UNQUIET SOULS by Angela Lambert


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Halfway between serious history and the society column, this well-informed, well-organized, and generally well-written chronicle guides us through two generations (1880-1918) of a very smart set of British aristocrats--but fails to show us much substance behind the glitter. ""The Souls"" were a rich, fast, elegant in-group of about 40 men and women: most notably Herbert Asquith, Arthur Balfour, George Curzon, and the remarkable Tennant sisters, Laura, Lucy, and Margot. Along with some of their children (known collectively as ""the Coterie"" and including such people as Raymond Asquith and Lady Diana Manners), they devoted themselves to love affairs, lavish entertaining, self-analysis, and other pleasures suitable to intelligent but not bookish landed gentry. The Marlborough House Set, clustered around the Prince of Wales, had bigger fortunes; and Bloomsbury had real intellectual distinction; but ""the Souls"" had charm. They ""lit up the sombre draperies of Victorian drawing-rooms much as the Impressionists were pouring sunlight through the Paris art world. They were gifted with a lightness of touch that made everyone else seem heavy by comparison."" Charm, of course, is better experienced than read about, but Lambert manages to evoke the je ne sais quoi that made Laura Tennant Lyttelton (whose death in childbirth at age 24 fused ""the Souls"" into a coherent body) so winsome or the womanizing poet, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, so irresistible. On the other hand, despite her sometimes breathless enthusiasm for these gilded butterflies, Lambert doesn't hesistate to criticize them for their egotism, materialism, and exploitation of their armies of servants. The best and brightest of ""the Coterie"" were slaughtered in WW I, and Lambert hits a peak of dramatic interest with her descriptions of the tragedies, personal and national, that finally dissolved ""the Souls."" Some of her historical judgments are amateurish (e.g., that ""With Edward [VIII the Peacemaker gone, the field was clear for the many who wanted to fight""), but she does a good job of weaving the biographies of some five dozen people into a vivid popular tapestry.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row