‘A large expensive audience’; or Charity begins at Lady Sibyl’s home

Eliot  aldous-huxley


Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was a poetry reading, in aid of charity, held at the home of Lady Sibyl Colefax, later a highly successful interior decorator. Those taking part included Aldous Huxley, the actress and later playwright Viola Tree (daughter of Herbert Beerbohm Tree), Robert Nichols, T. S. Eliot and the Sitwells.

In a letter to his mother, some ten days later, Eliot told her: ‘I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience. Edmund Gosse presided, and a number of “young poets” of whom I believe I was the oldest, read. It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it.’[1]

The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.

Forty years later, reading at Columbia, Eliot remarked: ‘This is a poem which I originally read, I remember, at a poetry reading for the benefit of some Red Cross affair with Sir Edmund Gosse in the chair, and he was profoundly shocked. On the other hand, the late Arnold Bennett liked it better than anything I’d written up to the time of his death, and kept asking me to write “another Hippopotamus.”. . . it’s the only poem of mine which I’ve any reason to suppose that James Joyce ever read.’ Eliot also read ‘A Cooking Egg’ at the charity event and, as Richard Aldington mentions in his autobiography, the poem’s  mention of Sir Alfred Mond provoked ‘a rumpus in the audience’, as Lady Mond ‘sailed indignantly out of the room’.[2]  (In fact, Joyce parodied The Waste Land in a letter to Harriet Weaver; and also wrote of it  in a notebook, ‘T. S. Eliot ends idea of poetry for ladies.’)[3]

(Viola Tree)

Aldous Huxley was a little more expansive about the evening, in a letter of 13 December 1917 to his brother Julian. ‘I spent a strange day yesterday in town—being a performing poet for the sake of charity or something before a large expensive audience of the BEST PEOPLE. Gosse in the chair—the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen—dear Robbie Ross stage-managing, Bob Nichols thrusting himself to the fore as the leader of us young bards (bards was the sort of thing Gosse called us)—then myself, Viola Tree, a girl called McLeod and troops of Shufflebottoms, alias Sitwells bringing up the rear: last and best, Eliot. But oh—what a performance: Eliot and I were the only people who had any dignity: Bob Nichols raved and screamed and hooted and moaned his filthy war poems like a Lyceum villain who hasn’t learnt how to act: Viola Tree declaimed in a voice so syrupy and fruity and rich, that one felt quite cloyed and sick by two lines: the Shufflebottoms were respectable but terribly nervous: the Macleod became quite intoxicated by her own verses: Gosse was like a reciter at a penny reading. The best part of the whole affair was dinner at the Sitwells’ afterwards’.[4]

Nichols was one of the earliest war poets to achieve significant success. He was friends with both Graves and Sassoon—and Huxley, subsequently—and was close at hand when D. H. Lawrence died in March 1930 (Sybille Bedford prints his long letter to Dr Henry Head in her biography of Huxley).[5] Nichols’ poetry hasn’t lasted too well, unable as he was to evade the grip of the poetic conventions of the period even under the unprecedented pressures of the war.

They are bringing him down,
He looks at me wanly.
The bandages are brown,
Brown with mud, red only—
But how deep a red! in the breast of the shirt,
Deepening red too, as each whistling breath
Is drawn with the suck of a slow-filling squirt
While waxen cheeks waste to the pallor of death.
O my comrade![6]


(Robert Nichols)

Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, is barely known as a poet even to those familiar with his novels and essays, though his first four published books were all volumes of poetry. While at Oxford, Robert Graves commented in a letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he had seen ‘a lot of the Garsington people [Lady Ottoline Morrell’s house] who were charming to me, and of the young Oxford poets, Aldous Huxley, Wilfred Childe and Thomas Earp – exceptionally nice people but a trifle decayed, as you might say.’[7]

In the previous year’s The Burning Wheel, Huxley—albeit a trifle decayed—had written ‘A Canal’:

No dip and dart of swallows wakes the black
Slumber of the canal: —a mirror dead
For lack of loveliness remembered
From ancient azures and green trees, for lack
of some white beauty given and flung back,
Secret, to her that gave: no sun has bled
To wake an echo here of answering red;
The surface stirs to no leaf’s wind-blown track. . .[8]

Garsington would loom larger for Sassoon a few months later when he went to consult Philip and Ottoline Morrell and ask their advice about his intended protest. Sassoon’s famous statement followed soon after his meeting in London with Bertrand Russell and Middleton Murry. Psychiatric treatment with W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart—and a meeting with the young Wilfred Owen—beckoned.


[1] Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton, editors, The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: 1898–1922, revised edition (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 240-241.

[2] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 43, 521, 510. Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake (London: Cassell, 1968), 204.

[3] Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and revised edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 572, 495.

[4] Aldous Huxley, Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 141.

[5] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 225-228.

[6] Robert Nichols, ‘Casualty’, in Robert Giddings, The War Poets (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 84.

[7] Letter of 26 March 1917: In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 66-67.

[8] See Bedford, Aldous Huxley, 67.

Carrington and the Quangle-Wangle


Carrington, Barbara Hiles, Dorothy Brett, 1911: http://spartacus-educational.com/ARTbrett.htm

To Dorothy Brett, 1 December 1918, Aldous Huxley wrote: ‘I saw Carrington not long ago, just after the armistice, and thought her enchanting; which indeed I always do whenever I see her, losing my heart completely as long as she is on the spot, but recovering it as soon as she is no longer there. We went to see the show at the Omega, where there was what I thought an admirable Gertler and a good Duncan Grant and a rather jolly Vanessa Bell. Carrington and I had a long argument on the fruitful subject of virginity: I may say it was she who provoked it by saying that she intended to remain a vestal for the rest of her life. All expostulations on my part were vain.’[1]

Aldous Huxley and Dora Carrington spent time together at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, sleeping on the roof when the heat indoors became unbearable. ‘Strange adventures with birds, and peacocks, and hordes of bees. Shooting stars, other things.’[2] There’s little doubt that Huxley made use of Carrington when creating the character of Mary Bracegirdle in Crome Yellow. To Gerald Brenan in December 1921, Carrington remarked on the character, adding: ‘But it’s a book which makes one feel very very ill. I don’t advise you [to] read it.’[3]


Aldous Huxley by Dorothy Wilding, © National Portrait Gallery, London. Probably not the right hat, then: ‘In later years he wore no hat—except occasionally a French beret—but then he still sported a black hat with a very large brim indeed, to all effects a sombrero. “Here”, the St John Hutchinson’s young children would cry when they saw his long form ambling up their garden path, “Here comes the Quangle-Wangle!”’[7]

In January 1919, Carrington experienced what her biographer terms ‘a disturbing dream about a furtive encounter with the creator of the virginal “Mary Bracegirdle” which took place in her mother’s house, only weeks after her father’s death’.[4] Carrington wrote to Strachey: ‘Such a nightmare last night, with Aldous in bed. Everything went wrong, I couldn’t lock the door; all the bolts were crooked. At last, I chained it with a watch chain to two nails. Then I had a new pair of thick pyjamas on and he got so cross because I wouldn’t take them off and they were all scratchy. Everything got in a mess, and he got so angry, and kept trying to find me in the bed by peering with his eye-glass, and I thought all the time how I could account to my mother for the mess on my pyjamas!’[5] 

Carrington, Dora, 1893-1932; Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player

Carrington, Spanish Boy, the Accordion Player, c.1924. (Photo credit: The Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford)

Carrington’s tendency to make such vivid impressions on those she met meant that confronting fictional versions of herself was a not infrequent ordeal. Gilbert Cannan’s Mendel: A Story of Youth (1916), dedicated to ‘D. C.’, had been a rather more brazen affair, drawing with little disguise on Carrington’s relationship with Mark Gertler: ‘How angry I am over Gilbert’s book! Everywhere this confounded gossip, and servant-like curiosity. It’s ugly, and so damned vulgar. People cannot be vulgar over a work of art, so it is Gilbert’s fault for writing as he did. . . . ’[6]


Lively stuff. The new collection of Carrington’s letters, edited by Anne Chisholm, biographer of Nancy Cunard and Frances Partridge, came out last week. We should finally get to the bookshop in the next few days and secure a copy. Somebody in the house is expecting it for Christmas. Apparently.


[1]  Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 172.

[2] To Lytton Strachey, August 1916, Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, chosen and with an Introduction by David Garnett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 35.

[3] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 200.

[4] Gretchen Gerzina, Carrington: A Life of Dora Carrington, 1893-1932 (London: John Murray, 1989), 141.

[5] Carrington: Letters and Extracts from her Diaries, 127.

[6] Carrington to Gertler, 1 November 1916, in Mark Gertler, Selected Letters, edited by Noel Carrington (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1965), 254.

[7] Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (London: Pan Macmillan, 1993), 127.


Acts of Attention


(Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker)

Concentration: the focusing of all one’s attention; the keeping of the mind fixed on something.

Towards the end of the first year of the Great War, Friday 16 July 1915, Vera Brittain noted in her diary, ‘I find it very difficult to read just now, especially fiction; the immense realities of the present crowd in upon my mind, making concentration almost impossible & fictitious events quite trivial.’[1]

The present certainly offers plenty of ‘immense realities’—not all of them likely to foster optimism—though I’m not finding it difficult to read. Still, concentration is a little trickier these days. There’s the matter of intensity; but also the question of duration. The rate at which I read varies wildly—a crime novel, however good, demands a different kind of attention from, say, The Anathemata of David Jones—but on average, if I manage a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages in a day, that’s pretty good going. Yet I remember—how many years ago?—reading a Dickens novel, perhaps Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, and reading four hundred or four hundred and fifty pages in a day.

So I seem to have lost that ability to stick to a single task, a single object of interest, for that length of time; but, of course, this is in large part because of the various distractions that can break my concentration and the habits I’ve lapsed into of allowing myself to be distracted.

Still, when I read of people who go crazy after eight hours without a phone, or who check their texts or emails every five minutes, a hundred and fifty times a day, I feel entirely dissociated from such patterns of behaviour. I’m not so easily distracted, am I? Just how often do I check the damned thing? In any case, here, sitting by the back door, reading, yes, Michel Leiris (‘Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and like some, I have more or less returned from it’),[2] my attention is caught—too easily caught—by a movement outside. And I mean this as a serial event: wind in the leaves, birds on the fence or on the bird table or, perhaps, this—neither a bird nor a plane:


That cat—the visiting cat—is absurdly prone to distraction: a leaf, a fly, a cloud, gulls passing overhead, any of these will do. We have confidently diagnosed ADHD or the feline version of it. Yet, come to think of it, such behaviour has become typically human.

I was remembering—and getting almost right, from memory—an early passage in Aldous Huxley’s Island, when Will Farnaby, hearing the mynah bird utter its one-word message—‘Attention’—yet again, turns to Doctor MacPhail:

“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.
“To Attention,” said Dr MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
“Of course.”[3]

Paying attention: a transaction. We hand over a portion of ourselves and receive in return—what? It varies, of course, but, ideally, an addition, an augmentation, an enlargement of the self. Colette lamented that ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[4] What is enough? As John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, observes, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’[5]

Not that it is simply a question of giving it attention. Don Gifford recalled the tale of Thoreau’s young friend Ellery Channing being reduced to tears because, as he himself admitted, ‘he knew so little about what merited recording that he returned home from his nature walks day after day with an empty notebook.’[6] And Robert Richardson writes of Thoreau ‘eagerly’ reading Ruskin and Gilpin, ‘whose work starts from the often ignored fact that the uneducated eye simply does not notice most of what is in front of it. Until our attention is called to this detail or that feature, we rarely scrutinize our surroundings, “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see.”’[7]


Attention at such a pitch is sometimes seen as a sacramental act: the Latin root of the word means an oath or a pledge. Of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Declan Kiberd observes, ‘To each and every detail of the surrounding world he gives that close attention which is the nearest modern equivalent of prayer.’[8] D. H. Lawrence, writing of augury and divination, pointed out that there is ‘no other way when you are dealing with life.’ You may pray to a personal god or rationally mull things over but it amounts to the same thing in the end: ‘it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination.’ And he asserts that: ‘All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.’[9]

An act of pure attention seems like something to aim at. Or, failing that, a hundred or so pages in a day punctuated by phones, emails, whirring birds and treed cats.


[1] Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz 1981), 221.

[2] Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard (1939; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. I’m still in the midst of it—it may not all be as cheerful as that quotation suggests.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Island (1962; London: Vintage, 2005), 21.

[4] Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[5] Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago 2008), 32.

[6] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 11-12.

[7] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 53.

[8] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 89.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places (1932), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.