The genesis of my reading of this book is a little convoluted, as it had its roots in a number of things. I suppose it could have started when I read an intriguing review of “Crazy Pavement” by Beverley Nichols on the 1900-1950 blog. But then, I’ve been gathering Nancy Mitford volumes for a little while, adding to the height of the tbr pile. Also, I picked up a copy of Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” and many of the characters in this were ‘Bright Young People’. Finally, I succumbed to a copy of Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, partly because the Capuchin Classic looked so lovely and partly because it sounded fun.

So, with a developing interest in the Bright Young People of the ’20s, I did a little online research which led me to an article extracted from this book, “Bright Young People” by D.J. Taylor. It sounded fascinating and I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in a charity bookstore in Leicester recently (a lot cheaper than Amazon, for once, and in lovely condition). I hadn’t read any non-fiction for a while, so it seemed a good book to start on my return from the Leicester visit.

“BYP” is a study of the lives and loves and partying that took place among a group of mostly very upper class people during the post-World War 1 1920s. Some of the participants I had heard of – Cecil Beaton, Nancy Mitford, Stephen Tennant, Evelyn Waugh; but some were not so well-known to me – Brian Howard, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brenda Dean Paul, Gavin Henderson, Inez Holden. In the aftermath of the War, with a generation of men having been wiped out, the young of Britain were somewhat directionless. With the lack of structure and focus, and with all the old certainties swept away, the young began to party hard, gaining a media presence which was perhaps the first modern representation of the celebrity culture we see today. Taylor follows the group’s exploits through to the changes of the 1930s and war, even taking the story up to the present day and the eventual fate of most of the members.

This was a remarkably good read for a number of reasons. Firstly, I very much liked the structure of the book: instead of simply telling a linear tale, each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of the BYP – their parties, generational issues, gay issues, literature produced etc. This gives Taylor the opportunity to reflect in depth on their behaviour and achievements in a way that a more straightforward narrative would not have. Another strong point was the wealth of research material which had obviously been sourced. Taylor was blessed by several resources, one in particular standing out which was the diaries of the parents of Elizabeth Ponsonby. Both of her parents were inveterate recorders of their daily lives and thoughts, and the material from these painted a poignant picture of their relationship with Elizabeth, their attempts to help her find her way in life, their struggles with her debts and their despair at her lifestyle.

Another fascination for me was the connections the book uncovered with authors I’m already exploring. I recently read Cyril Connolly’s “The Rock Pool” and it turns out that the author had BYP connections and also that the  book was full of BYP in-jokes! Likewise, Anthony Powell’s autobiography is much quoted as a source in “BYP” as he was a friend and contemporary of Waugh and despite a more middle class background still mixed in the same circles. And Robert Byron, who I’ve been reading recently and knew as a travel writer and highly regarded Byzantinist, was surprisingly also a BYP. (I say surprisingly, but given the number of silly ass friends he has with him in “Europe in The Looking Glass”, it should have been obvious!)

A strong point of this book is its objectivity. I recoiled a lot from Frances Osborne’s “The Bolter” for many reasons, including the author’s obvious wish to justify her ancestor’s terrible behaviour and paint her as a victim (as well as its lack of real research and sources). Taylor is remarkably even-handed – although many of the BYP are not the sort who you’d like to spend a night with, he is neither judgemental or hagiographic. Instead, while relating the stories of these people’s lives, he is balanced and fair. It would be easy to condemn the BYP for shallowness and hedonism, but Taylor understands the reasons for their actions. He also very astutely realises that they have all the characteristics of any youth movement before and since – a rejection of previous standards, a refusal to conform to their parents’ wishes, a need to shock. And as with every such wave of rebellion, the participants (mostly) eventually grown up and conform in one way or another. In the case of the BYP, the advent of Nazism was enough to focus the minds of the majority of them on reality and indeed several members served their country in one way or another during WWII.

I felt one of the most apt paragraph came in the chapter dealing with BYP works of literature. Taylor states:

“Beneath… though, lies something much more disquieting. Unsurprisingly, the fundamental concerns of Bright Young People novels turn out to be those of the Bright Young People themselves: generational conflict; doubts about the value of human relationships; the resigned expectation of unpleasant things to come. The future, as conceived by a Powell, a Mitford, or a Waugh is never a rosy blur but something hard, sharp and ominous.”

This seems to me to highlight the frantic sense of desperation that underlay the period and its incessant drinking and partying. The end results were not pretty and many of the characters – Brenda Dean Paul, Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brian Howard in particular – suffered very sad ends. But the impact of the First World War cannot be understated – there had never been a War like it, and a whole generation emerged determined to break free of the kind of society that had allowed such destruction to take place. The tragedy is that in many cases they ended up destroying themselves.