she does to great effect. Of the other women, Zoe is Coleman’s long-suffering companion. Gumbril, who is very shy, assumes a disguise – false beard and flamboyant clothes – to make himself the Complete Man. This gives him confidence to pick up women and also seems to make him more attractive to them. He first finds Rosie, who is bored, and has a brief fling with her. The fact that she turns out to be Shearwater’s wife is no deterrent. She herself moves from Gumbril to Lypiatt to Coleman, not least because her husband is neglecting her, first for his work and then for Myra Viveash or, rather, his unsuccessful pursuit of Myra Viveash. Gumbril’s other fling is Emily who married an older man and, when he tried to violently force himself on her, left him. She is in love with love and Gumbril, who is not, disappoints her.

Huxley paints a clear picture of a disillusioned generation, even if it is only a limited group and a limited class. He skewers artists, journalists and critics in general, invariably without mercy. Gumbril may be the hero but he often comes across as naïve and innocent and without any intellectual or, indeed, moral compass. The title comes from Marlowe’s Edward II:

My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay;

though the earlier lines:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.

may be as relevant.

Publishing history

First published 1923 by Chatto & Windus