Standing at an impressive six feet four and a half inches (about 1.97 meters), Aldous Huxley was not only a towering intellect but also quite literally one of the tallest figures in English literature. Huxley’s height caught the attention of many, including Virginia Woolf, who playfully described him as “infinitely long” and dubbed him “that gigantic grasshopper.”
Aldous Huxley by Sir David Low, 1933
Aldous Huxley was born on July 26, 1894, in Godalming, England, as the fourth child in a family steeped in intellectual tradition. Notably, his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a renowned biologist who championed Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories, earning him the nickname “Darwin’s bulldog.”
Tragedy touched Huxley early in life. At 14, he lost his mother to cancer. Then, at 17, he suffered from punctate keratitis, which severely impaired his vision. Though he eventually regained some sight, Huxley remained partially blind for the rest of his life, making reading a challenge. This limitation prompted him to pivot from his initial aspirations of pursuing science to focusing on a literary career. More heartbreak came when he was 20, as his brother Noel took his own life after grappling with prolonged depression.
Despite these setbacks, Huxley’s academic brilliance shone through. He won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford University, where he studied English literature, adjusting to his visual challenges with aids like a magnifying glass. By 1916, the year he graduated with honors, he had already published his first collection of poems, The Burning Wheel.
Aldous Huxley © Antonio Marin Segovia
As World War I unfolded, Huxley found refuge at Garsington Manor, the estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell, where he worked as a farmhand. The manor served as a hub for eminent intellectuals and writers of the time, including Virginia Woolf, Bertrand Russell, T.S. Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence. With his vast knowledge, wit, and conversational prowess, Huxley quickly carved out a reputation as one of England’s leading minds during his time at Garsington.
Drawing inspiration from his experiences at the manor, Huxley wrote his novel Crome Yellow, a satirical take on the intellectual circles he had been a part of. The book was well-received and sold sufficiently to support his literary endeavors. In the following years, Huxley wrote several more novels, including Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, and Point Counter Point, all of which satirized contemporary society and traditional morals. However, Huxley’s magnum opus was yet to be penned.
I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.
In his late 30s, Huxley started writing what would become one of the 20th century’s most iconic novels: Brave New World. This work was fueled by Huxley’s mounting concerns about the trajectory of political, social, and scientific advancement. The novel scrutinizes a faux-utopian society where pleasure and comfort are traded for individual freedoms and conformity.
Set in a futuristic London of 2540—or the 7th century After Ford, in reference to Henry Ford—the narrative delves into a society where individuals are genetically engineered, sorted into rigid castes, calmed with the drug Soma, and conditioned for uniformity and superficial pleasures, while suppressing genuine emotions and intellectual growth. Upon its release, Brave New World garnered widespread acclaim both critically and commercially, solidifying Huxley’s position among the literary giants of his time.
Maybe this world is another planet’s hell.
Years later, Huxley relocated to Los Angeles, further diversifying his oeuvre by venturing into screenwriting, contributing to films like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Parallelly, he delved deep into Eastern mysticism, associating with the Vedanta Society and experimenting with the hallucinogen mescaline, as captured in The Doors of Perception.
In his mid-60s, Huxley was diagnosed with cancer. Despite his ailment, he demonstrated remarkable resilience and authored what would be his final novel, The Island. This work revisited some themes from Brave New World but approached them with a more optimistic perspective.
On November 22, 1963, at the age of 69, Huxley passed away. His prolific career spanned over 50 books, including numerous critiques, poems, and plays. Yet, the significance of his death was overshadowed on that very day by the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Words of wisdom
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” ―Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” ―Gabriel García Márquez
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” ―Edgar Allan Poe
“To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” ―Flannery O’Connor