The Bright Young People: What's a nice provincial boy like D J Taylor doing resurrecting them?
The author's latest novel focuses on the posh inter-war social set lampooned by Evelyn Waugh
BY MARK BOSTRIDGE SUNDAY 30 SEPTEMBER 2007 in The Independent
On my way to meet D J Taylor, I pass an old-fashioned double-decker bus. On its front, in place of a destination, it carries the words "Private Party". But inside, the bus's passengers are sober suited, their facial expressions almost funereal. They appear wholly untouched by any hint of celebratory spirit. A total contrast then to the "Bright Young People" whose incessant partying and other high society antics form the subject of Taylor's latest book: a survey of the rise and fall of a generation of young British middle- and upper-class men and women who reached maturity in the decade following the end of the Great War, and whose resounding crash back to reality coincided with the Depression and the Age of the Dictators in the run-up to another world conflict.
Initially, these Bright Young People seemed glamorous in a Britain shaken by the anguish and loss of the war years. They were swiftly adopted as personalities and talking points by newspapers such as the Daily Mail, and as objects of parody by magazines such as Punch. Before long they had become the subjects of jokes, figuring in advertisements and as characters in novels. "High Bohemia", so-called by the press, united members of the aristocratic and moneyed classes – Bryan Guinness, Nancy and Diana Mitford, for example, and that willowy aesthete Stephen Tennant – with the socially aspirational, public school and Oxford-educated figures such as Beverley Nichols, Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh, who employed their talents as a springboard to social advancement. The Bright Young People were snobbish, sometimes witty and clever, hedonistic and utterly frivolous, with a strong vein of melancholy underlying all the pleasure-seeking. They talked in an affected slang designed, so it was said, to be heard over the noise of a gramophone ("Darling, what about a tingy-wingy little dinky-boo?", as Terence Rattigan later lampooned their speech).
Above all, they knew how to party. "...Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, Circus parties", runs the famous passage in Vile Bodies, the novel in which Evelyn Waugh used his insider knowledge to chronicle the Bright Young Person's world; "parties where one had to dress as someone else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood, parties... in windmills and swimming-baths... parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry...".
D J Taylor strikes one as a bit of a party pooper. He admits that this may be true. "When I was at Oxford at the end of the Seventies, I was the sort of person who said, 'I think I'll just go off and do another two hours in the library.' If I did go to parties, it was always as more of an observer than a full-hearted participant." So isn't it a bit surprising, then, to find him indulging in what he once dismissed as "the toff hagiography strain of English letters"? Wouldn't he be more likely to share the viewpoint of George Orwell, whose biography Taylor wrote (and for which he won the 2004 Whitbread Biography Prize), that even the desire to write about "so-called artists" who squeal at each other in "high, silly voices", and who "spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging, betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy"? In his first chapter, Taylor confesses disarmingly to having formerly held this kind of opinion himself. As the anonymous critic in Private Eye, one of Taylor's regular reviewing stints, he once opined that "the humblest coal miner who ever tried to write a sonnet" was of more intrinsic literary and social interest than Stephen Tennant.
Standing up for Tennant – "an eccentric gay who didn't really do anything" according to Lady Caroline Blackwood – may be akin to defending the indefensible, but more broadly Taylor now sees the Bright Young People phenomenon as entirely worthy of a book-length study. "Their legacy is still everywhere. Novelists like Waugh, Powell, Henry Green, the beginnings of a celebrity culture, household names like Beaton, Betjeman, Frederick Ashton all have their roots in this youth cult." And, he says, even the failures like Tennant and Brian Howard (one of the originals of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, to whom Taylor devotes a section entitled "The Books Brian Never Wrote") have "a desperate human interest".
Taylor certainly makes a good case for them. Ultimately he succeeds in conveying precisely the aspect of the Bright Young People that is most difficult to give expression to on paper: not books or parties, but "an atmosphere... an outlook, a gesture, an essence". Taylor identifies members of the "Bright Brigade" with the dogged accuracy of the prosopographer, while tracing their appearances in contemporary fiction – the first BYP novel was Beverley Nichols's Crazy Pavements from 1927 – with critical aplomb. Much of the book is deliriously funny. Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, an "impossibly languid figure", propositioned by Anthony Eden at Oxford, is described urinating into Rosamond Lehmann's handbag during a screening of an avant-garde film. Was she very cross, someone asked him? "Not very, my dear. Perhaps she thought it was all part of a surrealist ambience." One Bright Young stunt was a mock art exhibition, a hoax which appears to have fooled hardly anyone, but which went down as one of the most famous practical jokes of the era. Among the exhibits was a representation of Christ Meeting the Disciples Coming from Emmaus in black knitting wool stretched between two black hatpins.
Taylor manages never to be judgemental, eliciting sympathy for a male generation that suffered from an acute inferiority complex. Indeed, their very existence counted against them. Too young to have fought in the war, they were always going to be compared unfavourably with the generation lost in the Flanders mud. At the heart of the book, and making a strong contribution to its cohesion, is the story of a Bright Young Woman who trod a path that led nowhere, and ended up becoming part of the wreckage of the Twenties. Daughter of a Labour minister, granddaughter of Queen Victoria's private secretary, Elizabeth Ponsonby was a regular on the party scene, much to the distress and disapproval of her parents who described her as possessing "all the crudest faults of the modern girl", and lamented her "incorrigible" preference for disreputable people. Taylor gained access to an extraordinary archive of diaries and letters written by the Ponsonby family. "It vividly portrays a generational conflict," he says, "as well as charting Elizabeth's sad decline." After a failed marriage, Elizabeth, "the most mercurial presence of a lost and legendary age", collapsed and died at the beginning of the Second World War from alcoholism.
D J Taylor, one of the most prolific hacks in the "valley of the shadow of books", as his hero George Gissing called it, and a distinguished novelist and biographer besides, is not perhaps the obvious candidate to chronicle the lives of such a dissolute generation. There can scarcely be a more industrious figure working as a professional writer in Britain today. His pile of press cuttings from the past 15 years stands two feet high, and he is in constant demand as a literary pundit. (Taylor's tip for this year's Booker Prize? Lloyd Jones's Mister Pip.)
Born in Norwich in 1960, David Taylor (he adopted his nom de plume as a reaction to the fact that "there seemed to be dozens of David Taylors when I started out") made his presence felt as something of an Angry Young Man when he published his first book at the end of the 1980s, an attack on British fiction of the time, decrying the mediocrity of the work of members of the old guard such as Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch. Subsequently he became a novelist himself – the most recent of his six novels was a pastiche Victorian mystery, Kept – and the biographer of Thackeray and Orwell. He writes non-fiction to feed and clothe his family, but novel writing is his passion. He is "nine-tenths" of the way through a new work of fiction, which draws on the Anglo-American party scene of the Twenties and revolves around a society hostess of lowly origins.
Six years ago, Taylor, his wife, the novelist Rachel Hore, and their three children left London to return to his roots in Norwich. His home city has provided the backdrop for several of Taylor's novels, and it may do so again if he ever succeeds in the hopes he has of one day writing about his father. Taylor père sounds like a memorable, rough-diamond type of character. (There may be just a suggestion of him in the father of Taylor's second novel Real Life.) Of working-class origins, he left school at 16 to start work at the Norwich Union Insurance Company where he remained until retirement. Extraordinarily – for he had no broadcasting experience – he then became the oldest working presenter in local radio, eventually presenting his own show, John Taylor's Radio Times, on which he played popular music of the inter-war era.
Taylor speaks with affectionate remembrance of his father, who died last year. There's no evidence here of the kind of generational conflict that afflicted and divided many of the families of the Bright Young People. In his chilling epitaph for this "lost generation" of the Jazz Age, D J Taylor suggests that all youth movements are by definition ill-fated. The "early sparkle" degenerates into a "revolt into style... which leaves the founders washed up on a shore from which the tides of fashion have long since receded." *
The extract: Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940, By D J Taylor (Chatto £20)
"...a Bright Young Person's progress around London could accommodate a bewildering variety of different compartments. Determined to enjoy himself once on his first night back in town, Alfred Duggan, Lord Curzon's stepson, began the evening by dining formally with his mother, Lady Curzon, at Carlton Terrace... proceeded to a West End play, followed this up with supper at the Café Royal, moved on to 'a lurid attic in Ham Yard'... and concluded the night's entertainment at the Forty-three with 'Mrs Meyrick, Miss Meyrick and the entire staff at his feet'."
Digging up Piccadilly, April 1930. Among the revelers are Elizabeth Ponsonby (in necklace); Denis Pelly, her husband at the time (with cigarette); Cecil Beaton (with pneumatic drill); Cyril Connolly (with opera glasses); and Patrick Balfour (flanked by laborers).
BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE
The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age
By D. J. Taylor
By CARYN JAMES
Published: January 9, 2009 in The New York Times
Why is that man in the 1930 photograph wearing 18th-century dress — peruke, breeches, buckled shoes — while digging up a London street with a pneumatic drill? Surrounded by other white-wigged gentlemen and ladies and several stunned-looking laborers, the man happens to be the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, who, along with his set of carefree, privileged friends, had just spilled out of a Mozart-themed costume ball and turned a street repair into an after-party.
The saga of Beaton, Evelyn Waugh and the less famous social butterflies that everyone called the Bright Young People may be the ideal escapist fantasy for these sober economic times. Theirs was a life of glittering frivolity, of scavenger hunts that stopped traffic in Sloane Square, cocktails and dancing until dawn, notorious gatherings like the Bath and Bottle Party at a swimming pool (“bring a Bath towel and a Bottle” the invitation said), sprees that envious mortals read about in gossip columns. To make the fantasy complete, the story even offers a satisfying touch of schadenfreude. As D. J. Taylor emphasizes in this incisive social history, these flighty creatures crashed with a thud louder than you’d imagine butterflies could make. Taylor compares the Mozart party photo to a “medieval morality play” capturing how the Bright Young People got their comeuppance: their zaniness became more self-conscious and attenuated; they tried to ignore the fragile postwar economy and the crumbling aristocracy, but those changes were ready to bite them.
It was fun while it lasted, though, for much of the 1920s. The definitive work on the circle is still Waugh’s 1930 novel “Vile Bodies,” an affectionately scathing observation of his mostly drunk and vapid pals, which Stephen Fry turned into the blithe 2003 film “Bright Young Things.” Today Waugh and Beaton remain the best known of the group, yet they were never at its center.
The main characters include a few now dusty names like Diana Mitford (then married to Bryan Guinness, the brewery heir she dumped for the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley) and many more that have been nearly forgotten. Their goal, after all, was to have fun, not to achieve artistic immortality. The core group included Elizabeth Ponsonby, aimless daughter of a government minister; her rich cousin by marriage, Babe Plunket Greene; Brian Howard, known for his immense, unrealized promise of doing something vaguely arty some day; Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, younger son of an earl. The sound of so many double-barreled names is enough to evoke a time when every other word uttered was “divine,” “amazing” or “monstrous.” (“What language would they speak if something really awful did happen?” wonders a character in “Crazy Pavements,” a 1927 novel about the circle by one of their own, Beverley Nichols.)
Although the American edition’s subtitle piles on the phrases Lost Generation and Jazz Age, with their familiar echoes of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, the British version’s austere subtitle is more accurate: “The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940.” That generation was shaped by similar forces on both sides of the Atlantic: a male population decimatedby World War I, the postwar sense of shaking off 19th-century prudery and entering a new, blatantly sexy era. But Taylor’s subject is distinctly British, and his Londoners were both victims and beneficiaries of changes in their class system. As the aristocracy became financially embarrassed, middle-class interlopers like Waugh and Beaton were able to enter the Bright Young circle, while some sons and even daughters of the upper class were forced to get jobs, even if they weren’t good at keeping them.
Taylor’s deglamorizing approach focuses on the tension beneath the willful gaiety — how the “promise of good times and limitless horizons” was soon dashed by “the reality of . . . economic pressures.” During the ’20s the Bright Young People could shut out that harsh reality as their fame grew, fed by the rise of newspapers hungry for colorful gossip. They played to the press and too often believed their own clippings. Simon Balcairn, the columnist in “Vile Bodies,” who reports anonymously on his friends, was based largely on Patrick Balfour, son of a lord, who wrote as Mr. Gossip and appears in the Mozart party photo. Unlike his model, Balcairn commits suicide after crashing an unmissable party and being tossed out — a devilish exaggeration of how his set lived and finally died by publicity. Once the press started writing about drunken treasure hunts leading to Buckingham Palace, everyone wanted to join in. As Taylor says, “spontaneity had been replaced by calculation,” a clue that the party was over.
The book’s main object lesson is the dissolute Elizabeth Ponsonby, at least in part because Taylor had access to her parents’ diaries and letters. Elizabeth made a half-hearted attempt at acting, and later took a short-lived job as a dress-shop assistant, but basically drank, gave parties and practically bankrupted her parents, who fretted helplessly. “It hurts us to see you getting coarse in your speech & outlook in life,” her mother wrote Elizabeth in 1923, suggesting “you ought to enlarge your sphere of enjoyment — not only find happiness in night clubs & London parties & a certain sort of person.” This sounds like any parent’s out-of-touch lament, but the Ponsonbys had cause for concern. Throughout the 1930s, as her friends moved on, Elizabeth continued to play hostess to increasingly unsavory types, desperately trying to hang on to her madcap youth. She died before she was 40. Her death certificate cited “chronic alcoholic poisoning,” but the cause might as well have been what her father had described as a “rather hysterical craving for fun.”
Taylor’s unrelenting emphasis on the desperate, hysterical part is a problem throughout. Most members of the circle didn’t kill themselves, either deliberately like Balcairn or unwittingly like Ponsonby; they simply aged into obscurity. Taylor, a novelist and the respected biographer of Thackeray and Orwell, is so intent on his “morality play” that he nearly loses sight of why his characters were a source of fascinated delight and sniping in the first place. The distinction between the term Bright Young People, meaning the original Ponsonby social set, and the more generic Bright Young Things, also in use at the time, is important in this study; but Taylor’s tone of utmost seriousness as he parses the issue makes it seem like hairsplitting. His moralizing tone is lightened by the book’s beautiful design, laced with mordant period quotations and delicious satiric cartoons from newspapers and magazines.
Taylor’s richly detailed work also calls attention to two breezy, auspicious first novels about the Bright Young People that are unfortunately out of print: Nancy Mitford’s “Highland Fling” and Anthony Powell’s “Afternoon Men.” Mitford was on the group’s periphery, and her book has much of the charm of “Vile Bodies”; Powell, a sometime member, shares Waugh’s piercing observations. Both novels appeared in 1931, an indication of how quickly the Bright Young People’s era receded. Even then Mitford, Powell and Waugh had the distance to mock its slight-as-a-bubble mentality. All three novels entice us into a frothy, evanescent world we have reason to envy, but not too much.
Caryn James, the author of the novels “What Caroline Knew” and “Glorie,” is working on two nonfiction books.
The Marvelous and the Damned
By DWIGHT GARNER
Published: January 22, 2009 in The New York Times
The laziest way to put someone down is to call him or her an egomaniac. It’s what we say when we loathe someone but can’t think of anything more precise.
That label was often and too easily applied, in London in the late 1920s and early ’30s, to members of the so-called Bright Young People: a small, carefully circumscribed circle of elite 20-somethings who seemed to glide, as D. J. Taylor puts it in his nimble new book, on “a compound of cocktails, jazz, license, abandon and flagrantly improper behavior.” The Bright Young People were the most glamorous, influential, self-absorbed, quasi-bohemian and overeducated creatures in existence. During their flickering moment they were adored and despised in almost equal measure.
Good parties are enemy-making machines — You weren’t asked? Surely your invitation was lost in the mail — and no one orchestrated them like the Bright Young ones. Nearly every event was an eye-popping spectacle, fully played out in the era’s gossip columns. In his novel “Vile Bodies,” published in 1930 (and still hilarious), Evelyn Waugh gave an overview of the Champagne-fueled social carnage:
“Masked parties, savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths ... all the succession and repetition of massed humanity. ... Those vile bodies.”
Waugh, of course, was a Bright Young Thing himself, or at the least he existed at the group’s margins. So did others who would go on to become well-known artists: John Betjeman, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, Cecil Beaton and Henry Green among them. These bold-face names were among the lucky survivors. More than a few burned out, got lost or threw their promise away. Other would-be Bright Young People, Lytton Strachey snarked, seemed to have “just a few feathers where brains should be.”
Mr. Taylor, the British author of “Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age,” is a biographer (he has written lives of Thackeray and Orwell) and literary critic, and he tells this story with a good deal of essayistic flair, precision and flyaway wit. Just as important, he relates this ultimately elegiac narrative with a surprising amount of intellectual and emotional sympathy.
He plainly wants to be bothered by the Bright Young People’s antics, too. “One of the great consolations of English literary life,” Mr. Taylor observes, wonderfully, is the idea that “seriousness is automatically the preserve of people with cheery, proletarian values and prosaic lifestyles — that a barfly with a private income and a web of well-connected friends has already damned himself beyond redemption.”
If only. Mr. Taylor, replaying the period’s high and low moments, frequently finds himself charmed. “The Bright Young People’s legacy is not a shelf of books or even an album full of photographs but an atmosphere, a way of communicating, an outlook, a gesture, an essence,” he says. “Their spoor can be tracked across vast acreages of British cultural life.”
Where did this remarkable cluster of people — the core group was only a few hundred — come from? Most were born around 1905 and came of age in a country still feeling the shock of the Great War. England seemed grim, depressed and lifeless, and the Bright Young People, rebelling against rigid and outdated social mores, were determined to bring some senseless beauty back into the world.
One of their signal traits was their unquenchable energy. It was as if the gin cocktails were spiked with Red Bull. “People must rush from one party or restaurant to another,” Patrick Balfour wrote, “to a third or fourth in the course of one evening, and finish up with an early morning bathing party, transported at 60 m.p.h. to the swimming pools of Eton through the dawn.” Another was sexual ambiguity. “Homosexuality was as characteristic of the Bright Young People as a cloche hat or an outsize party invitation,” Mr. Taylor writes. “No English youth movement, it is safe to say, has ever contained such a high proportion of homosexuals or — in an age when these activities were still illegal — been so indulgent of their behavior.” From its beginning, the group had an “irretrievable air of campness.”
They were frighteningly precocious in almost every regard. Henry Green’s first novel, “Blindness,” was published around the time of his 21st birthday; Waugh and Harold Acton published their first novels at 24; Anthony Powell published his at 25. When these writers turned their literary attentions to their own social set, however, they did not always meet cheerful reviewers. About Cyril Connolly’s only novel, “The Rock Pool” (1936), Orwell groaned: “Even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy.”
What eventually killed the Bright Young People, Mr. Taylor says, “was the thing that had helped to create them: publicity.” Eventually everything about them became self-conscious, and their spirit was diluted by less charming and talented hangers-on and copycats.
The heyday of the Bright Young People was over by 1929. Some went on to notable careers, but others found it difficult to shift to different, more sober kinds of lives after Europe’s mood turned dark in the 1930s. The Bright Young Person label, for someone seeking a serious political job, was a hard one to shake off. At least one of the group’s central players, the beer heir Bryan Guinness, would ultimately deny that he’d been a member at all. The whole thing seemed, in retrospect, kind of shaggy and embarrassing.
Mr. Taylor’s book, never dull, nonetheless suffers from some of the problems that plague group biographies. It zigzags back and forth in time, often doubling back to cover the same event twice. There are some Britishisms that may puzzle American readers. (What are “coconut shies”? Well, you can Google it.) Mr. Taylor has a strange fondness for the word “rackety,” variations of which he employs at least six times.
It’s tempting to view the crash of the Bright Young People’s moment with some of the satisfaction we find watching the most careless and greedy of the current hedge fund managers and Wall Street tycoons take a fall. But there was never anything interesting about those money guys. As one aging Bright Young Person says in Terence Rattigan’s play “After the Dance” (1939), “Whatever people may have said about us when we were young, they could have never said we were bores.”