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Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay: London in the Aftermath of World War I

Jake Poller


<1> At the outset of Antic Hay (1923), Huxley’s hero, Theodore Gumbril Junior, sits listening to the Reverend Pelvey in the School Chapel. ‘God as a sense of warmth about the heart’, Gumbril reflects, ‘God as exultation, God as tears in the eyes, God as a rush of power or thought –- that was all right. But God as truth, God as 2 + 2 = 4 –- that wasn’t so clearly all right. Was there any chance of their being the same?’[1] These theological musings soon give way to more mundane matters, such as the hardness of the ‘oaken stalls’ on which he sits and Gumbril begins to fantasise about a pair of pneumatic trousers with an inflatable air cushion in the seat that would make the Reverend Pelvey’s sermons more supportable. 

<2> That evening, oppressed by a stack of essays and feeling, furthermore, that he is stagnating as a schoolmaster in the country, Gumbril decides to move to London in order to make his fortune by selling the idea of pneumatic trousers. In a ‘notoriously artistic’ restaurant in Soho, Gumbril is reunited with his bohemian friends. (Huxley may have been thinking of the Eiffel Tower restaurant in Percy Street, which was patronised by Imagist poets and boasted a private Vorticist dining room and a menu illustrated by Wyndham Lewis). Among Gumbril’s friends we encounter the cynical aesthete Mercaptan; the would-be Renaissance man Lypiatt, a painter and poet and Artist with a capital ‘A’, whose epic ambition is thwarted by his lack of talent; and the diabolist Coleman, who devotes his life to affronting God by means of debauchery. 

<3> At the start of the scene, Lypiatt is pompously declaiming one of his own poems; Gumbril interrupts him in mid flow: it is impermissible, he asserts, to use the word ‘dream’ in the year 1922. After the Great War and the Russian famine the word has been stripped of its former meaning and now, as Gumbril puts it, ‘merely connotes Freud’.[2] While Gumbril, Mercaptan and Coleman are in their twenties, Lypiatt is forty, and hence his rebuke can be read as a denunciation of the nihilism of the younger generation: ‘You disgust me’, he exclaims, ‘you and your odious little sham eighteenth-century civilization; your piddling little poetry; your art for art’s sake instead of God’s sake; your nauseating little copulations without love or passion; your hoggish materialism; your bestial indifference to all that’s unhappy and your yelping hatred of all that’s great’.[3] Although the bombastic Lypiatt cuts an absurd figure for most of the novel, he is none the less a standard-bearer for the Romantic ideals that have been rendered anachronistic by the Great War. For instance, what is now referred to as modernist impersonality is anathema to Lypiatt: he chooses subjects that ignite his passion; he endeavours to impart a moral force to his art; and his conception of the artist is closer to Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ than to Eliot’s ‘shred of platinum’.[4] 

<4> After quitting the restaurant, Gumbril et al. wander aimlessly through the streets of London and presently come upon the society vamp Myra Viveash at Hyde Park Corner. Myra is an archetype of the despairing, pleasure-seeking, sexually promiscuous post-war flapper. She has already left Gumbril and Lypiatt bewitched and broken-hearted, and takes a shine to their dinner guest Shearwater, a physiologist who is an expert on the function of the kidneys but a fool in matters of the heart. 

<5> The meeting with Myra moves Gumbril to reminisce on their liaison. ‘Spectrally, a dim, haunting ghost’, he recalls,

he had hung about her; dumbly, dumbly imploring, appealing. ‘The weak, silent man,’ she used to call him. And once for two or three days, out of pity, out of affection, out of a mere desire, perhaps, to lay the tiresome ghost, she had given him what his mournful silence implored –- only to take it back, almost as soon as accorded.[5]

But Myra is herself a ghost: her voice is described as being ‘always on the point of expiring, as though each word were the last, uttered faintly and breakingly from a death-bed’.[6] Myra’s surname Viveash is a portmanteau of the Latin word to live (vivere) and ‘ash’, connoting a living death. Ever since the death of her lover Tony Lamb in World War I, Myra has been condemned to a living death. In spite of her promiscuity, she has been unable to feel affection, much less love, for anyone: ‘She had tried’, the narrator notes,

it revolted her now to think how often she had tried; she had tried to like someone, any one, as much as Tony. She had tried to recapture, to re-evoke, to revivify. And there had never been anything, really, but a disgust.[7] 

<6> The inspiration for Myra Viveash was the society heiress Nancy Cunard. She was a minor poet who appeared alongside Huxley in the Sitwells’ anthology Wheels, and moved in artistic circles, frequenting the Eiffel Tower restaurant and the Café Royal. Huxley became infatuated with her in 1922 (the year in which the novel is set). Like Myra in Antic Hay, Cunard had been desolated by the death of her lover Peter Broughton-Adderley in World War I, which had left her chronically lonely and incapable of love. She was attracted to strong, masterful men and was thus indifferent to the sensitive and cerebral Huxley, though she evidently found him an entertaining companion and encouraged him to the extent that he doggedly followed her on her nocturnal jaunts to parties and night-clubs, despite his aversion to crowds. Eventually, Cunard submitted to Huxley’s advances out of ‘pity’ and ‘affection’. She cruelly likened the experience to ‘being crawled over by slugs’, and dropped Huxley a few days later.[8] For his part, Huxley was still ensorcelled by Cunard, and the spell was only broken when his wife Maria threatened to divorce him if he didn’t leave with her for Italy the next day. Huxley acquiesced and wrote Antic Hay in a cathartic burst from June to July of 1923 in Forte dei Marmi in northern Tuscany.

<7> During this period, Cunard was involved with several men, including the painter Alvero Guevara, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and the Armenian novelist Michael Arlen. She had her portrait painted by a number of fashionable artists, including Guevara, Lewis and Ambrose McEvoy, and was the subject of several photographs by Man Ray. If Myra Viveash appears to be the archetypal femme fatale it’s partly because she inspired so many fictional characters. For instance, when Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises in 1926, many readers complained that the book was indebted to Michael Arlen’s novel The Green Hat (1924), since both Hemingway’s heroine Brett Ashley and Arlen’s Iris Storm were modelled on Cunard. She was also the inspiration for the now-absent character of Fresca in early drafts of The Waste Land (rumour has it that Eliot was among her lovers), and she makes an appearance in Pound’s Cantos

<8> Huxley’s depiction of Mrs Viveash is striking, in light of his demeaning obsession with Cunard, in that Myra is ultimately a sympathetic figure, goaded by grief into an endless succession of affairs that leave her feeling empty. More than any of the other characters, Myra embodies the distinctive ‘accidie’ that affected many of Huxley’s peers in the post-war period. In an essay collected in On the Margin (1923), Huxley traces the history of ‘accidie’: in the middle ages it was known as dæmon meridianus (the noonday demon), and afflicted the hermits of the Thebaid with a crippling sense of futility and despair that undermined their faith; later on, it became known as ‘acedia’, and was regarded as ‘one of the eight principle vices’, and was marked by sluggishness, impiety and, as Chaucer puts in the ‘Parson’s Tale’, ‘the synne of worldly sorrow’; during the Renaissance it was known as ‘the vapours or the spleen’ and was considered a disease; it reached its apotheosis under the Romantics, for whom, in Huxley’s words, it was an ‘essentially lyrical emotion, fruitful in the inspiration of much of the most characteristic modern literature’. This contemporary incarnation of accidie, whose hallmarks are ‘sorrow’, ‘despair’ and Baudelairean ennui, has many causes, Huxley argues, such as the failure of the French Revolution, the ‘defilement’ of the Industrial Revolution, but the chief culprit is what he calls the ‘appalling catastrophe of the War of 1914’: ‘Other epochs’, Huxley writes,

have witnessed disasters, have had to suffer disillusionment; but in no century have the disillusionments followed on one another’s heels with such unintermitted rapidity as in the twentieth for the good reason that in no century has change been so rapid and profound … With us [accidie] is not a sin or a disease of the hypochondries; it is a state of mind which fate has forced upon us.[9]

<9> After his bruising affair with Myra, Gumbril resolves to become a Lothario like his friend Coleman. Coleman has recently grown a beard that he refers to as a ‘beaver’. According to the OED, the word ‘beaver’ can apply both to the beard itself and to the man wearing the beard. During the 1920s there was a game, scored like tennis, which consisted in shouting ‘beaver’ whenever a bearded man was sighted. Coleman informs Gumbril that his beard has become a means of seduction, for whenever a young woman shouts ‘beaver’ he uses it as an excuse to engage her in conversation. Inspired by Coleman, Gumbril buys a false beard and uses it to cultivate a new, more virile persona. With his new beaver spirit-gummed to his face, Gumbril undergoes a transformation from ‘the Mild and Melancholy one’ into the ‘Complete Man’, a ‘massive Rabelaisian’ figure, ‘broad and powerful and exuberant with vitality and hair’.[10] Sporting his beaver, a great-coat to lend extra breadth to his shoulders and a heavy malacca cane, the Complete Man sallies forth in search of carnal quarry. Unbeknown to Gumbril, he picks up Shearwater’s wife while she is window-shopping in Bayswater. Rosie Shearwater, dissatisfied with her neglectful husband, whose passion for the kidneys she cannot share, is also in search of adventure, and is cultivating a new persona of her own, the ‘fastidious lady’, a shrewd, sexually emancipated patron of the arts.

<10> In Rosie’s drab maisonette in Maida Vale, there hangs a reproduction of Domenichino’s ‘Last Communion of St Jerome’. It is an example of the old-fashioned ‘art for God’s sake’ that Lypiatt applauds. ‘Grave in its solemn and subtly harmonious beauty’, the narrator notes,

the picture hung over the mantelpiece, hung there, among the photographs of the little friends of [Rosie’s] own age, like some strange object from another world. From within that chipped gilt frame all the beauty, all the grandeur of religion looked darkly out upon the pink room. The little friends of her own age, all deliciously nubile, sweetly smiled, turned up their eyes, clasped Persian cats or stood jauntily, feet apart, hand in the breeches pocket of the land-girl’s uniform … And utterly remote, absorbed in their grave, solemn ecstasy, the robed and mitred priest held out, the dying saint yearningly received, the body of the Son of God. The ministrants looked gravely on, the little angels looped in the air above a gravely triumphant festoon, the lion slept at the saint’s feet, and through the arch beyond, the eye travelled out over a quiet country of dark trees and hills.[11] 

Gumbril’s seduction of Shearwater’s wife becomes a travesty of the ‘Last Communion’, in which the moribund Rosie, lying on the ‘catafalque of the bed’ receives the body, not of Christ, but of the Complete Man, while her friends, arrayed in photographs on her mantelpiece, look on with upturned eyes, clasping ‘Persian cats’ in place of St Jerome’s lion. Much like The Waste Land (1922), which was published the previous year, Antic Hay abounds in religious imagery and classical allusions and produces a comparable effect: the accidie of post-war London is contrasted with a nobler, more ethical past, and found wanting. For example, another one of Rosie’s reproductions, Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’, echoes Gumbril’s metamorphosis from the ‘Mild and Melancholy one’ into the ‘Complete Man’ by the mundane agency of a fake beard and a coat with shoulder pads. There is of course a satirical aspect to these comparisons that is largely absent from The Waste Land, but both texts pose the same question: how can religion, much less God, flourish in the barren soil of post-war London? 

<11> Spurred on by his success with Rosie, the Complete Man picks up another young woman, named Emily, at the National Gallery. But unlike Rosie, who pretends to be a sexual sophisticate, Emily is a virgin. Hence Gumbril abandons his beaver (claiming to have shaved), and reverts to his ‘Mild and Melancholy’ self in front of her, which is more congenial to Emily’s innocent nature. To Emily, whom Gumbril sentimentally imagines as a kind of saint, he confides his intimations of mystical experience. While Huxley subsequently became fascinated by Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, at this stage he was more conversant with Christian mysticism and had read the work of (among others) Jacob Boehme as an undergraduate at Oxford. For both Western and Eastern mystics, the chief impediment to mystical experience was the self, which had to be transcended or ‘naughted’ for divine union to occur. Christian mystics practised contemplation (the equivalent of meditation in Eastern religions) as a means of facilitating divine union, but were frequented bedevilled by distractions, which arose from the bumptious ego and therefore precluded the self-naughting for which they strove. What Gumbril describes to Emily is not mystical experience but the ‘crystal quiet’ that is its necessary precursor. This crystal quiet lies behind the uproar of contemporary life, the ‘bandstands and factories’, the ‘jazz bands, the music-hall songs, the boys shouting the news’. Sometimes, he tells Emily, when he is about to go to sleep, this ‘quiet re-establishes itself, piece by piece’. It grows, ‘[b]eautifully and unbearably’. And ‘at last’, he says,

you are conscious of something approaching; it is almost a faint sound of footsteps. Something inexpressibly lovely and wonderful advances through the crystal, nearer, nearer. And, oh, inexpressibly terrifying! For if it were to touch you, if it were to seize and engulf you, you’d die; all the regular, habitual, daily part of you would die. There would be an end of band-stands and whizzing factories, and one would have to begin living arduously in the quiet, arduously in some strange, unheard-of-manner. Nearer, nearer come the steps; but one can’t face the advancing thing. One daren’t. It’s too terrifying, it’s too painful to die. Quickly, before it is too late, start the factory wheels, bang the drum, blow up the saxophone. Think of the women you’d like to sleep with, the schemes for making money, the gossip about your friends, the last outrage of the politicians. Anything for a diversion. Break the silence, smash the crystal to pieces.[12] 

<12> It need hardly be said that Gumbril is in little danger of experiencing mystical union, since it requires a special quality (namely sainthood), years of self-abnegation and, most importantly, the grace of God, but he correctly perceives that the hurly-burly of the capital is an insuperable obstacle to the spiritual life. In London, Gumbril is embroiled in sexual adventures as the Complete Man, he makes a deal with a venture capitalist to market his pneumatic trousers and he spends his nights in the disreputable company of Coleman and Mercaptan. Thus when Emily invites him to the country (she has rented a cottage in Sussex for the summer), Gumbril leaps at the opportunity of sloughing off his ignoble urban self. But as he hurries to catch his train from Charing Cross, he bumps into Myra Viveash, who is the representative of fallen experience in contradistinction to Emily’s innocence. Myra, beset by memories of Tony Lamb and in need of distraction, persuades Gumbril to postpone his trip in order to have lunch with her. Throughout the novel Gumbril has been struggling with the two sides of his self: on the one hand, there is the Mild and Melancholy one, who exalts in nature, apprehends divinity in Mozart’s G minor Quintet, and believes in romantic love; on the other, there is the Complete Man, who subscribes to the death of God, scoffs at romantic ideals, and pursues dangerous liaisons. The longer Gumbril remains in London, the more he succumbs to the ambient corruption. After his boozy lunch with Mrs Viveash, he sends Emily a telegram in which he claims to have had an accident. 

<13> That evening, Gumbril and Myra attend a cabaret, where they dance, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s apt phrase, to a ‘Shakespeherian rag’. (The nameless night club Huxley describes was modelled on The Cave of Harmony in Charlotte Street, which was run by Elsa Lanchester and Harold Scott, who put on a performance of one of his plays.[13]) The jazz band’s refrain, ‘What’s he to Hecuba? / Nothing at all’, alludes to the Gonzago play in Hamlet, and inspires a nihilistic delirium in the crowd:

‘What’s he to Hecuba?’ Mrs Viveash murmured the response, almost piously, as though she were worshipping almighty and omnipresent Nil. ‘I adore this tune,’ she said, ‘this divine tune.’ It filled up a space, it moved, it jigged, it set things twitching in you, it occupied time, it gave you a sense of being alive.[14] 

Coleman is also present at the cabaret, which he likens to ‘the first circle of hell’, describing Gumbril and Myra as ‘two damned souls’ to his companion.[15] The cabaret, with its raucous jazz band and despairing gaiety, is the antithesis of the ‘crystal quiet’ Gumbril had hoped to find in the country with Emily, and it is a mark of how far he has fallen that he retails their relationship as a ribald anecdote for his cynical friends, in which, in the guise of the Complete Man, he corrupts the virginal Emily. 

<14> The next day, Gumbril receives a letter from Emily. She interprets his ‘accident’ as the workings of Providence, and, foreseeing that he can never requite the love she feels for him, breaks off their relationship. Having missed his chance of redemption with Emily in Sussex, Gumbril resolves to leave the country in order to promote his pneumatic trousers abroad. He calls on Myra for a last hurrah before his departure for Paris in the morning. Together they get in a taxi and attempt to round up their friends for a ‘farewell banquet’. But when they call for Lypiatt, he does not come to the door since he is contemplating suicide due to the failure of his latest show, his broken heart over Myra and his dawning realisation that for the last twenty years he has been a mere charlatan pretending to be a Great Man. They then call on Mercaptan, Coleman and Shearwater, only to discover that they, too, are either out or indisposed.

<15> Myra likens their endless taxi journey to Robert Browning’s poem, ‘The Last Ride Together’, in which a rejected lover takes a valedictory ride with his beloved. As the evening advances, they stop for refreshment at Gumbril’s father’s house in Paddington. Gumbril Senior is an architect who is forced to make his living by designing ‘cottages for workmen’.[16] In his spare time, he has been building a model based on Sir Christopher Wren’s plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire. Wren envisaged a great piazza with the Royal Exchange at the centre, surrounded by the Goldsmith’s Hall, the Office of Excise, the Post Office and the Mint. The ‘three major arterial roads linking Newgate with the Exchange, the Exchange with St Paul’s, and St Paul’s with the Tower’, were to be ninety feet wide. The old Fleet river, which had been little better than a sewer before the Great Fire, was to be transformed into an elegant canal.[17] In an earlier scene, Gumbril Senior describes Wren’s vision to his son and Shearwater:

Wren offered them [the citizens of London] open spaces and broad streets; he offered them sunlight and air and cleanliness; he offered them beauty, order and grandeur. He offered to build for the imagination and the ambitious spirit of man, so that even the most bestial, vaguely and remotely, as they walked those streets, might feel that they were of the same race –- or very nearly –- as Michelangelo; that they too might feel themselves, in spirit at least, magnificent, strong and free.[18] 

But Wren’s plans were rejected in favour of the ‘old intricate squalor’; the people, Gumbril Senior asserts, ‘preferred the wretched human scale … of the sickly body’ as opposed to that ‘of the mind’.[19] 

<16> In Antic Hay, the beauty, order and proportion of Wren’s vision stands as a reproach to the ugliness and chaos of post-war London. The neon advertisements in Piccadilly Circus, which Gumbril and Myra repeatedly pass in their peregrinations, serve as a synecdoche for the capital. ‘These things are the epileptic symbol of all that’s most bestial and idiotic in contemporary life’, Gumbril tells Myra, who professes to adore them.

‘Look at those beastly things and then look at that.’ He pointed to the County Fire Office on the southern side of the Circus. ‘There stands decency, dignity, beauty, repose. And there flickers, there gibbers and twitches – what? Restlessness, distraction, refusal to think’.[20] 

And yet Gumbril, however much he admires his father, can only pay lip service to his ideals, for the whole point of the ‘last ride’ is stop him from thinking about Emily, just as the antic hay, in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, is a means of distracting the King from more important matters at court. ‘Music and poetry is his delight’, says Gaveston of the King, in his opening soliloquy:

Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and playing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat feet dance an antic hay.[21]

<17> The antic hay of the title, then, is a trope for the mundane distractions – the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus, alcohol, art, sexual intrigues, and so forth – that prevent the characters from being overwhelmed by accidie and putting an end to their meaningless, amoral lives. And London, with its constant charivari, its jazz bands, music halls and theatres, its cabarets, night-clubs and pubs, is represented as the home of the antic hay. In the wake of the Great War, London has become an inferno, devoid of morality, religion and love. 


[1] Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay (London: Grafton, 1990), p. 7. Hereafter AH

[2] AH, p. 48.

[3] AH, p. 48.

[4] See ‘A Defence of Poetry’ and ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ respectively. 

[5] AH, p. 69. 

[6] AH, p. 58.

[7] AH, p. 163.

[8] Anne Chisholm, Nancy Cunard (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1979), p. 75.  

[9] Aldous Huxley, On the Margin (London: Chatto &Windus, 1948), pp. 22-25. The ‘hypochondries’ are located in the upper portion of the abdomen and were believed by Robert Burton to be adversely affected by melancholy. 

[10] AH, p. 94. 

[11] AH, pp. 107-08. 

[12] AH, pp. 145-46. 

[13] Alec Waugh, The Early Years of Alec Waugh (London: Cassell, 1962), p. 184. 

[14] AH, p. 166. 

[15] AH, p. 177. 

[16] AH, p. 29.  

[17] Harold F. Hutchinson, Sir Christopher Wren: A Biography (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1976), p. 65.

[18] AH, p. 134. 

[19] AH, p. 134. 

[20] AH, p. 227. 

[21] Christopher Marlowe, Edward II, in Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, ed. by David Berington and Eric Rasmussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 326, I.i.53-59. 


To Cite This Article:

Jake Poller, ‘Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay: London in the Aftermath of World War I’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 2 (September 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].