Everybody in the house

<strong>Bright Young People: the Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918 - 1940 </strong>

D J Taylor <

Not all the "Bright Young People" who dominated the celebrity pages in the latter half of the 1920s had brightness or youth on their side, at least not at the same time. And while each was clearly a person, or at least a "has-been", as the notorious Stephen Tennant boasted, identification with the rest of humanity was not one of the group's more memorable characteristics. The left- wing gossip columnist Tom Driberg was unusual in being bright, young, and supposedly on the side of the people, but as Lord Beaverbrook pointed out, Driberg's communism was of the cafe variety - to which the bright young reporter brightly retorted: "Clear thinking need not imply poor feeding." Another well-fed clear think er was Robert Byron, who wrote erudite tomes about Byzantium at the same time as cavorting at parties in the guise of a drunken Queen Victoria.

Driberg and Byron were part of a clique so select you could squash them all into the back of a Rolls. The selection process was, however, surprisingly democratic. Bright young people could be middle-class like Cecil Beaton, driven like Harold Acton, directionless like Brian Howard, aristocratic like Elizabeth Ponsonby, trade like Bryan Guinness, fascist like Oswald Mosley, Jewish like Tom Driberg, and even heterosexual, like Evelyn Waugh. What drew them all together was what Patrick Balfour, another insider, recognised as "impulse", to which can be added a restlessness that today we might call melancholia.

While millions of unemployed marched the streets, "High Bohemia", as the press called this group, were playing their fiddles. Bored with being themselves, they hosted impersonation parties, hermaphrodite parties, sailor parties, Episcopal parties, Mozart parties, second childhood parties, White parties, Black and Red parties, and the party with which D J Taylor begins his fascinating study of hedonism, futility, and fracture, the Bath and Bottle party, held in a municipal swimming pool and regarded as the social event of the season. Brenda Dean Paul, one of the bright young people who was still there in the morning, recalled the night in elegiac terms, "turgid water and thousands of bobbing champagne corks, discarded bathing caps and petal-strewn tiles as the sun came out and filtered through the giant skylights of St George's Baths, and we wended our way home". Every party was experienced as the last.

This was an age in which not only were Brian and Brenda swanky names, but the shadows of war were such that the brightness of a few party-goers could be blinding. While the press was obsessed with these celebrities, nothing could match their self-obsession. When not falling over each other at the same events, they wrote about themselves continually - and usually very well - in novels, poems, plays, diaries, newspaper columns and letters. Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, in which he dramatised the lifestyle of his friends, is Taylor's primary source and he reads the novel as reportage rather than fiction. But in order to get to the heart of this "lost generation", Taylor uses the journals and letters of Arthur and Dolly Ponsonby, who watched their daughter Elizabeth - the Hon Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies - dissolve into a world of dissipation, and die of drink before she reached 40.

It is the Ponsonby archive that provides the emotional heart of Bright Young People, and transforms it from a superior social history into a complex study of family, fear and breakdown. The daughter of a Labour peer and a pacifist, Elizabeth was clever, accomplished, charming, cultured, and with a death-drive so determined that it overrode all else. Her rage for superficiality left her thoughtful parents utterly baffled, and examples of their bafflement serve as a Greek chorus throughout the book. "My daughter has drifted back into the chaos of extravagance," reads a typical entry in her father's journal; "E's affairs utterly hopeless", "E draining us as usual and refusing to find a job", until "the astonishingly lovely face as she lay there dead".

Compared with the tragedy of Elizabeth Ponsonby's listlessness, Brian Howard's failure to become a writer is comic relief. Howard, sent up as Johnny Hoop in Vile Bodies and ridiculed by Cyril Connolly in "Where Engels Fears to Tread", is wonderfully described by Taylor in a sub-chapter devoted to "The Books Brian Never Wrote", books with titles such as Splendours and Decorations of Bavaria, and The Divorce of Heaven and Hell.

Taylor's achievement is to remind us that there are few periods of recent history more culturally interesting than the years between the wars. I guarantee that before you have reached the final page of Bright Young People, you will be searching out everything ever written by Waugh, Anthony Powell, and Nancy Mitford, and will even have placed an order for the poetry of Brian Howard.

Frances Wilson's "The Courtesan's Revenge" is published by Faber & Faber

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever