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Portraits from an age of parties

Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age - D.J. Taylor

Throughout much of the 1920s, Londoners had a front-row seat to the antics of a small group of socialites about town. These young men and women staged lavish parties, disrupted activities with scavenger hunts and other stunts, and provided fodder for gossip columnists and cartoonists. This group, dubbed the 'Bright Young People,' was fictionalized in novels, recounted in memoirs, and is now the subject of D. J. Taylor's collective history of their group.

An accomplished author, Taylor provides an entertaining account of the group. He describes its members - which included such people as Stephen Tennant, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brian Howard, Bryan Guinness, and Diana Mitford - and the antics that often attracted so much attention. Yet his scope is also broadened to include people such as Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh, socially on the fringe of the group and yet important figures whose interactions with them prove highly revealing. Through their works and the sometimes obsessive coverage they received on the society pages he reconstructs the relationships and the events that captivated the public's attention.

 

From all of this emerges a portrait of a phenomenon that was in many ways a unique product of its time. In the aftermath of the demographic devastation of the First World War, the 1920s was a decade that saw the celebration of youth, all of whom grew up in the shadow of a conflict that was the dominant experience of men and women just a few years older than them. The survivors lived in a world where the older generations were discredited and traditional social structures faced increasing economic pressures. In this respect, the Bright Young People represented a garish defiance of the old order and a celebration of life, yet one driven by an undercurrent of sadness and sense of loss.

 

Taylor's account is infused with both sympathy and insight. At points his narrative degenerates into descriptions of one party after another, when the people threaten to blur into a single generic stereotype, but he succeeds in conveying something of the flavor of the era. From the photos included, the reader can see the fun the young men and women smiling and hamming it up as they pose for the camera, but for what lay behind their expressions readers should turn to this book.