D.J. Taylor’s enthralling “The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London” tracks the lives of several of those women. There is Lys Lubbock, the former high-fashion model who became Connolly’s longtime mistress, cooked his breakfast and even drew his bath water; Sonia Brownell, once known as the “Euston Road Venus,” who married the dying George Orwell; the heart-stoppingly beautiful Janetta Woolley and her promiscuous half-sister Angela Culme-Seymour; and, above all, the legendary adventuress Barbara Skelton. As Taylor writes, with considerable understatement, by the age of 23 Skelton “had already got through more experience than half-a-dozen women twice her age.”
The free-spirited Barbara — for clarity Taylor calls his oft-wed subjects by their first names — left home at 15, did a little modeling, and was soon relishing the emotional turmoil her glance or smile could cause. She conducted simultaneous affairs with the biographer Peter Quennell and the artist Feliks Topolski, eventually married and divorced both Connolly and the wealthy publisher George Weidenfeld and then — in later years, when she briefly resided in New York — dated Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books. I once asked the older Silvers about Skelton. What was she like? He only returned a wistful smile and said, with gentlemanly discretion, “She was a lot of fun.”
And so is this book. If the BBC knows its business, “The Lost Girls” will soon be a sexy, soap-operatic, partner-swapping, highly addictive miniseries, set largely during World War II as German bombs fall on London. Those years ushered in a heady era when, faced with the possibility of being killed, many young women cast aside what remained of their parents’s puritan morality and lived for the moment.
Taylor — a leading English novelist and cultural historian — worries a bit over the definition of a true “lost girl.” They weren’t “lost” in any melodramatic Victorian sense, and their families didn’t disown them. Their backgrounds were largely upper middle-class, even if their childhoods seem to have been generally unhappy. Headstrong, intelligent and determined, they often fled parental supervision at surprisingly young ages. Barbara moved to London at 15. Some became art students or did clerical work or, best of all, joined the office staff of Horizon. Lys and Sonia quickly proved essential to the monthly magazine, overseeing its day-to-day operations. What, after all, could be better than a job in publishing? The “lost girls” might sometimes trudge home to dismal bedsits, but they would also be regularly invited to glamorous cocktail parties and dinners at the Ritz.
Their lovers often tended to be older men from their own class, members of what Humphrey Carpenter dubbed “the Brideshead Generation.” If you’ve read Carpenter’s book of that name or biographies of Waugh, Connolly, Orwell, Stephen Spender, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Arthur Koestler or if you’ve dipped into these writers’ correspondence and diaries, you’ve already met, albeit in passing, some of the “lost girls.” Such books, coupled with works like Barbara’s memoir, “Tears Before Bedtime,” Hilary Spurling’s affectionate biography of Sonia, “The Girl From the Fiction Department,” and Anthony Powell’s 12-part roman à clef, “A Dance to the Music of Time,” make it easy to view England between 1925 and 1950 as something of an adult Disneyland, populated by witty and beautiful people who dreaded nothing so much as being bored or, worse still, being boring. They seldom were either, especially given their flair for dry repartee and sexual dalliance.
Taylor retells numerous stories of the women’s boldness and aplomb. On the train to Edinburgh for her father-in-law’s funeral, Angela passed the night in a sleeper with, in her own words, a “very good-looking lover, a painter, called David something.” During one country-house weekend, Sonia jumped into a pond to escape another guest’s unwelcome attentions. His advances were bad enough, she told Peter Quennell, who helped her from the water, but even worse “he doesn’t seem to understand what Cyril stands for.” Once, a lecherous Frenchman, without invitation, began to paw Barbara in a taxi: “She hit him twice on the head with a volume of Virginia Woolf she happened to be carrying” and so made her escape.
As the 1940s and the 10-year run of Horizon both draw to a close, the tone of Taylor’s book darkens. Connolly cruelly breaks with Lys. A long section tracks Orwell’s last months, culminating in his hospital-bed wedding to Sonia. Another chapter covers Barbara’s short-lived marriage to Connolly, during which the maudlin, jowly critic soon took to lying in the bathtub for hours and murmuring “I wish I was dead.” Yet, when Connolly does die at age 71 in 1974, nearly all the surviving “lost girls”— by then in their 50s — weep at his funeral.
Today’s readers may feel that Lys, Sonia, Barbara and the others, despite their proclaimed independence, were still defining themselves through the men in their lives. Perhaps so. Still, because of D.J. Taylor’s vivid and affecting group biography, the “lost girls” will never be lost again.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
THE LOST GIRLS
Love and Literature in Wartime London
By D. J. Taylor
Pegasus. 388 pp. $28.95