Aldous Huxley: Those Barren Leaves
Huxley keeps up the satire of his contemporaries in this novel. This one is set in Italy, where Huxley and his wife lived for some time, but Italians barely feature except as walk-on peasants to make fun of. Much of the novel is set in the palace of Mrs. Aldwinkle (based on Lady Ottoline Morrell) in Vezza, clearly based on Carrara. Mrs. Aldwinkle is clearly wealthy, though the source of her wealth is never revealed. There is no mention of a Mr. Aldwinkle, living or dead. Indeed, she seems to be quite careless with her relatives, as she is looking after her niece, both of whose parents also fail to get a mention. Mrs. Aldwinkle is of a certain age but not averse to falling in love if the fancy takes her. She also likes collecting intellectuals and this is what she has done at her palace. The visitors are generally recognisable types. We first meet the Lady Novelist, Mary Thriplow, whom Huxley skewers. He is nothing if not sexist. She is a proto-feminist but, of course, in love with love. She is alone of the guests in the palace, at the beginning of the novel, but is soon joined by Mr. Calamy, an intellectual who has dropped out to travel a bit and who ends up here and has a relationship with Mary Thriplow. Mr. Cardan is a recognisable type, the crusty old intellectual who is also broke. Finally we have the young Lord Hovenden and Mr. Falx, a working man and socialist (more grist for Huxley’s mockery) who is training Lord Hovenden. Sadly, for Mr. Falx, Lord Hovenden prefers Irene, the afore-mentioned niece of Mrs. Aldwinkle, to socialism.
Of course, there is also Huxley himself, in the form of Francis Chelifer, second-rate poet, editor of the Rabbit Fancier (alternative employment would have meant living with his widowed mother, a prospect he dreaded). Huxley slips in and out of the first person with Chelifer. We are first introduced to him in the form of a narrative about his past history, his failed love affair and his generally Huxleyian cynicism. He goes to Italy on holiday, nearly drowns and is taken up by Mrs. Aldwinkle, who had been trying to collect him for some time and is glad to have him in her clutches, even if he does try and avoid her and even brings his mother along. There is one key plot element, namely Mr. Cardan’s attempt to get some money. He hears from the butcher’s boy that the grocer has an old statue, which he dreams might be a Giotto or Michelangelo and which he can sell for a large sum (it isn’t; he doesn’t). While trying to track it down he meets an English brother and sister. The brother considers himself far superior to his naïve sister but it is she that has the money, which is entailed and cannot be touched. The brother has brought her to Italy, hoping that she would get malaria. Cardan, even more cynical, more or less abducts her (though she is quite willing) but sadly for him his plot backfires. At the end, poor Mrs. Aldwinkle does not have an affair with Chelifer, as she hoped and everyone disperses to his or her own corner of the world, with Mrs. Aldwinkle, Cardan, in tow, heading for Monte Carlo.
First published 1925 by Chatto & Windus