Monday, 20 March 2017

Bright Young People [books]

It's taken me a while to finish reading this book charting the lives of the 1920s 'Bright Young People'. I don't know why; the 1920s as a decade fascinate me greatly, and the men and women who made up London's most newsworthy social set at that time in many ways exemplify what we think of when we imagine the period.

Possibly I didn't immediately get to grips with the book because on the whole I like stories, and the Bright Young People were more numerous than you usually encounter in stories featuring fictional characters, and real lives don't rarely have neat and tidy beginnings and endings. DJ Taylor gets round that by opening with the event that was possibly 'peak Bright Young People', the Bath and Bottle party thrown by Elizabeth Ponsonby, 'Babe' Plunkett Greene, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy and Brian Howard, held in a swimming pool with attendees in bathing suits. While the exact pattern of the rise of the BYPs might be debatable, and their lives after the early 1930s all move off in different directions, that party was unarguably one featuring all the central figures, with all the press attention and notoriety that characterised the group. Nonetheless, with so many people and places popping up, at first everything felt (to me) rather chaotic.


Out of the swirl of names and faces and parties, probably every bit as hectic as the actual 1920s social whirl, figures start to appear. Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton, and Nancy and Diana Mitford need no real introduction, though it is fascinating to see them in context. The ones who really stood out to me were the ones I knew very little about, and who left very little of long-lasting substance behind them, yet without whom the decade, and the books it inspired, would have been far less interesting. Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brian Howard and Brenda Dean Paul definitely fall into that bracket. They chose their lifestyles, and were immensely privileged, yet I find myself pitying them nonetheless. They created their age, and it devoured them.

Overall, the tone is quite sorrowful; an awareness of where so many of the figures would end up (especially as Elizabeth Ponsonby is the focus of so much attention) means there's a sense of tears under the glitter even when the brightest of the parties are described. I enjoyed the book, but it didn't convey as much of the fun of the 1920s as I'd hoped it would.

18 comments :

  1. Hmm...I've had enough sad listening to BBCworld lately.
    Whom is that platinum blonde in the upper right habd corner of the book's cover?

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    1. I don't recognise the image from inside the book - I'll have to check the back cover.

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  2. This sounds like non fiction. Doesn't D.J. Taylor usually write novels with an historical setting - or was this one of that ilk?

    I've got a book by him called 'The American Boy' WW2 era, I think, and I have a read another of his (name can't be recalled at present) which I really enjoyed.

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    1. Oooh, I don't know. If s/he is usually a novellist, this book definitely is a proper history book, with all the appropriate footnotes and references, and a lot of research done using private papers.

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  3. That looks like the kind of book I'd keep in the campervan for reading when we're away. xxx

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    1. Bits of it are more captivating than others. At time Taylor goes into more detail about some of them - Brenda Dean Paul's addictions, the careers of Robert Byron and Brian Howard, the social aspirations of Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton - and I found those more focussed areas the easiest to get into. Those could deffo be dipped in and out of while on the road.

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  4. I read a book called The Perfect Summer, about the events leading up to WWI, last year, and it took me quite a while to finish as well, due to exactly the same reasons. I kept losing the plot and having to reread things. Oh, and by coincidence I picked up a novel by D.J. Taylor at the chazza last weekend, a thriller set in 1930s Bayswater, which made me think of you! xxx

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    1. Ronni mentioned s/he (I don't even know Taylor's gender!) is a novellist too. I had no idea. I just picked this up because it looked interesting. Now I need to find some of the novels.

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  5. I took a while to get through this book too though I did enjoy it, conversely I practically inhaled Anything Goes by Lucy Moore which I read straight afterwards and loved. I actually became a bit obsessed with Stephen Tennant and ended up reading his biography straight after Anything Goes!

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    1. Aha! Well, I also have Anything Goes, and wasn't sure whether to read that or a 1960s history next. Perhaps I shall stick with the 20s a while longer, while all the names are still fixed in my feeble brain!

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  6. I have a signed copy of this book but am yet to read it (its in my massive to read pile!). Stephen Tennant has always been a fascination of mine and since moving to my village Lord Berners has become my latest one. Would you believe all of the society people you mentioned above, as well as Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali once walked around my tiny village?!! I love imagining that when I'm dogging the cars as I try to cross the market square! xx

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    1. Heh, I wonder whether they'd recognise the village now?

      I do wonder if Stephen Tennant retained his mystique by withdrawing, in a way that Brian Howard never did.

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  7. I love anything goes and wanted to read this too thanks for the review

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    1. Another vote for Anything Goes? Now I really do have to read that one.

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  8. This is freaky - I started reading same book last night before I saw this! I'm re-reading it as its been a while since I last read it.

    Yes, certain figures come across as vacuous and totally consumed by the scene, others quite horrendous.

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    1. I felt much sorrier for Brenda Dean Paul than Elizabeth Ponsonby, I found. Possibly because Brenda seemed to have been dragged into things so young - she'd already had a stint as an actress and a mistress by the time she was 20. Elizabeth seemed to have so many more people looking out for her.

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  9. Oh I know a Ponsonby, used to go to the pub with him. His family have well established roots, so maybe there's a link there :)

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