Recently, I accepted an invitation to speak to members of a Readers Club at a school. The topic I was given was to explain the importance of reading and a book that had an impact on me. It seemed easy enough until I found it difficult. In the end, I decided to put myself in these students’ shoes, which meant going back in time and trying to figure out the novel I’d read in school that had had a huge impact on my life. The novel I eventually chose was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
Some background: I was a full-time boarder in New England Girls’ School, Armidale, Australia (NEGS) in the early 1990s. You need to keep in mind that coming from Malaysia, English wasn’t a language I was comfortable with as there was no formal learning of it in schools (we won’t go into the education policy at this time!) It was daunting to be surrounded by 400 white Australian girls who’d learnt English grammar from day one.
During our English lessons at NEGS, it was never just a case of reading a book, quoting from it or writing a book report. As part of the final mark, I had to create a full-on scrap book and relate the topics in the book to the world around me. The marks given for this scrapbook went a long way towards the final mark for English 2Unit.
I still have that scrapbook – yes, it’s all in my awful handwriting. There were no computers/printers then and everything was done by hand. As you can see from the Index page, I chose to review a movie and a book, conduct interviews and also find newspaper reports related to the many topics raised in the book.
My first reading of Brave New World left me utterly perplexed about what this story was about. The school’s computer lab was in its infancy and there was no such thing as ‘Googling’ the title of the book to figure out its plot summary. After I completed round one of reading the book, I needed to read it another two times to understand what it was all about. However, once I did, this is a story that’s never left me for several reasons.
Imagination Running Wild
Brave New World was published in 1932. Even when I read it in 1991, the world Huxley created sounded fantastical – babies were not born, but created in test tubes; ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ were obscene; having fun was paramount and taking recreational drugs was permissible to ‘escape’ from everyday life. People travelled by air from one continent to another in a day.
While this book was an escape into an unreal world for me, I wonder if this would be the same for someone reading it for the first time today. Would a child today find it strange that babies started out as embryos that were fertilised in a petri dish then implanted in the mother’s womb? With surrogacy, it has become the norm for many parents to say that a child is their child without a ‘mother’ having carried the child in her womb.
How did this story affect my life? Well, when I pursued my post-graduate qualifications in medico-legal work, I used the story in Brave New World as a cautionary tale about unrestricted use of IVF, in particular there was a need to curtail the number of embryos implanted in a mother. At the time (early 1990s) everyone was taken up with IVF and it was the norm to carry up to 8 embryos at once and lose them all. Soon, it became the law that a woman was only allowed to carry a maximum of two embryos at any one time. There were other dilemmas I couldn’t fathom in the 1990s such as the one I read about barely a day after I finished the draft of this story: there are women in the UK now who don’t know what to do with the remaining embryos that are still in storage now that COVID-19’s happened.1
Author Who Read the Whole Encyclopaedia
I cannot find the source of this nugget of information, but Huxley was supposed to have read the whole encyclopaedia at some time in his life. I marvelled at how he used his immense knowledge to craft an amazingly simple story in Brave New World. Three examples of how he drew from this vast knowledge to create the world in this book:
1. In Brave New World, the World’s State Motto is Community, Identity, Stability. The National Motto of France is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.
2. In Brave New World, the community is given soma to keep them happy all the time. Today, society is such that you are encouraged to be happy all the time. If there is something amiss, the obvious choice is ‘to take a chill pill’.
3. Brave New World, the amount of oxygen an embryo in a test tube gets determines the caste into which the human belongs and the work he does. The castes were Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon. Alphas were the smartest and leaders, and Epsilons did the most menial of tasks. Is this not the same as Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Sudra and ‘Untouchables’? Or, in the context of Downtown Abbey, Upstairs and Downstairs – University Dons, Aristocrats, Blue Collar Workers and so on? Indeed, it’s this inequality in our social status and even our legal jurisdictions that I tried to portray in The Age of Smiling Secrets.
Social and Political Idiosyncrasies
Let’s just say that in the second half of Brave New World, one of the main characters, John, goes to meet the great leader, Mustapha Mond. John is introduced to the works of Shakespeare and also tells him the story of an experiment that was done where a whole group of Alphas were put on an island and how they managed (or in this case couldn’t manage).
The import of what Mustapha Mond said stayed with me forever. I understood how politicians work and the words they use to engineer society and create sometimes meaningless ideology. I understood how one word can make, break or change people, sometimes forever. I will give you examples of this (one serious and one funny) from my time at NEGS.
1. One sentence in the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ Some modern prayer books have this listed as ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ As a lawyer, trespass and sin have completely different meanings. You can prosecute for one and not the other; the punishment for one is a fine while the punishment for the other is a topic that has been debated from the time of Jesus.
2. Before meals, we had to recite a simple prayer – “For what we’re about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.” On the weekends, when we were given leftovers to eat, I murmured, “For what we’re about to receive, may we truly recover.”
I was very happy that the children and youths in Manav Rachna International School Sector-46, Gurugram liked the stories I shared with them about reading Brave New World. They asked some highly intelligent questions, shared their quality prose and made the session with them an altogether enjoyable session.
The sum total of all these analyses and sharing is that a book that will remain with me is not one that simply makes me think and one that everyone else loves to read. It’s one that makes me marvel at the world the author created and the fact that I am left wondering about my own. And Brave New World certainly ticked all the boxes in this regard.
- ‘I can’t let go of my remaining embryos’. (2020, November 18). Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/54890580
The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).