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Bright Young People

by D. J. Taylor
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publishing date: 06/01/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780374116835
  • ISBN: 0374116830


Before the media circus of Britney, Paris, and our modern obsession with celebrity, there were the Bright Young People, a voraciously pleasure-seeking band of bohemian party-givers and blue-blooded socialites who romped through the gossip columns of 1920s London. Evelyn Waugh immortalized their slang, their pranks, and their tragedies in his novels, and over the next half century, many?from Cecil Beaton to Nancy Mitford and John Betjeman?would become household names.
But beneath the veneer of hedonism and practical jokes was a tormented generation, brought up in the shadow of war. Sparkling talent was too often brought low by alcoholism and addiction. Drawing on the virtuosic and often wrenching writings of the Bright Young People themselves, the biographer and novelist D. J. Taylor has produced an enthralling account of an age of fleeting brilliance.
D. J. Taylor is a literary critic and the author of two acclaimed biographies?Thackeray and Orwell: The Life, which won the Whitbread biography prize in 2003?and six novels, including Kept: A Victorian Mystery. He lives in Norwich, England.
Before the media circus of Britney, Paris, and our modern obsession with celebrity, there were the Bright Young People, a voraciously pleasure-seeking band of bohemian party-givers and blue-blooded socialites who romped through the gossip columns of 1920s London. Evelyn Waugh immortalized their slang, their pranks, and their tragedies in his novels, and over the next half century, many?from Cecil Beaton to Nancy Mitford and John Betjeman?would become household names.
But beneath the veneer of hedonism and practical jokes was a tormented generation, brought up in the shadow of war. Sparkling talent was too often brought low by alcoholism and addiction. Drawing on the virtuosic and often wrenching writings of the Bright Young People themselves, the biographer and novelist D. J. Taylor has produced an enthralling account of an age of fleeting brilliance.

"The laziest way to put someone down is to call him or her an egomaniac. It’s what we say when we loathe someone but can’t think of anything more precise. That label was often and too easily applied, in London in the late 1920s and early ’30s, to members of the so-called Bright Young People: a small, carefully circumscribed circle of elite 20-somethings who seemed to glide, as D. J. Taylor puts it in his nimble new book, on 'a compound of cocktails, jazz, license, abandon and flagrantly improper behavior.' The Bright Young People were the most glamorous, influential, self-absorbed, quasi-bohemian and overeducated creatures in existence. During their flickering moment they were adored and despised in almost equal measure. Good parties are enemy-making machines?You weren’t asked? Surely your invitation was lost in the mail?and no one orchestrated them like the Bright Young ones. Nearly every event was an eye-popping spectacle, fully played out in the era’s gossip columns. In his novel Vile Bodies, published in 1930 (and still hilarious), Evelyn Waugh gave an overview of the Champagne-fueled social carnage: '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 Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths . . . all the succession and repetition of massed humanity. . . . Those vile bodies.' Waugh, of course, was a Bright Young Thing himself, or at the least he existed at the group’s margins. So did others who would go on to become well-known artists: John Betjeman, Nancy Mitford, Anthony Powell, Cecil Beaton and Henry Green among them. These bold-face names were among the lucky survivors. More than a few burned out, got lost or threw their promise away. Other would-be Bright Young People, Lytton Strachey snarked, seemed to have 'just a few feathers where brains should be.' Mr. Taylor, the British author of Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age, is a biographer (he has written lives of Thackeray and Orwell) and literary critic, and he tells this story with a good deal of essayistic flair, precision and flyaway wit. Just as important, he relates this ultimately elegiac narrative with a surprising amount of intellectual and emotional sympathy. He plainly wants to be bothered by the Bright Young People’s antics, too. 'One of the great consolations of English literary life,' Mr. Taylor observes, wonderfully, is the idea that 'seriousness is automatically the preserve of people with cheery, proletarian values and prosaic lifestyles?that a barfly with a private income and a web of well-connected friends has already damned himself beyond redemption.'"?Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"The saga of Beaton, Evelyn Waugh and the less famous social butterflies that everyone called the Bright Young People may be the ideal escapist fantasy for these sober economic times. Theirs was a life of glittering frivolity, of scavenger hunts that stopped traffic in Sloane Square, cocktails and dancing until dawn, notorious gatherings like the Bath and Bottle Party at a swimming pool ('bring a Bath towel and a Bottle' the invitation said), sprees that envious mortals read about in gossip columns. To make the fantasy complete, the story even offers a satisfying touch of schadenfreude. As D. J. Taylor emphasizes in this incisive social history, these flighty creatures crashed with a thud louder than you’d imagine butterflies could make. Taylor compares the Mozart party photo to a 'medieval morality play' capturing how the Bright Young People got their comeuppance: their zaniness became more self-conscious and attenuated; they tried to ignore the fragile postwar economy and the crumbling aristocracy, but those changes were ready to bite them. It was fun while it lasted, though, for much of the 1920s . . . Lightened by the book’s beautiful design, laced with mordant period quotations and delicious satiric cartoons from newspapers and magazines. Taylor’s richly detailed work also calls attention to two breezy, auspicious first novels about the Bright Young People that are unfortunately out of print: Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling and Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men."?Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review

"Combining diaries, biographies, news reports and novels to paint the social life of 1920s London, D.J. Taylor has created that rarest of books?one you can safely recommend both to scholars of Evelyn Waugh and the entourage of Paris Hilton. The engaging Bright Young People, written by a critic and novelist best known for his biography of George Orwell, reads like a case study in youth culture, trendsetting, log-rolling and cultivated bohemianism. It examines the symbiotic relationship between a loose-knit group of partygoers and a media that, in gossip columns and mocking denunciations, made them the first celebrities who were famous, in our contemporary sense, for being famous. By the most generous estimate, there were never more than 2,000 souls among the ranks popularly known at the time as the Bright Young People. By most accounts, those souls were self-absorbed, self-mythologizing and terribly jaded. Their defining exploits included boisterous scavenger hunts, extravagant hoaxes and the 'stylized debauchery' of more fancy-dress balls than you can shake an engraved 16-inch-high invitation at?including the Bath and Bottle Party, the Circus Party, the Hermaphrodite Party, the Great Urban Dionysia and the Mozart Party, where the menu came from a cookbook owned by Louis XVI. They excited the public imagination?and incited a moderate moral panic?with their fast living and reflexive flippancy. The greatest talents associated with the movement were Waugh and the photographer Cecil Beaton. Taylor deftly traces how the former drew on his friends' exploits for the hysterical satire of Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, and how the latter?an Edmund Hilary among social climbers?used his to further his career. Lesser accomplishments detailed here include Singing Out of Tune, a novel by brewery heir Bryan Guinness that documented the Bright Young Person's daily routine: 'waking up late, meeting people for lunch, bringing the lunch party home for tea, moving on to cocktails and dinner . . . and ending up with a communal trek around the fashionable restaurants of the West End.' But in this realm any accomplishment was an exception, and the non-career of the occasional poet Brian Howard proved emblematic of this wasted youth revolt. 'The books Brian Howard never wrote would fill a decent-sized shelf,' Taylor writes, elsewhere noting that the man lived out his frustrating life 'in that exotic never-never land where the Ritz bar meets the out-of-season Continental resort.' The fun ended soon enough; by 1931, England was in financial crisis and a 10-hour-long Red and White Ball rang down the era. But Taylor's skillful reconstruction of the whole hazy time feels like a lasting party favor."?Troy Patterson, NPR

?A poignant study of the elusive relationship between art and the social world from whence it springs . . . D. J. Taylor, author of a first-rate life of George Orwell, shows the sharp instincts of an expert biographer in his approach to a 1920s English youth culture.”?Damian Da Costa, The New York Observer

?In Bright Young People Taylor is writing splendid social history, not fiction, and he brings a more tempered and rueful approach, showing the sadness beneath an entire generation’s compulsion to waste its promise and dance in the spot...

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  • Excellent book
    From Amazon

    Considering my obsession with this period in history, and some of its tenants, I cannot believe it took me so long to find this book. I have heard, anecdotally, of the Bright Young People but I knew little about their specifics. Even with this marvelous history as a guide, they are still a fluid, amorphous bunch. Which I suppose was the point. After WWI, the French turned to surrealism. America turned to jazz. The English, it seems, turned to their aristocracy-turned-high society. The inception of exorbitant inheritance taxes burdened the landed gentry -- their parents. Older siblings returned from the war broken and confused. This lost generation needed an outlet, an escape, and above all to be heard. The result was stunning. Read the rest of the review at: [...]

  • "...already dead at twenty-six from a surfeit of yellow chartreuse."
    From Amazon

    This is a great book, highly readable and informative, very witty and eye-opening. For those of us who think that sensationalized tabloid creatures like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Lady Gaga are possible only during our heated, frivolous times, this book will show that these empty archetypes existed many decades ago, during the 1920s in London. Except back then, the names were Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean Paul. (Punch magazine created a fictional character called Lady Gaga, who attended the fabulous parties so they could be reported on.) The author gives us amazing detail about the alcohol-driven times, the frenzy-for-fun atmosphere that diverted the readers of the tabloids. There was an endless stream of theme parties that practically shrieked "DECADENCE!" from the rooftops, or at least in the headlines. The adjective "louche" appears with great frequency. How to pay for this nonstop party? Waste Daddy's money; squander your inheritance, even if you're not going to get one. Live on credit and pawn your valuables. And it seems as if most of the men were outrageous homosexuals, each one determined to outflame the next. If you've read the brilliantly witty novels of Evelyn Waugh, you have already met these people. Most of Waugh's characters are thinly-veiled composites of these poor pathetic aethethes and booze-soaked party-girls. But here, you will learn the identity of the mask behind the mask. This is one of the best social histories I've ever read. It's not all about the shimmering surface glitter; there's the dreadful reality of the Depression and World War II lurking at all time underneathe. These people were wearing expensive costumes while dancing on the edge of the smoking volcano, but they thought they were having the most marvelous time. ("Haha-making" shall we camp?) Dozens of minor names flit by like brightly-colored butterflies pursued by the flamethrowers of historical reality. "We're having fun and you're not!" they seem to screech at us. "The piper loves us and will never demand payment!" There are two sections of pictures that celebrate their fabulousness. The price of just one museum-quality costume for just one theme party might very well have exceeded the yearly wages of a middle-class worker. "But who cares? Pictures in tomorrow's papers!" One of the best aspects of this book is the analysis of various novels (now probably forgotten) written by and/or about these headline grabbers. It has inspired me to draw up a little list of these novels to look for on One odd note: opera superstar Nellie Melba is referred to both as Nellie and Nelly.

  • Wanted it to be better
    From Amazon

    I bought this book with real eagerness and was disappointed with it. The author kept losing focus. He would zero in on a chapter about Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton and it would be a page turner. Then, unfortunately, he would move on to another chapter and lose the thread. He did finally focus on the life of Elizabeth Ponsonby and perhaps that is how he should have dealt with the material which is voluminous. There was just so much ground to cover and I think the author didn't know how to grapple with the material successfully. Having just read some of the diaries of James Lees-Milne and an autobiography by Leolia Ponsonby (who is mentioned in this book) I can see why this writer was attracted to the subject matter, but I think he just never got a real handle on it. I loaned the book to a friend who is an avid reader and this should have been right up his alley but he put it down half way through and returned it. Not a good sign.

  • 24-Hour Party People
    From Amazon

    This is the story of a group of privileged young people who captivate London press with their antics (read: bad behavior and total willingness to behave like idiots in public) and occasional brushes with the law. No, it's not the story of Lauren and Heidi or Paris and Lindsey. The subjects are upper class twenty-somethings in the 1920s London. It starts out slow - Taylor actually spends a chapter pondering why they were called the "Bright Young People." Once it kicks into gear, around chapter 4, it's quite enjoyable as tales of people with pretensions to talent, pretensions in general, out-sized egos and a deep interest in clothes go. Evelyn Waugh (a major chronicler of this ilk), Cyril Connolly, and Cecil Beaton key players but the bulk of the story revolves around once revered but now forgotten bubble-heads like Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brian Howard, Brenda Dean Paul and Steven Tennent. Yes, they may not have been complete idiots but who really wants to defend the intellects of people whose major consuming interests were: parties, stunt parties, drinking, treasure hunts, costume parties, and more drinking. The best parts are the extracts from the diaries and letters of the parents of one of the BYP. The Ponsonbys were horrified by their daughter's activities, her lack of ambition, and her profligate spending and their observations are both acute and frequently hilarious. When Dorothea Ponsonby writes, apropos of one of her daughter's friends "I can't look at him. He is like an obscure footman" she is forging new ground in put downs. In fact, I'm tempted to make this my go-to insult for the next month. Taylor is upfront about the fact that the majority of People in question aren't terribly impressive upon closer inspection. (Except in their networking and literary log-rolling, which is truly notable.) Yet several of them have already been the subject of biographies, (entitled "Portrait of a Failure" and "Serious Pleasures", no less) Taylor is interested in what made these people newsworthy, what inspired them and what impact they have left on society. The fascination with them seems almost perverse. It's not borne of respect or admiration. It's more like straining one's neck to see the remains of the car crash. There's plenty of metaphorical and literal car crashes on display from Brenda Dean Paul's pioneering turn as a starlet drug addict, Elizabeth Ponsonby - generally and, best of all, the story of Gavin Henderson's wedding to a nice girl mummy approved of and the wedding night that the bride spent alone and he spent with a sailor he picked up. Somehow the marriage doesn't take. They natter on about becoming actresses, writing books or plays, painting pictures, but few of them ever actually create anything more permanent than a particularly inspired party invitation. It's easy to read these stories and snicker at the disproportion between the BYP's pretensions and their accomplishments. The sadder point that Taylor makes is that this really was the very best life they could imagine. Once past their glory days a surprising number of the BYP move into fascism or communism. There's a joke to be made here about being addicted to parties but I'm going to skip it. Better jokes are made about this by Taylor himself and Cyril Connolly in "Where Engels Fears to Tread", a satire about a BYP who embraces communism and exhorts his fellow BYPs to join him with the words "Morning's at seven, and you've got a new matron." Back to Heidi and Lauren etc., you could easily substitute their names (or any tabloid darlings de jour) for several characters here, switch "plays" for movies and "singer" for "writer" and you wouldn't notice the difference for several pages. Seeing how far back our fascination with pointless celebrity extends is interesting and thankfully this story is in the hands of writer who is sympathetic but not indulgent. This is an enjoyable read for any fan of biography or early 20th century European history, and any student of celebrity.

  • Some have fun and some write books
    From Amazon

    I have read a lot about the bright young people and their era. But the author here is not in sync with his subject, too grave and exacting. Facts, but no fun.

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