The chronological niche which the generation of D.J. Taylor’s title occupies, 1918-40, will be remembered by future historians—if, indeed, there should be any such creatures among the oafish homunculi now incubating in the totalitarian crucibles of modern life—for sheltering the end product of the West’s millennial evolution.  Good or bad, foolish or clever, talented or sterile, these men and women were witnesses to a gradual transition “in which one kind of upper-class existence was turning imperceptibly into another.”  After them, the deluge.  Words like upper-class and imperceptibly could no longer be used to describe social reality and its modality of change.

Taylor mentions in passing that, in 1925, “the number of people in the United Kingdom whose annual income, net of tax, exceeded £10,000” was around 1,300.  We may remember this as we come across a contemporary injunction to staff by Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of the socially astute Daily Mail, to get “more names in the paper.  The more aristocratic the better . . . Write and seek news with at least £1,000-a-year man in mind.”  Taylor puts this in context, explaining that “the average provincial clerical wage, for example, was barely a tenth of this figure”—that is, £100.

Today’s corresponding clerical wage is in the neighborhood of £25,000, and the notion that today’s Daily Mail would be interested in the comings and goings of persons with an income ten times this figure, or £250,000, is so laughable that it quite defies comprehension.  Even an income of £2.5 million would not, in and of itself, draw the attention of news writers and society columnists, which is reserved for the Forbes list, roughly equivalent to Britain’s 1,300 richest in 1925.

Somewhere along the way, in other words, the middle has fallen out through a hole in the bottom.  Nearly everyone in the West is rich now, yet nobody cares, because deep down everybody knows that, a few hundred multibillionaires aside, wealth is a mirage, in most ways as illusory as the promised land of communism once found in the East.

Similar fictions have subsumed most areas of public life contiguous on economics, including achievement, recognition, and fame—or even notoriety, which was a key concept for the generation whose foibles and predilections Taylor dissects.  In our own lifetime, for instance, we have had occasion to remark upon the cult of youth.  Hence we can appreciate something of Evelyn Waugh’s foreboding when he complains about “the extraordinary boom of youth . . . Every boy is writing about his school, every child about the doll’s house, every baby about his bottle.”  At first glance the regression he bemoans may strike one as potentially infinite, with plenty of room for “one kind of upper-class existence” to turn “imperceptibly into another,” until one reflects that things may have ends as well as beginnings, and that just as an individual cannot regress further than the feeding bottle, no society can progress much beyond the zoo.

“Certainly,” writes Taylor, “there were interesting continuities.”  Alec Waugh’s friend, Vyvyan Holland, “a fixture of the Twenties party circuit, was Oscar Wilde’s son.”  Wilde’s niece Dorothy “was a friend of Stephen Tennant,” another figure central to Taylor’s narrative.  “Early anatomists of the Bright Young People,” he notes,

were inclined to associate them with recent outbreaks of London bohemianism, such as the almost mythical parties given by Gwen Otter and her brother Frank in Edwardian days, or the “green carnation” party-goers of Wilde-era aestheticism.

Such continuities were, in my view, what had made his “Bright Young People” a generation, rather than merely an agglomeration of young men and women, with or without particular qualities, thrown together by the hand of history into the melting pot of the modern world.

When regarded in such poignant, or should I say melancholy, retrospect, these people’s actual qualities somehow become secondary.  They were not so for their contemporaries, of course.  Reviewing Cyril Connolly’s novel The Rock Pool in 1936, Orwell wrote, mercilessly, that “even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy.”  In some ways this is a slur from which Taylor would hardly recover with grace, were it not for the magic dust of nostalgia sprinkling the pages of his fairy story.

“Toff hagiography,” as Taylor himself confesses to having dismissed Philip Hoare’s Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant in a Private Eye book review way back when in 1990, is a genre that can backfire.  Yet he is right to change his mind, here claiming that it is impossible to write off men like Tennant, or

Brian Howard and his associates, as a gang of gilded triflers.  The influence of the Bright Young People can be felt throughout twentieth-century artistic life.  To take only the most flagrant examples, the London Society world of the mid to late 1920s was a crucible in which were forged the careers of several of England’s greatest novelists, one of its best-loved contemporary poets and half a dozen leading figures in ballet, photography and surrealist painting.

Some will think this a flimsy defense against charges of flippancy.  Taylor could have just said that the “Society” in question had supplied the mise en scène for Anthony Powell’s timeless Dance to the Music of Time, and left it at that.  But then why not just read Powell?

The point is that even if the generation of the Bright Young People could be written off as a bunch of dissolute lightweights, it would merit historical scrutiny as the last legitimate remnant of a mainstream culture and the last literary elite to disport itself in the social limelight.  In short, theirs was the last milieu of cultivated people with overtly artistic pretensions at the very center of a nation’s attention, as exemplified by the telescopic coverage of their doings in the British press of the kind now reserved for gum-chewing oligarchs and hip-hop princesses.  It matters less that their individual achievements (“ballet, photography and surrealist painting,” indeed!) were, in reality, as trifling as their actual capacity for decadence.  Taylor describes a scandalous coven of The Hypocrites club in Oxford “at which fifty guests drank sixty bottles of champagne.”  I dare say people have drunk as much in my time in London at dinner parties for 12.

Here the epoch weaves a florid and absorbing enough tapestry, but that crucial point seems to get lost in a time warp.  Taking a cue from the gossip columnist Patrick Balfour (of whose Society Racket: A Critical Study of Modern Social Life Evelyn Waugh wrote to Diana Cooper: “Pauper Balfour wrote a book saying all rich people lived in blocks of flats, which doesn’t seem to me to be true”), Taylor entitles a chapter “The Society Racket.”  The alleged racket is “the suborning of large parts of the population,” through what we nowadays call the media, “to an illusory upper-class myth of glamour and style.”  But why is that a racket?  Or, more concisely, why is that a racket any more than, say, the Italian Renaissance was a racket?

Elsewhere, speaking of Bryan and Diana Guinness, back in London after a honeymoon in Taormina, Taylor mentions the couple’s new house in Buckingham Gate, “which would become a focus for Bright Young People activity throughout 1929.”  Sheepishly, the next sentence begins, “If not artistic patrons in the Quattrocento sense, the young couple were enthusiastic sponsors of art and artists. . . ”  Well, one yearns to object, of course not.  Of course 1929 was not 1329.  But it was immeasurably more like 1329 than any other random year since then, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and that is the point a connoisseur of the epoch ought to be making.

Between the legitimately inherited Edwardian hereinafter of the Victorian age and the jazzy, glitzy, and bibulous mayhem of Taylor’s people there is a generation gap, to be sure, but it is nothing like the dim, noisy, and fatherless abyss in which, critically unobserved and isolated from his fellows, today’s artist lives.  Vile bodies they may have been, these Bright Young People, but they were the last on earth to use the right fork at dinner and to believe in the immortality of the soul.


[Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age, by D.J. Taylor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 384 pp., $27.00]