Attempts to anatomise the Bright Young People of the 1920s have included Beverley Nichols’s The Sweet and Twenties (1958), Martin Green’s Children of the Sun (1977) and Humphey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation (1989). Osbert Sitwell called Nichols the first of the Bright Young People and Nichols claimed to be the last of them. D. J. Taylor suggests that this was not quite accurate, as there is still one survivor of that febrile group — I think he must mean Teresa (‘Baby’) Jungman, once the object of Evelyn Waugh’s desire, and now 100. Certainly Nichols was Bright Young Person in excelsis. He was clever-silly — the present-day equivalent might be the much nicer Gyles Brandreth, another past president of the Oxford Union, with his jokes, Fair Isle pullovers and teddy bears.
The Sweet and Twenties is a from-the-horse’s-mouth account of the Bright Young People (BYP), with vivid vignettes, some funny anecdotes and pen-portraits of fringe BYP who make no appearance in any of the later books, including Taylor’s. Among these was the ‘roguish’ singer Teddie Gerrard. When delivering the line, ‘I’ve never been kept waiting’, she rendered it, ‘I’ve never been kept [long pause] . . . waiting’.
The members of White’s Club, thronging the stalls, tied themselves into knots of lubricity at this announcement. ‘D’you hear that? Never been kept, what? Ha! Ha! Never been kept! You’re telling me! Ho! Ho!
Martin Green’s Children of the Sun is something of a classic. Its title was derived from the German Sonnenkinder. Green had read almost everything there was to read about the BYP; he was astutely analytical; and a sample of his slightly baroque style ought to go into any anthology of 20th-century prose. In a prologue, he described a visit to Harold Acton — once one of the premier BYP — at his Italian palace, La Pietra:
The butler hustled forward to knock at one of the doors and waved me after him, while the other man hovered behind, quivering with sympathetic excitement. Then I was in the gran’ salone, a huge room, its furniture making several different cities within it, and Harold Acton rose from a tall wing chair and came across to greet me. He was a big man and carried himself with just enough style to create a faintly comic presence. Not that the stylisation was excessive — on the contrary, it was discreet — but that the style was one I associated with comedy. He carried one shoulder slightly lower than the other, and glided slightly, like the actor Alastair Sim; he spoke in the somewhat rich, precise tones of Sim in that sort of role … but not Robert Morley — Morley’s are much too gross to be compared.
Humphrey Carpenter also beat a path to Acton’s door, ‘on a boiling August day. It was as if one had stepped into Brideshead itself . . .’ But Carpenter was no Martin Green, and his book was disgracefully plagiaristic. When it was published, just a year after volume one of my biography of John Betjeman, Lady Selina Hastings — then books editor of Harpers & Queen — telephoned me and said, ‘You could sue Carpenter for breach of copyright.’ Bearing in mind the old Fleet Street adage, ‘Dog does not eat dog’, I didn’t sue; and I have stuck to the same policy under later provocation. Still, Carpenter’s book could politely be called a synthesis. It covered the ground.
You might ask, then, what justification there could be for yet another book on the BYP, in 2007. Haven’t these butterflies been broken on enough wheels already? The answer is that D. J. Taylor has found himself a goldmine of a new source. Elizabeth Ponsonby was one of the leading BYP. She went to all those mad parties of the 1920s — the Impersonation party, the Second Childhood party, the Tropical party, the Episcopal party, the Bath and Bottle party, the Hermaphrodite party, and Norman Hartnell’s Circus party (of which we shall no doubt learn much from Michael Pick’s forthcoming book on the royal couturier). She makes fleeting appearences in a Betjeman poem and in Green’s and Carpenter’s books; but in Taylor’s book she has star billing.
What he has got hold of is the voluminous diaries of Elizabeth’s parents, in which her antics and those of her BYP friends are despairingly chronicled. Her father and mother, Arthur and Dorothea Ponsonby, were worthy people, though in exposing the chasm between their probity and Elizabeth’s madcap irresponsibility Taylor rather plays down Arthur’s own stormy petrel reputation in his earlier years — the Dictionary of National Biography records:
He achieved notoriety almost immediately after his election [to Parliament, in 1918] by voting against the king’s proposed visit to Russia and in consequence found himself excluded from the guest list of the king’s garden party. This storm in a teacup established Ponsonby as a radical, opposed to Liberal Imperialism.
Arthur was an aristocrat who joined the Labour party — an unorthodox step for someone who had been a page of honour to Queen Victoria. Ramsay MacDonald made him a peer — Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede — I imagine to rid the Commons of an awkward fellow, well-intentioned but eccentric. Ponsonby failed. His great crusade was for peace. Not everyone who fails can be proved a failure, but 1939 smashed all his hopes.
One can see Taylor’s difficulty. He had got access to these diaries; but what use could he make of them? There was already a biography of the peer (Raymond A. Jones’s Arthur Ponsonby: The Politics of Life, 1989). Who would want to know a lot more about this oddball politician and his wife? But, like specks of gold in a mass of ore, Taylor found these constant references to what Elizabeth and her louche pals were getting up to. Here was exactly what an anatomist of the BYP needed: sober, objective eyes trained on them, not (and even Waugh qualifies as this) one of the BYP writing about themselves.
Richard Adams’s Watership Down has been described as ‘a book about rabbits, written by a civil servant’. (Craig Brown said he would have preferred a book about civil servants written by a rabbit.).The Ponsonby diaries are rather on the same lines, though the rabbits are randier. Arthur’s and Dorothea’s comments on meeting such BYP as Brian Howard and Brenda Dean Paul, a baronet’s decadent daughter, are sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified. Their
reactions remind me of what Duff Cooper wrote in Talleyrand (1938) about Fanny Burney and her sister, who were suddenly brought into contact with Talleyrand, Madame de Staël and other philandering émigrés who had escaped into Surrey from the French Revolution:
Prim little figures, they had wandered out of the sedate drawing rooms of Sense and Sensibility, and were in danger of losing themselves in the elegantly disordered alcoves of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
To Arthur and Dorothea, Elizabeth and her friends seemed to be living a life of unremitting frivolity and obscenity. Greeting John Strachey (the left-wing politician) who was visiting Shulbrede, Dorothea was alarmed to note that the young man had ‘a wound on his nose’.
He told me about it — a party given by a man in Glebe Place. David Tennant went up to Brenda Dean Paul & called her a whore — which she is — only one doesn’t say these things in public. He then proceeded to have a fight with some man who took her part & they got to sprawling on the floor. John went to pull David Tennant away & was belaboured by Hermione [his wife] who burnt J’s nose with a cigarette.
D. J. Taylor does not just rely on the Ponsonby diaries. He has done research that even outstrips Martin Green’s. Brenda Dean Paul, for example,
is a key figure in Taylor’s book who makes no appearance in Nichols, Green or Carpenter — oddly, for she laid bare her naughtinesses in My First Life, an autobiography of 1935. (She ended up a chronic alcoholic, looking after down-and-outs, rather like Lord Sebastian with his sick German in Brideshead Revisited.) Taylor also makes telling use — as the other three authors do not — of a Terence Rattigan play of 1939, After the Dance, which he describes as ‘nothing less than an anatomy of the Bright Young Person’s world, seen from the vantage point of seedy middle age’.
Impressive as Green’s book remains, if I had to choose one book as a summing up of the BYP, it would be Taylor’s. He has delved into the columns of many gossip columnists, among them ‘Johanna’ of The Lady, who was surprisingly undemure. His own style is piquant. He frequently treats us to witty one-liners: ‘The books Brian Howard never wrote would fill a decent-sized shelf’; Howard’s career ‘existed largely in the subjunctive’; and, such as it was, it proved ‘art’s fatal inability to pay the rent’. And ‘Set down in the pages of fiction, Bright Young People invariably come accompanied by a kind of spiritual leper bell.’ Taylor is adventurous in language, for example deploying the words ‘tatterdemalion’, ‘lickerish’ and ‘raree-show’ which, like ‘atrabilious’, ‘gallimaufry’ and ‘tergiversation’, deserve occasional outings. He is always up for a comic anecdote, like the one about the camp Lord Faringdon who once addressed the House of Lords as ‘My dears’ instead of ‘My lords’.
There are a few odd aspects to the book. John Betjeman, who is assigned large sections of Green’s and Carpenter’s books, receives only glancing mentions from Taylor, even though, as a cabinet-maker’s son, he illustrates Taylor’s thesis about the ‘democratic’ nature of the BYP circle. Carpenter plundered my biography too much; Taylor draws on it too little. Other sources he might have exploited but hasn’t are the autobiographies of the film critic Nerina Shute, with her accounts of ‘ambisextrous’ London, and X. Marcel Boulestin, the London restaurateur; the books of the illustrator Beresford Egan and the boulevardier Villiers David; and the memoirs of gabby Cecil Roberts, who was so proud of having been a boyfriend of the Duke of Kent, Edward VIII’s brother. Art Deco — the streamlined setting of the BYP — might also have been given a look-in.
Taylor fails to make allowances for readers who may not be as au fait with English literature and society as he is. He describes Waugh’s rich friend Alfred Duggan as ‘a stepson of Lord Curzon’: true, but surely we should also be told that he became a prolific historical novelist. Taylor tells us that Nancy Mitford had intended to call one of her novels Our Vile Age before Waugh pipped her at the post with Vile Bodies. Readers less erudite than Taylor might need to be made aware that Mitford was punning on Our Village, the book by her early 19th-century near namesake, Mary Russell Mitford, the woman who was so rude about Jane Austen. Again, Taylor suggests that the BYP turned ‘ “revolt into style” to borrow George Melly’s phrase’. I’m sure he knows that Melly’s book title was itself adapted from Thom Gunn’s 1957 poem ‘Elvis Presley’.
The central question for Taylor, as it was for Green and Carpenter, is: why did the BYP behave as outrageously as they did? Essentially, they were reacting against the Great War years of their childhood. Many of the men felt guilt that they had been too young to serve in it. The generation a few years older than themselves which might have restrained them had been wiped out. Everyone felt the need of a bit of razzle and dazzle. I wonder if one might take this theme further. Is it just possible that the BYP thought: the generation before us wasted their lives in the trenches; we’ll waste ours in nightclubs? Arguably, what Siegfried Sassoon’s scarlet-faced generals did to the flower of Britain’s youth in the war was far more heinous than swigging cocktails, taking drugs or having homosexual affairs.
In the spirit of BYP frivolity something trivial has caught my eye: Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton and Elizabeth Ponsonby all had fathers called Arthur — a name probably inspired in that generation by Tennyson’s poems. Perpetrating a Mitfordian pun, you could say those BYP suffered from arthuritis. In his play After the Dance Terence Rattigan, always so in tune with the zeitgeist, gave a character hostile to the BYP the name Arthur Powers. Taylor describes the play as ‘one of the subtler valedictions pronounced upon the Bright Young People’. He adds:
‘I don’t think one should ever grudge young people the form of escape they choose, however childish it is,’ John responds to Arthur’s complaint about John’s party. ‘I think they are very wise.’ There are worse epitaphs.