Impersonation Party, 1927: Among the revellers are Cecil Beaton (back left), Tallulah Bankhead (front right), Elizabeth Ponsonby (in black hat), and (front row left) Stephen Tennant as Queen Marie of Romania
D. J. Taylor “Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-40”
Sometimes the Resident Judge feels very Antipodean and well, rather ignorant. When reading this book, for instance. I’d heard about it on Radio National’s Book Show and, having recently read and enjoyed Victoria Glendinning’s Vita, and David Cannadine’s Aspects of Aristocracy, I thought I’d enjoy this. And hey- I gobbled up Mary Lovell’s The Mitford Girls, I swooned over the Brideshead Revisited series years ago (which is on the top of the to-be-read list) and have read a Woolf or two or three in my time. So, I thought I’d know enough about the Bright Young People to embark upon this book.
Obviously I don’t know as much as I thought I did. To be honest, I gleaned far more from the reviews and the interview with the author on the Book Show than I did from the book itself. Perhaps the physical aspects of this particular copy were the first problem. I could only find it in Large Print format at any of the libraries I frequent, which in itself is interesting- it was in the Outreach Van which goes round to all the aged-care homes where, no doubt, is where Bright Young People are now. It is available in hard-back, but at $65.00- well…..
I found it rather hard to take a book in Large Print seriously. I felt Nanna-ish while I was reading it, and infantalized in a way. There were very few pictures in the book, and those that it did have were of very poor quality. If ever a group of people called out for photographs, the Bright Young People did! They were the celebrities of the 1920s, floridly material and consumeristic and highly visible. As it happens, I’d just been to see the Art Deco exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, and I rued even more the paucity of photographs of people and material culture in this book.
And so many names! and for me, that’s all they were- names. I really needed a cast-list at the front of the book with little potted biographies- a sentence or two would do, and a damned good index at the back. Alas- neither of these were provided, although there was a curious mock gossip column at the start that introduced the names that the reader was about to encounter throughout the book. But, clever though it was, it lost all effect as it was just as fleeting and cursory as the rest of the book was: an exercise in name-dropping, and I gained far more from it when I returned to it after finishing the book. Likewise, some chapters had a little vignette attached where one of the Bright Young People was discussed in more detail. But the titles of these vignettes did not always correlate intuitively with the person being discussed, so that you couldn’t locate the vignette in the table of contents and turn to it easily. They were spaced throughout the text, and you would often encounter a character many, many times before he or she was finally dealt with in a vignette. Without an index you couldn’t go back to re-read the information offered up previously that had, at last, been contextualized and integrated into the vignette.
For me, this was a book deeply flawed by structural elements, and my reading was hampered by lack of background knowledge. And so, I was rather surprised when reading reviews of the book, that I had actually understood much more than I realised I had during the act of reading. Yesterday I googled around on some of the main characters that Taylor deals with in this book (e.g. Brian Howard, Eddy Gathorne-Hardy) and realised that nearly all of the names were now familiar to me, thanks to this book.
The Bright Young People knew who they were, and they knew who were the imposters too. They were the generation that ‘came out’ in the immediate Post World War I era, the younger siblings of the mourned generation of WWI. They congregated around Mayfair, and were well connected either through establishment or artistic ties. Caught demographically between WWI and the Depression/WWII, they existed in a self-obsessed little bubble in the 1920s, feeding on the wealth of their families or thriving in the media and technology of the time. Many of their activities were flamboyant and self-indulgent: scavenger hunts through the Establishment buildings of London, weekend country-house parties swilled away in alcohol and drugs, fancy dress and theme parties- and consumption, consumption, consumption. The Wall Street crash seemed to have escaped their interest, but by the 1930s their profligacy in the face of the Depression became unconscionable and they began to respond more to the politics of the day- either Communist and caught up in the Spanish Civil War, or fascist (e.g. Diana Mosely) and strongly supportive of the Blackshirts. Then came World War II and the Bright Young People were bright no more.
There were many resonances with the current cult of personality : Brenda Dean Paul died a heroin addict in a life not unlike Britney Spears’; and there was the symbiotic love-hate relationship with the media which both employed and execrated the Bright Young People. Many of the young men were homosexual. Drug-taking and alcohol abounded. Parents despaired of the flippancy and extravagance of their infantilized children who didn’t go to bed until 5.00 a.m. and seemed to think that the whole world existed just for their amusement.
The emotional heart of the book probably lies in the material that the author has gleaned from the unpublished diaries of the parents of Elizabeth Ponsonby (pictured above). Her father was a politician employed on a parliamentary salary which could barely stretch to cover his daughter’s extravagance. He, and his wife, watched on aghast and yet always loving, as their daughter abused their income, home and support. Other sources for the book included letters between Bright Young People, newspaper reports and extracts from novels written by Bright Young People about Bright Young People. There’s always a peril in using novel extracts – especially if they are as ephemeral as some of these novels and novelists were: an extract might resonate if you happen to have read the book, but otherwise it’s a bit like overhearing someone else’s conversation.
So, an unusual reading experience for me. I found it a frustrating difficult read, and yet I gained far more than I realized I did.