Bright Young People : The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 Paperback
by D. J. Taylor
'"Bright Young People". Making the most of our youth. They talk in the Press of our social success. But quite the reverse is the truth' - Noel Coward. The Bright Young People were one of the most extraordinary youth cults in British history.
A pleasure-seeking band of bohemian party-givers and blue-blooded socialites, they romped through the 1920s gossip columns.
Evelyn Waugh dramatised their antics in Vile Bodies and many of them, such as Anthony Powell, Nancy Mitford,Cecil Beaton and John Betjeman, later became household names.
Their dealings with the media foreshadowed our modern celebrity culture and even today,we can detect their influence in our cultural life.
But the quest for pleasure came at a price. Beneath the parties and practical jokes was a tormented generation, brought up in the shadow of war, whose relationships - with their parents and with each other - were prone to fracture.For many, their progress through the 'serious' Thirties, when the age of parties was over and another war hung over the horizon, led only to drink, drugs and disappointment, and in the case of Elizabeth Ponsonby - whose story forms a central strand of this book - to a family torn apart by tragedy. Moving from the Great War to the Blitz, "Bright Young People" is both a chronicle of England's 'lost generation' of the Jazz Age, and a panoramic portrait of a world that could accommodate both dizzying success and paralysing failure.
Drawing on the writings and reminiscences of the Bright Young People themselves, D.J.
Taylor has produced an enthralling social and cultural history, a definitive portrait of a vanished age.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 336 pages, 16
- Publisher: Vintage Publishing
- Publication Date: 02/10/2008
- Category: British & Irish history
- ISBN: 9780099474470
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Review by nigeyb
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".