Book Review: 'Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age' by D.J. Taylor

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, January 9, 2009

BRIGHT YOUNG PEOPLE

The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age

By D.J. Taylor

Farrar Straus Giroux. 361 pp. $27

Jampacked and delicious, crammed with a cast of selfish, feckless, darling, talented, almost terminally eccentric, good-looking men and women, "Bright Young People" chronicles the doings of London's gilded youth in the Roaring Twenties. Even if you think you know a lot (or enough) about them; even if you've read the acerbic novels of the early Evelyn Waugh or plowed your way through Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time," there's bound to be material here you haven't seen or heard of. Just to take one example, the author has been given access to the family papers of Elizabeth Ponsonby, the Paris Hilton of her day, except that Elizabeth's father worked in the British government instead of being a wealthy hotel magnate. The diaries of Arthur Ponsonby, Elizabeth's thoughtful, caring father, place an entirely different lens in front of the high jinks of London's younger generation. He just can't seem to understand (no matter how seriously he considers it) why the post-Great War generation should so steadfastly refuse to work; why its members choose instead to dream up masquerades and treasure hunts, drink alcohol until they plain tip over, shriek at the top of their lungs, smoke -- even the women -- like chimneys, and engage in dubious sexual practices.

But it's a little more complex than it might at first seem. Here's a flock of affluent youngsters, all intent upon enjoying themselves. Many of them harbor a smoldering resentment against the older generation for getting their country mixed up in the Great War in the first place, and like many of the young, they only know what they don't want to be: carbon copies of their parents. So they decline to get a job or anything like one. The boys (they are barely into their 20s) have gone to Eton and then to Oxford; the girls have grown up one way or another, but they not only don't want to work, they don't seem to want to get married. They're looking at that Great Conveyor Belt of Life, and they know that, once they get on, they're done for, jumping right into their parents' shoes. So it's as if they've decided, in the decade of the '20s, in their own 20s, to hang around childhood for a little while longer.

It's tempting to merge this English group with the Lost Generation in Paris or hard-drinking partygoers in New York. But if someone read Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" in Paris or New York, she wouldn't be likely to refer to its author as "Proustie-Woustie," and Hemingway might not have enjoyed being called "poodle-pie," as Bright Young novelist Nancy Mitford liked to address her friends. Hemingway and his cohorts were lost and despairing, and the whole thing was serious business. In London, baby talk, pranks and parties were the order of the day, performed by the wealthy and written up wistfully in the tabloids. The irony of it is that although the Bright Young People were assiduously frittering away their lives, they were also beginning to write about it. Besides Cecil Beaton, who became a famous photographer and designer, the writers included "Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford, Brian Guinness, Anthony Powell, Beverley Nichols and Henry Green." They affected idleness but got their words written. Others were simply idle, but they liked it that way.

The Bright Young People were also -- many of them -- part of a gay subculture that had started at Eton and continued at Oxford. Mitford, for instance, had a years-long crush on a boy but was warned off him by her own brother, who had had a university affair with him and knew his betraying ways. The girls mentioned here seem curiously blind to all that, and the author suggests that -- up until this particular period -- it had been the unspoken custom for boys to go through a gay stage at school and then "grow up," find a wife and settle down. But now nobody wanted to settle down, apparently. What marriages there were didn't work. So these pages are filled with charming cross-dressers and men who make up their faces and dither about it: One of them, who became Lord Faringdon in his later years, was described by an irate heterosexual as "a pansy pacifist of whose private tendencies it might be slander to speak." Faringdon once addressed the House of Lords as "my dears," instead of "my lords." This founding of a gay lifestyle seems as political in its way as the controversy over California's Proposition 8 is now. We don't want to do it your way, the Bright Young People seemed to be saying. Look what your way got us into. We want to do things our way and slip into our chiffon.

Of course, World War II came along and put an end to all that. But for 10 years, pleasure had reigned. Waugh sneered at it, even as he based his early career on it. D.J. Taylor, who has also written biographies of Thackeray and Orwell, quotes a famous passage from Waugh's novel "Vile Bodies": "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 night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths . . . dull dances in London, and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris -- all the succession and repetition of massed humanity. . . . Those vile bodies." Waugh sneered, but he went to all the parties. Elizabeth Ponsonby, poster child for all these frenzies, died of drink, sometime in her unglamorous '30s.

Then the war came, and people had to grow up and go back to the serious business of killing each other. Until the next Time Out.

Sunday in Book World

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