A 1920s Classic:  Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counter Point”

huxley poingOver Thanksgiving, I reread Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point.  It was the fashion to read this classic in my twenties, and I see why.  Huxley’s novel is a detailed portrait of the society of the 1920s, a novel of ideas, and a sharp satire of almost everything.  What’s more, it is easy to pinpoint characters based on D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Nancy Cunard, Sir Oswald Mosley, and John Middleton Murray.  

Published in 1928, this book is unremittingly witty. I chortled over the dialogue and was fascinated by the idea-driven plot. The first 150 pages revolve around a musical party, where the guests are alternately charming and bored, and an after-party at a restaurant.

point penguin huxleyWalter Bidlake, one of the more sympathetic characters, is a writer at a literary journal, who is based partly on Huxley himself.  In the first chapter, he is about to leave for the party, while his pregnant lover, Marjorie Carling, whom he lured away from her husband, stays home. She pleads with him to come home early, but Walter is now in love with Lucy Tantamount, a strikingly fashionable woman who has had dozens of lovers and doesn’t particularly seem to want Walter.  Walter feels guilty, but he now despises Marjorie, who has nothing to do since she quit her job at a small decorating shop.  And the cynical Lucy, who finds Walter tiresome but loyal, wonders later, “Why did he look so like a whipped dog sometimes?”

Complicated affairs run in the family.  Walter’s father, John Bidlake, a famous artist, and Lucy’s mother, Hilda (Lady Edward Tantamount), were once as wanton as their offspring.  They had an affair, because Hilda’s much older husband, Lord Edward, a scientist with Dickensian ideas about women, made love to her like a “fossil child.” The horrible John Bidlake is now old, but does not realize it: he is repulsed by the fat old women who were once his lovers and models.  Yet he is truly hilarious when he mocks latecomers who arrive during the concert.  One woman mimes embarrassment,  blows a kiss, puts her finger over her lips, and then tiptoes to a vacant seat.  

Bidlake was in ecstasies of merriment.  He had echoed the poor lady’s every gesture as she made it….

“I told you so,” he whispered, and his whole face wrinkled with suppressed laughter.“It’s like being in a deaf and dumb asylum.”

Huxley’s dialogue is sometimes intellectual, other times racy and hilarious.   Rampion, a painter and writer based on R. H. Lawrence, rants about the horror of mechanical society and says that “Jesus, Newton, and Henry Ford have pretty much killed us.”  Sir Edward, the scientist without social skills, intelligently warns of the dangers of fossil fuels, and predicts the human race has 200 years left.  Spandrell, a mama’s boy who never got over his mother’s remarriage, has a program of seducing women and teaching them to accept degradation.  Philip Quarles, a novelist, cannot relate to people without the assistance of his wife Elinor, who encourages his relationships with his crushes; he does not realize that she has fallen in love with Everard, the leader of a fascist group.  

Baed on vivid characters and intellectual discussions, this entertaining novel shows the 1920s were just as “modern” as our own time. 

As Lucy says,

“Living modernly’s living quickly.  You can’t cart a wagon-load of ideals and romanticisms about with you these days.  When you travel by airplane, you must leave your heavy baggage behind.  The good old-fashioned soul was all right when people lived slowly.  But it’s too ponderous nowadays.  There’s no room for it in the airplane.”