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The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age

by D.J. Taylor

Pub Date: Jan. 13th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-374-11683-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

British biographer and novelist Taylor (Kept, 2008, etc.) offers a vivid group portrait of the 1920s pleasure-seekers who ought to have been—and sometimes were—characters in Evelyn Waugh’s novels.

Inveterate idlers and party animals, these vainglorious glitterati twinkled their way through London society, siphoning off their sometimes indulgent families’ fortunes to bankroll lavish parties, elaborate pranks and sexual dalliances, while excitedly congratulating one another for the jaded stabs at originality. Major literary figures Waugh, Anthony Powell, the pseudonymous “Henry Green” and effervescent Nancy Mitford rubbed shoulders with such varied luminaries as celebrity photographer Cecil Beaton, journalist Tom Driberg, epicene underachievers Brian Howard and Stephen Tennant and unstable sybarites like Elizabeth Ponsonby. Taylor’s study revels in snapshot accounts of their scattered activities, but never really abandons its essentially anecdotal structure—over 300-plus pages, repetition thus becomes unavoidable. But the particulars are often irresistible. One yearns to have been a fly on the wall at the “fancy dress ball…featuring a gang of fashionable debutantes dressed as the Eton rowing eight,” or the notorious Bruno Hat exhibition of faked modernist paintings. Taylor expertly connects this shrill game-playing to memorable depictions of it in Waugh’s Vile Bodies, Powell’s Afternoon Men and Henry Green’s Party Going, while never neglecting the actual achievements of their lesser peers (e.g., Beverley Nichols’s forgotten novel Singing Out of Tune). A note of genuine pathos is struck in his description of how the increasingly straitened economic and political circumstances of the ’30s began rendering this gaudy subculture obsolete.

Immensely readable, and of real value as a sharply pointed cautionary tale.