The life and times of Godalming-born writer Aldous Huxley
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The prolific writer best known for his 1932 novel, Brave New World, was born in Godalming 125 years ago. Ray Cavanaugh looks back at the life and times of Aldous Huxley
His works could be wildly imaginative, and some people also might view them as prophetic. Aldous Huxley - the prolific writer best known for his 1932 novel, Brave New World, about a future society where technology runs amok - was born in Godalming 125 years ago on July 26.
The third of four children, Huxley entered an intellectually prominent family. His grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was an eminent biologist known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his outspoken support of evolutionary theory. On his mother's side were the poet Matthew Arnold and the educator Thomas Arnold.
Huxley's own father, Leonard, was an assistant master at Godalming's Charterhouse School who later held an editorial position with The Cornhill Magazine, a longstanding literary journal. Huxley's mother, Julia Frances Huxley nee Arnold, founded the Prior's Field School in Godalming. This school, which still exists, was for girls. But one boy attended: young Aldous. He later attended the nearby Hillside School, according to the website of the Godalming Museum.
Though his intellect was plenty deft, there was something physically awkward about Huxley, who was born with a cranium so disproportionately large that it delayed his ability to walk, as he was "apt to topple over", according to Sybille Bedford, author of Aldous Huxley: A Biography. His childhood nickname was "Ogie", an affectionate variant of the word, "ogre". He would develop into a gangling young man, with a blade-thin 1.95-metre physique that later led fellow writer Virginia Woolf to describe him as a "giant grasshopper".
Huxley's mother died of cancer in 1908, when he was age 14, showing him the "transience of human happiness". Subsequently, Huxley's father relocated to London. One bright spot for Huxley: he received a scholarship to Eton College.
At age 16, however, he was stricken with an eye infection that almost permanently blinded him. Indeed, his situation was so severe that he had begun to learn how to use braille. He was able to return to school two years later, but with his vision forever compromised, had to abandon plans for a career in medicine or science (two of his brothers became biologists, including Sir Andrew Huxley, who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; a third brother committed suicide).
Much of Huxley's future writing - including his most famous book - would involve scientific ideas and such themes as the impact of scientific progress on the individual and society. He would also author a book, The Art of Seeing, on his vision difficulties.
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One benefit of his impairment, however, was that it exempted him from entering the carnage and hazards of the First World War. So he continued to attend Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied English Literature. Upon graduating, he taught at prep schools and held an editorial role with The Athenaeum literary magazine. He also began to compose and publish poetry. It was at a literary gathering that he met a First World War refugee of Flemish descent, Maria Nys, whom he married in 1919. The two resided in Hampstead, where they raised their only child, Matthew.
As a new father, Huxley began to find success as a fiction writer. He became friends with such scribes as D.H. Lawrence and toured extensively in Europe.
In 1928, the same year his commercially triumphant novel Point Counter Point saw publication, Huxley purchased a house near Paris. In the ensuing decade, however, he decided to move to California. According to the Godalming Museum, he hoped the clear California sunlight would benefit his ever-troubled vision. It did so, evidently, for he lived almost exclusively in Los Angeles from the year 1937 until the end of his life.
During this period, which spanned a quarter of a century, he worked as a screenwriter on such projects as the cinematic adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. Aside from working on adaptations and composing his own novels, Huxley, who penned about four-dozen books in total, wrote such non-fiction as The Doors of Perception, which relates the author's experiences with the psychedelic substance mescaline.
Published in 1954, this book would acquire a counterculture vogue and received the endorsement of such iconic figures as psychedelic high-priest Timothy Leary (with whom Huxley was on friendly terms) and rock star Jim Morrison, who named his band, The Doors, after Huxley's book. But others, such as the German writer and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, regarded Huxley's hallucinogenic literature as reckless, believing it might encourage readers, particularly youthful ones, to experiment with mind-altering substances.
In 1955, Huxley's wife Maria died of cancer. Their son, Matthew (d.2005), by then an alum of the University of California at Berkeley, was on his way to becoming an epidemiologist. One year after his first wife's death, Huxley married Laura Archera (d.2007), an Italian-born psychotherapist and violinist.
The end of the 1950s saw the publication of Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, a non-fiction work that explores such subjects as population control and reflects on the novel, Brave New World, before concluding that our planet is approaching this fictional dystopia at a rate much faster than the author had anticipated.
The early 1960s were unkind to Huxley: his house burned down, and he was forced to contend with cancer of the larynx. Avoiding surgery because he feared it would ruin his ability to speak, he instead sought radium treatment, but to no avail, as the laryngeal cancer claimed his life at age 69 on November 22, 1963. It was an historically freaky day that saw the death of another literary giant, C.S. Lewis, along with a third famous fatality that garnered all the headlines: John F. Kennedy, the 46-year-old U.S. President, was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas.
As the world focused on a different drama, Huxley was cremated. He would return to Surrey forever with the relocation of his ashes to the family grave at the Watts Cemetery in Compton. The settings of both his birth and eternal rest are eerily relaxed for one who so well conveyed a world gone wild with progress.
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