Vile Bodies

da costa brightyoungpeople Vile BodiesBright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age
By D.J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 361 pages, $27

British tabloids of the 1920s bestowed the sobriquet “Bright Young People” on the generation born near the turn of the century, a generation alienated from older siblings traumatized and decimated by the Great War, and even more alienated from parents whose pre-War mind-set stranded them on the far side of a moral chasm. Their isolation led the Bright Young People to create a new kind of social life—less formal, more sensation-seeking, essentially communal in character. They invented “gatecrashing,” popularized late-night scavenger hunts, and threw the wild dress-up parties that have come down to us in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930): “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, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs. …”

The legend of the core group is well known: A clique of literary aesthetes bound by ties to Eton and Oxford—some, like Waugh and Anthony Powell, with an edge of seriousness; others, like the Mitfords and Brian Howard, for whom “idiosyncratic” is too mild—took up residence in Mayfair and presided over a revolution in decorum. Then as now, it was a matter of time before the scene they started was co-opted, packaged and sold back to the public as society gossip. By 1931, their heyday had passed and only a few, creatively speaking, survived.

In Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age, D. J. Taylor, author of a first-rate life of George Orwell, shows the sharp instincts of an expert biographer in his approach to 1920s English youth culture. He knows, for example, that the essence of a social scene is most faithfully preserved in the lives of its failures—those who, unlike Waugh, never managed to transcend the group identity that first brought them notice.

Which is one reason why Brian Howard emerges as the shadow protagonist of Bright Young People. An aesthete whose Wildean wit and fabled promiscuity placed him foremost among his contemporaries, Howard never managed to complete more than a few clever poems. We know him now only through a brutally titled biography (Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure), and through the characters he inspired in his friends’ novels. Those traces allow Mr. Taylor to make a poignant study of the elusive relationship between art and the social world from whence it springs—and they preserve the gloriously fey cadences of Mayfair in a state unaltered by Waugh’s exaggerations. For instance, Howard is said to have quipped on first sight of the infant son of Bryan Guinness (scion of the brewing concern) and his wife Diana (née Mitford), “My dear, it is so modern looking.” This is our chance to palpate the vile body itself.

 

I’M HAPPY TO REPORT that Mr. Taylor achieves his re-creation of London’s parties and personalities without once resorting to the word “sensibility.” One way to read his book, in fact, is as an extended game of chicken with the clichés of highbrow journalese. See our author bait the lion: “On paper the connection between, say, Brenda Dean Paul, Evelyn Waugh, Diana Mitford and Ed Burra barely exists. Yet the magnets that drew together the contemporary It girl, the aspiring novelist, the peer’s daughter and the avant-garde painter were far stronger than the demarcations of class, wealth and temperament that might have pushed them apart.” Now watch him skillfully draw back: “All were intimately connected to the distinctive twenties environment in which they operated and the wider social world beyond.”

The author only falters when in his eagerness to avoid cliché he lapses into preciosity: Again and again he describes his characters as “farouche”; twice he refers to their influence on the wider culture as their “spoor.”

One of the most interesting characters Mr. Taylor presents is himself. He tells us that as a young writer his attitude toward the supercilious publicity hounds of the 1920s was in line with the contempt expressed by George Orwell in his review of Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool, a novel about Bright Young People on the French Riviera. Quoth Orwell: “Even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained from sponging betrays a certain spiritual inadequacy.”

Time mellowed Mr. Taylor, and his scorn morphed into rapt appreciation—a measure of how hard it is to resist the infectious charm and scintillating style of the Bright Young People.

Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at ddacosta@observer.com.