Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Bright Young People by D J Taylor

Taylor's history attempts to chart "the rise and fall of a generation", the generation who were mostly too young to have fought in World War I, but old enough to have understood its implications. Often opposed to traditional thinking, with greater independence, more opportunities to earn money, and more indulgent parents than previous generations, this particular fragment of interwar Britain rebelled against their parents through jokes, parties, and pursuing the cult of celebrity. Taylor considers the meaning of class in a frivolous society, the contribution (and sometimes the lack of it) to arts and letters made by its members, and issues of sexuality and criminality. Rather oddly, he suggests that "the real casualties of gay young Bohemia ... were women" (205), not appearing to grasp that any casualties at that time were probably caused by the illegality of homosexual behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. I can't quite believe in Nancy Mitford as a pathetic victim of her gay first love, since she seemed to have a pattern of falling for unavailable men.

Taylor has an excellent resource at his disposal: the letters and diaries of the Ponsonbys, comprising father Arthur, Labour politician and eventual leader of the House of Lords; his wife Dorothea; their conformist son Matthew; and their rebel daughter Elizabeth, who seems to have attended every party held during the 1920s, made a thoroughly unsuccessful marriage, drained her parents of money and died young from the effects of alcoholism. Taylor's sympathies are with the elder Ponsonbys, and it is fairly hard not to agree, but a little more consideration of Elizabeth's reasons for choosing a rackety way of life would have been welcome. Perhaps there simply isn't any evidence of her motivation. Elizabeth's story is a sad and touching one; this, and other similar narratives, prevent the book from being overly infected with the frivolity it depicts; it is a rich source of highly amusing stories. I particularly enjoyed Eddie Gathorne-Hardy teasing his celibate gay butler.

This book reminded me most of a book I read years ago about the Baader-Meinhof group. In both books, the author's distaste for most of his subjects, for their pointless lives, for their limitations, comes strongly off the page. For the Bright Young People, such distaste seems a little harsh. They may have led futile lives, they were certainly silly, but not really so very bad. The final chapter details the successes as well as the failures among this group, but I can't shake the feeling of Taylor's disapproval even for the successes of Robert Byron or Evelyn Waugh.

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