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Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of…

Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age

by D. J. Taylor

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I thoroughly enjoyed this moving and informative account of the 1920s British band of pleasure-seeking bohemians and blue blooded socialites that comprised the "Bright Young People". D.J. Taylor's fascinating book explores the main events and the key players, throughout the 1920s, 1930s, World War Two and into the post-WW2 era.

I encountering many names that I was already quite familiar with (e.g. Cecil Beaton, Elizabeth Ponsonby, the Jungman sisters, Patrick Balfour, Diana and Nancy Mitford, Brian Howard, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Henry Yorke, and many more) having read other excellent accounts of the era. Theses include Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead, The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family, The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940, and The Long Week-end: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918-39.

Elizabeth Ponsonby's story looms large in this book, as D.J. Taylor had access to her parents' diaries. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, she was a staple in the gossip columns who seized upon the Bright Young People's adventures and reported them with a mixture of reverence and glee. There was plenty to report: practical jokes, treasure hunts, fancy dress parties, stealing policemen's helmets, dancing all night at the Ritz and so on. In a sense this is what the 1920s is best remembered for, and for some it must have felt right, after the trauma of World War One, and with Victorian values in decline, for young people to enjoy themselves. However, beneath the laughter and the cocktails lurk some less jolly narratives.

D.J. Taylor manages to dig beneath the glittering surface where for every success story (Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton both launched very successful careers via the opportunities the Bright Young People scene afforded them) there were also tales of failure and tragedy. Some Bright Young People managed to adapt and prosper, others either continued their 1920s lifestyles or were forever trapped by their gilded youths.

Elizabeth Ponsonby provides the ultimate cautionary tale. She made a half-hearted attempt at acting, and later took a short-lived job as a dress-shop assistant, but basically drank to excess, gave parties and practically bankrupted her parents, who fretted helplessly. "It hurts us to see you getting coarse in your speech & outlook in life," her mother wrote to Elizabeth in 1923, suggesting "you ought to enlarge your sphere of enjoyment - not only find happiness in night clubs & London parties & a certain sort of person." This sounds like any parent's out-of-touch lament, but the Ponsonbys had genuine cause for concern. The tone of Vile Bodies captures Elizabeth Ponsonby's routines as glimpsed in her parents' diaries. In Vile Bodies Waugh states the Bright Young People "exhibit naïveté, callousness, insensitivity, insincerity, flippancy, a fundamental lack of seriousness and moral equilibrium that sours every relationship and endeavour they are involved in". A harsh and telling view from an eye-witness,and probably closer to the truth than the more hagiographic accounts of the era.

As I state at the outset, I really enjoyed this book, and despite having read a few similar accounts, I discovered plenty of new information and this has added to my understanding of this endlessly fascinating era. I also found it surprisingly moving - the diary entries by Elizabeth Ponsonby's parents are heartbreaking. Recommended for anyone interested in the era of the "Bright Young People". ( )
  nigeyb | Jan 6, 2014 |
I found this an interesting book, with allusions to a number of cultural luminaries I've never known much about. The Bright Young People were an inbred class of mostly upper-class youngsters who attracted attention in later 1920s London by outrageous and provocative behavior, usually at elaborate parties. A number of people associated with the group became famous names, including Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Nancy Mitford. The author discusses the "movement" in the context of its times, how it played out, the influence it had both immediate and long term, the careers it spawned, and provides portraits and accounts of the lives of the people involved. As in any story of this kind, some did well, others did poorly, and a number destroyed themselves. Occurring as it did in the wake of World War I, during the Jazz age, and spanning the countdown to World War II, I found the story to have a great deal of interest. ( )
  baobab | Nov 30, 2013 |
Bright Young People is the story of a particular group of young people who lived in London in the 1920s and ‘30s. Born at around the turn of the century, they were well connected and, for the most part, wealthy. They were known for the outrageous lifestyles they led, holding themed parties until dawn and performing tricks upon each other. The Bright Young People relied largely on the press to publicize their activities, and they included, among others, Nancy and Diana Mitford, Bryan Guinness, Evelyn Waugh, Brian Howard, Brenda Dean Paul, Cecil Beaton, and Elizabeth Ponsonby.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters, with little interludes focusing on specific people or things (on is on all the books Brian Howard never wrote). The book is a bit disorganized; the chapters don’t seem to be arranged in any others, and the interludes, rather than being enlightening, hinder the flow of the book. The book is also a little unfocused; al large part of it is devoted to Elizabeth Ponsonby and her fraught relationship with her parents (chronicled extensively in their diaries). It’s almost as though Taylor meant to write a biography of Elizabeth, realized he didn’t have enough material to write it, and expanded the book to focus on all the Bright Young Things of the period. There’s also a lot about Brenda Dean Paul’s drug addiction and weight loss; but in contrast, there’s not a whole lot about any of the other people of the “movement—“ not even on the Mitfords or Evelyn Waugh. There’s also a dearth of information on the Bright Young Things’ relationships with each other, which was disappointing to me.

There’s also not much on the parties themselves, and the author doesn’t convey much of the fun atmosphere that those Bright young Things had; instead, he seems more focused on analyzing the period and its implications (“not seeing the trees for the forest” syndrome). As a result, the tone of the book tends to be a bit stilted and—dare I say it? dull. There are lots of plot summaries of the novels of Bright Young People (if you haven’t read Highland Fling, A Dance to the Music of Time, or Vile Bodies, here are the cliff notes), and the author tends to rely on these as sources for this book. On the other hand, the book does an excellent job of highlighting the disparity between the generations: the fluidity of the new generation versus the more stolid, late-Victorian generation of their parents. In addition, the book does inspire me to want to read Vile Bodies and Highland Fling... ( )
  Kasthu | Aug 27, 2010 |
This is somewhere between a group biography and a social history, and I think that lack of distinction is why I didn't like it more. A great deal of it is devoted to the life of Elizabeth Ponsonby, whom Taylor puts forth as a typical "Bright Young Person", but there isn't quite enough of her life for me to really feel that it was a well-rounded account of it. Simultaneously, there's enough of it that not enough time is devoted to other Bright Young People, and the whole book feels rather shallow as a result. It's entertaining, don't get me wrong, and I'll probably keep it as a general reference and jumping-off point for further reading, but it wasn't what I'd hoped it would be. ( )
  gwyneira | Feb 9, 2010 |
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A historical assessment of the bohemian socialites of 1920s London traces their half-century dominance over the Western world's social scene and the ways in which they inspired the works of such authors as Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, in an account that also explores their hidden struggles with wartime tragedies and addiction.… (more)

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