You may remember a while back someone posted a comment to the effect they believed a character in an early draft of ANTIC HAY, a novel of 1923 by Aldous Huxley, was possibly based on Basil Rathbone. I was – and still am – fairly skeptical of this, but he has now sent me a longish extract, so I figured I’d post it just to get feedback from other people.
A bit of background – ANTIC HAY is apparently a roman a clef (which means I am told, a novel based on real people), set amongst the bohemian artistic community of London in the early 1920s. The character of St. John (I am told) only appears in an early draft and is absent from most published versions, but – to quote the gentleman who provided the text –
“It’s safe to assume he too was based on a real person of Huxley’s acquaintance, like everyone else in the novel. The character of Myra, for example, briefly referred to in this extract is based on Nancy Cunard, a socialite of the time, renowned for her plurality of lovers. Did Rathbone know Cunard? Might she, for example, be the “Kitten” referred to so obliquely in his memoirs? The chronology certainly fits very well with this novel’s creation…Huxley was a friend, and indeed a relation by marriage of Rathbone’s”
I can’t vouch for any of this personally (apart from the fact Huxley was a friend of Basil’s and indeed a relation by marriage). I’ve never read any version of ANTIC HAY and don’t know anything about it, or about Nancy Cunard, and haven’t got the time to go researching. But if anyone else wants to – be my guest. But tbh, I can only see tentative reasons to connect this St. John with the Baz. Does anyone know the real identity of “Kitten”? Is it even possible she might be Nancy Cunard?
Anyhow, here is the extract, so you can judge for yourselves:
…Theo St John awoke that Tuesday morning in a cell somewhere south of the river and east of Chelsea. Exactly how far east isn’t material and St. John himself was far from sure. He only knew it was a cell by the feel of the thin stuff mattress beneath him, the echoing sounds of footsteps and even more echoing cheery constabulary humour trickling into his burgeoning awareness. And because of course he had been in such a place before.
He sighed and grunted and experimented with movement. His limbs functioned painlessly, which meant there had probably been no affray, or if there had, he’d come off unharmed. His eyes, however, when he ventured to open them a crack, registered pain of a shafting bodkin-quality he knew too well. Nausea followed the pain up from the well of his consciousness and for one perilous moment his stomach clenched and heaved, and threatened to evict its contents before he could even stand up.
He clamped his eyes tight shut again and forced himself to breathe deep until the spasm passed. There had been drink then. And lots of it. He lay still, eyes clenched against the bright sunlight that was edging into the room through the one small window.
Shifting images of debauchery slid across his inner eye in almost stately fashion. Faces, bodies, sensations. Where had he been? But no name or place cam to him. He hoped somewhere there had been Myra. Myra’s mouth playing over his flesh. Good old girl that she was.
Anon there came a rattling at the door and a detached but amiable voice roused him with a “Come along now sir, it’s time for the magistrate.”
St. John dared to open one eye a fraction to contemplate the firmly moustached face floating above him.
“I say, he said, “could you be a pal and tell me where I am?”
“Bermondsey, sir. Tooley Street Police Station.”
Bermondsey. His brain clutched and squeezed at the name, striving for connection and memory. Nothing came forward beyond a lurching image of dirty wet pavement contacting his cheek.
Under constabulary eyes he struggled to sit and then, delicately, to stand. The floor rocked beneath his feet. His pallor was so desperate his guardian even asked in genuine concern, “are you all right now sir?”
“Sir,” thought St. John, the word spiralling in his brain, “what must one do to have that badge taken from one?”
“Thank, you, splendid,” he said out loud, and promptly vomited profusely over the flagstones.
The constable was kind and called him “sir” again and, watching him, thought his own son had made a better job of life without any of the same advantages.
“Look here, “ said St. John as he tried to clean vomit off his boots, with his tie “what am I charged with?”
“Affray, sir,” came the answer.
“Is it bad?”
“You struck an officer of the law going about their business.”
“Really, why did I do that?”
“ I assume you would know the answer to that sir.”
St. John squinted a moment into placid constabulary eyes. If there was censure or distaste there it was most carefully hidden. He abandoned the hopeless task of cleaning his shoes and let himself be led into the dank little corridor, green-painted as only hospitals and prisons and other places of human despair can be, perhaps by law. There were other men shuffling along. Their caps and threadbare clothes and brittle blank expressions all told who and what they were.
“Just keep in line,” said St. John’s constable, raising his voice to address the corridor at large. No “sir” this time. Etiquette respects the lowest common denominator. One of the men turned to look up at St. John. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“Don’t mention it,” came back from him as a well-bred reflex before he even realised he had no idea what thanks were being offered or why.
* * *
The magistrate’s court was enlivened with a little clutter of anxious female attendance. Some striking and desperate dockworkers had taken their grievance to the street and been beaten into understanding the realities of their position before being charged, without irony, with affray. The women, upper-middle class and conscience-stricken, belonging to some Bloomsbury Socialist group, were there to register the unfairness, as if they imagined the proceedings so far had been some form of oversight they could correct with well-chosen words. Portias looking for Antonios to save. The small, broken creatures disgorged into the dock were for the most part unpromising material for their mercy. But there emerged in their midst one of unquestionably knightly bearing who might be deemed worthy of defence by damsel.
St. John, perhaps uniquely in his history, barely registered the female complement. His slender frame drooped a little with fatigue, his hair drooped in sympathy into his eyes, he had slept in his clothes, which were bad to begin with, and hadn’t washed or shaved. There was vomit still clinging inside his mouth. His head was being pulled and pinched with sickening waves of pain. In long shot, for wasn’t the whole of his life a little film composed by the divine scenarist, he could be taken for one of the brittle beings surrounding him, dessicated by poverty, with want eaten into their souls.
But when one drew closer there – ah there, was the health and youth and the patrician bones and the smooth thick-skinned rubber-suppleness that comes from being marinated in money in the formative years, no amount of hardship will ever take that away; and in close, the bright, hard dart of the eyes, proud beneath downcast lids, which made the pallor and the grime and the stubble seem almost like artfully applied stage make-up. Grave injustice, for he was nothing if not sincere with a sincerity beyond his limited knowing, and as if they sensed that better than he could himself, every Bloomsbury maiden was silenced in mid-squawk by his emergence. They watched him, their mouths almost universally opening into little “Os,” as they detected the arrival of a worthy hero.
True, he had with a strange casualness, given up his last ten shillings three nights ago to buy some bread and milk and coal for some of the brittle people he didn’t know by anything but sight, whose troubles proliferated like blood poisons – father out of work, baby with cough, son with nothing to do but steal useless items from corner shops. A deluge of futility and his last ten shillings gone to try and mop a little of it up. This we have to call sincerity even if Priest or Comrade would both have found him wanting. But as a leader of popular revolution he was poorly equipped in anything but proximity.
Looking about him he struggled to reconstruct enough of the previous night to understand why he was there or how. No memory surfaced at all of anything other than patchy images of female flesh laid bare for him and the one incongruous picture of lying with his cheek against wet London paving.
The character of his fellow affrayers in the dock together with several wounded and indignant constabulary told enough of a story, as did the allegation he had struck a policeman with what was described as “a weapon” but turned out in practice to have been a potato picked up from the road. Even with his absolute lack of recall or explanation , St. John couldn’t resist a soft, one-sided smile at the description, and as he bent his head to hide the involuntary response his eyes met the eyes of the prettiest of the Portias. She gazed her blue gaze at him, full of awe and pity. He gazed back, and the character of his smile changed imperceptibly to meet this new opportunity.
Asked by the clerk of the court to confirm his name, his abode, his crime, he performed his catechism to perfection, even through pain and insipient nausea, like the trouper he was. A perfect modulation (conveying irony, ruefulness, a trace of defiance) and a glowing glance; all of which by some alchemy turned the throwing of a potato into the storming of a new Bastille, and St. John into St. Just. At least for the Bloomsbury tricoteuses. who as one swayed and sighed towards him with soft breath of worship. They gazed at him, and he rewarded them with a glance that spoke of tender but indefinable sentiment directed at each maiden as if to her and her alone, and when he was, inevitably, sentenced to a fine or prison term they clucked and wailed their horror as if he was to be taken out and guillotined.
Sent down, fine unpayable from his fractured finances, he shrugged softly without any indication of rancour. Perhaps because of a strain of willing fatalism in his nature that was oddly innocent and beguiling, perhaps also because he knew he would not go long unrescued.
* * *
Thursday, St. John sat in the Savoy Grill and gazed with distaste upon the fat man who was buying his dinner. The aesthete in St. John detested the way the man’s skin floated loosely on its bed of avoirdupois, dipping and bulging alarmingly at collar and cuffs, rippling downward from his cheeks. His mouth, a little moist rosebud in the midst of it all, was perpetually half open and eager. St. John was exquisitely careful never to think of what that eagerness presaged or enjoined. His mind excised that awareness effortlessly. The single benefit the war had bestowed upon him was this trait of easy and painless amnesia.
His gaze shifted under the vampish lashes, from the contemplation of his companion to the street beyond the window.
“It’s raining,” he said as he pulled a cigarette too carelessly from the case the fat man, serpent-like, had left on the table between them; irresistible invitation even to one who remembered resistance, which St. John did not.
“Are you working?”
“You know damn well the play closed last week.”
“What about Helen and the child?”
“I am not spending a sous on anything but them, I haven’t even got back my overcoat, which our pal Soamesmust have sold by now, God bless him to death.”
“You should have told me I would have helped.”
“I don’t need help, I can take care of my own wife and child.”
“You should take more care of yourself,” the companion said, and St. John bridled.
“Is it true you gave your last ten shillings to some docker?”
“Actually yes, how do you know?”
“Oh you’re quite the hero with the Bloomsbury Socialists now, word spreads.”
St. John shrugged as if the vagaries of Bloomsbury life were nothing to him and his last 18 hours had not been spent at its breast, sucking deep. He drained his glass of fragrant and expensive whisky and looked across its rim at his companion, with a certain puppy-dog archness he knew, through experience and modulation, almost everyone found irresistible.
“You want me to buy you another one of those,” the companion said, making it more of a statement than a question.
“That would be awfully kind,” St. John responded, barely attempting any note of surprise as the man gestured for the waiter.
“You drink too much,” the companion threw at him suddenly on a little spurt of irritation he barely understood.
“What a dull thing to say.”
“Did I say it wasn’t?”
“You will end up a bloated wreck.”
“Oh I see, and you’re concerned for your investment,” said St. John, and his delicate assumption of other things unsaid only annoyed the companion even more.
“I’m concerned for you, if you’re not spending on anything but your wife and child how did you manage to be in that condition?” asked the companion, once the waiter had delivered fresh rations and was safely gone out of earshot. St. John executed his trade mark shrug.
“One has friends.”
“And who are one’s friends?”
“People one knows.”
Fat companion was all too well aware of St. John’s ability to play this kind of tennis indefinitely and another little spasm of irritation made him unusually forthright.
“Oh for God’s sake, you mean Myra’s set don’t you.“
“I don’t think Myra has a set.”
“Don’t even try to evade,” expostulated his companion, before realising his voice had become pitched a trifle too loud, and heads were beginning to turn their way. He took the time to breathe deeply and wait for the moment to pass before continuing in a hoarse whisper, “you told me that was done with.”
St. John’s bright, hard gaze was steady, inscrutable.
“ I told you no such thing.”
“What would become of your wife and child if next time you end up dead?”
“Is that a reflection on Myra’s murderous qualities or the exigencies of her passion?”
Fat companion had no wish to contemplate the latter even as an idea.
“It’s a reflection on your ruinousness. You drink too much, you don’t eat, you fornicate without discernment.”
“And so I’ll die.”
“You wouldn’t be the first to kill himself that way. What about Helen and the boy if that should happen?”
“That wouldn’t be my responsibility would it? One of the universal blessings of the dead; nothing more can be asked of one”
“Some would say it would be very much your responsibility.”
“Then I’ll ask my ancestors to take care of my responsibilities and the mere fact they’re dead won’t be considered an impediment.”
“Did you spend the night with her?”
“Ah, so that’s it,” St. John’s little laugh was only slightly feigned and modulated for effect.
“Not at all,” said fat companion barely realising the lie in his utter indignation. “Why should I mind what you do? My concern is for your wellbeing and that of your child.”
St. John’s mind reached into the void of that night. Those images of bodies moving, lips on flesh, the curve of a naked breast. It might have been Myra.
“Then yes, and I very much enjoyed her.”
Fat companion felt the sting as it was intended he should.
“My God man I thought you were done nosing in that trough.”
“Why? It’s a charming trough. ”
“She’ll destroy you as she does every man she knows.”
“Then good luck to her.”
What was alarming was the degree to which this young creature meant it. Even the fat man’s wallowing self-absorption was arrested by that for a moment as it always was, but only for the moment. His interest was ungenerous. St. John’s mind had little part in it, other than as a nuisance to be dealt with, placated, dulled, with liquor or other things. The fat man saw himself glamorously as a hunter of beautiful big game, and the price was always patience, often failure, even humiliation, but the prize was worth it.
Reflecting on that made him tingle as he watched St. John exhale smoke across the table as if it were an insult. He leaned forward and touched the younger man a glancing contact on the arm, and the hard, glowing gaze was turned on him.
“You know Marshal has something that would be perfect for you. He’s casting it right now. I could mention your name.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because you deserve it. I’m an admirer of your talent. If you have something else coming along then of course…”
“Of course,” said St. John.
“Is there anything else coming along?”
“As it happens, no.”
“Well, then, the offer remains.”
It was satisfying to see the slight discomfiture in those arrogant eyes, the sudden slightly nervous play of the hand as it stubbed out the remnants of his cigarette.
“Look here,” St. John said, “I’m not about to be grateful, you know that.”
“Not at all.”
“I don’t bloody care if I never work again, only I have responsibilities.”
“Of course, and I want to help you.”
He nudged the case of fragrant Turkish cigarettes a little closer with his finger, indicating to St. John to help himself, and the young man did so absently, with a practiced, unconscious grace that gave his fat companion a pang of pure pleasure. He was what the fat man referred to as mettlesome. High bred, nervier than some but more beautiful than most and worth the added struggle. The fat man continued to watch as St. John sank the rest of his drink and turned to look about the room, searching, doubtless, for some suitable female to admire. Contemplating the fine masculine lines and planes of throat and cheek and jaw calmed the fat man. Let the boy pretend he was free to choose if he wanted. Let him have his women if he wanted, the fat man knew he had something, finally, this boy would need to beg from him. And it could wait. The victory would be all the sweeter…