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"Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940" by D.J. Taylor

Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 - D.J. Taylor

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 BridesheadThe Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary FamilyThe 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 interest in the era of the "Bright Young People".