Book review - Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940
If the UK screenings of Boardwalk Empire have made you curious about old Blighty’s equivalent of Twenties Prohibition decadence and style, look no further than D.J. Taylor’s Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 (Chatto, 2007). Rebecka Mustajarvi reviews.
The “Bright Young People” are known to many from Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, in which they are depicted carouselling around London on a never-ending round of treasure hunts, fancy dress parties, nightclubs and mad stunts, fuelled by cocktails and more illicit substances. Reading as a background history to the milieu and characters of Waugh’s novel, Taylor offers a thorough study of the Bright Young People phenomena, which has become synonymous with London’s roaring Twenties.
Although the term eventually came to be applied to anyone young, hip and (mostly) moneyed, that the newspapers’ gossip pages took an interest in, the original core of Bright Young People was distinctly upper class, well-connected and well-to-do – as indicated by their preference to confine their activities within the boundaries of Mayfair.
Taylor traces the core group of people who started the fancy dress parties, treasure hunts and public spoofs that came to be their trademark, as consisting of Stephen Tennant, Brenda Dean Paul, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brian Howard, Babe Plunkett Greene, Robert Byron, Eddie-Gathorne Hardy and Harold Acton. These may not be household names today, but many now iconic celebrities featured on the Bright Young People circuit at some point in their lives, using it as a springboard for more illustrious careers. Nancy Mitford, Brian and Diana Guinness (later Mosley), Alec and Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green (York), Anthony Powell, Cecil Beaton, and even the Prince of Wales cameoed on the fringes.
The public stunts of this multifarious group of socialites, authors and artists were many and ranged from the silly to the downright bizarre. They staged a mock exhibition of modernist art by the unknown artist ‘Bruno Hat’, complete with spoof paintings by Brian Howard and John Banting imitating Picasso, a critical piece on the artist by Evelyn Waugh, and a private view attended by Lytton Strachey and Winston Churchill.
The themes of their many fancy dress parties included the Edwardian Party (“Come as you were twenty years ago”), the Second Childhood Party (where everyone dressed as babies), an Impersonation Party (where everyone came dressed as each other), a Hermaphrodite Party, and a Mozart Party. Taylor memorably illustrates the social gap between the attendees of the Mozart Party and the ordinary working-class Londoner by including a picture of the late-night revellers posing in 18th century costume next to a group of manual labourers who had just started their morning shift digging up a street.
That the Bright Young People would go to any lengths to entertain themselves is perfectly exemplified by Elizabeth Ponsonby’s “bogus” wedding party at the Trocadero, where “an unsuspecting clergyman was encouraged to join in and to pronounce a blessing on the happy couple”. Even though newspapers and respectable society were equally horrified over such behaviour, the Bright Young Person’s disregard for conventionality quickly became a cultural stereotype, firmly cemented by frequent caricatures in magazines like Punch. Consequently, the original group’s antics were copied amongst young people on the lower levels of society, much like ‘the cult of the celebrity’ of today.
Although this catalogue of bizarre revelry is undoubtedly entertaining, Taylor also looks beyond the moneyed hedonism, dulling the glamour of Twenties high-society considerably. The closing chapters of the book delve into the casualties of all those parties. Brenda Dean Paul spent most of her life in and out of mental institutions, rehab and prison, whereas Ponsonby, whose father was a Labour peer, spent years breeding scandalous headlines which kept her parents in a constant state of anxiety, only to die from chronic alcohol poisoning aged 39. Stephen Tennant spent his life working on a novel he never finished, and Brian Howard continued his boozy lifestyle well into the Forties, being kicked out of MI5 for his inability to keep his mouth shut, and killed himself by an overdose after his boyfriend’s accidental death.
By the start of the Second World War, the Bright Young People and the lifestyle they stood for was increasingly seen as distasteful, and Taylor’s narrative of their rise and fall perfectly captures the nature of the BYP phenomena as a moment of temporary glamour and reckless irresponsibility wedged between two world wars.