Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Review - D. J. Taylor's Bright Young People

Bright Young People by D. J. Taylor
Published by: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication Date: October 4th, 2007
Format: Hardcover, 361 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

"There’s an old rhyme about Fuzzy Wuzzy that ends with “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?” By the same token, although they’ve certainly cast a long and sparkly shadow, the Bright Young People weren’t very bright, and no one manages to convey this better than D.J. Taylor in his Bright Young People. He faithfully chronicles the increasingly inventive parties, but also the ennui, the disillusionment, and waste of time and talent.

I first read this book when I was doing my research for The Ashford Affair, which zigzagged around 1920s London and 1920s Kenya. It was a bit out of my field for that—I was really more interested in a slightly older crowd, the men and women who came of age during World War I rather than after—but I was fascinated by a) what a small and narrow circle the Bright Young Things moved in, b) how short their tenure, and c) what a disproportionate effect they created.

I’m still struggling with just what it was about this group of party-goers that makes their antics still a by-word today. Was it because they produced a pair of truly brilliant novelists? Was it because, in their own concentrated, exaggerated way, they managed to echo the malaise and restlessness of the times? Or is it the sheer absurdity and flamboyance of it all that still fascinates?" - Lauren Willig

The 1920s in England spawned a unique subculture. The Bright Young Things, people who partied every night, always had just the right bon mot, and never failed to make headlines in the newspapers, many written by their own set, swept through the country. While their parents might have thought of them as the scourge of the country with their depravity, the public couldn't get enough of reading about the antics of these young partygoers. But the artistic and bohemian lifestyle had a price, most of them wasted their talents and were burned out by their hedonistic lifestyle. Of all the Bright Young People, so few names remain memorable in the artistic community, such as Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. What happened to the rest? They were the symbol of a decade but as that decade grew to a close the world was changing, war started to loom again on the horizon, and decadence wasn't looked on favourably during a time of retrenchment. Though looking back, it is fascinating to examine the beginning of what would become our celebrity obsessed society. It didn't start with Kim and Kanye, it started with Beverly Nichols and Elizabeth Ponsonby!

Biographies written by authors with an overinflated sense of self are hard to read. They don't let their subjects take center stage, being always more concerned with patting themselves on the back then doing justice to their subjects. D.J. Taylor is such a writer, more interested in using obscure words and overblown language to showcase his own "talent" then writing a solid book, whose subject matter I'm not even sure he liked all that much. There is a smugness in the way he assumes that everyone must know who and what he is talking about and that if you don't you are unworthy of this knowledge. This leaves the reader confused in a morass of names and events with only the loosest grasp of who any of the Bright Young People really are. Apparently a simple precise of the cast of characters would sully Taylor's writing and make the book too approachable by the uniformed masses. And the thing is, I'm not uniformed! I know many of the Bright Young People and still I felt like I was futilely trying to catch some meaning out of the fog Taylor creates with his impenetrable text. Bright Young People and authors like Taylor are the exact reason I have problems with biographies and why I so rarely read them. And if he referenced ONE MORE picture that wasn't included in the book I was ready to burn it, library fine or no.

When I read the biography on the Mitford sisters, I faced many of the same problems I faced here. The Sisters just rehashed commonly known facts and oft told stories I had heard in their own books while bringing nothing further to the table. Taylor does the same. He spends copious amounts of time dwelling on repeating plots from books or tales of parties that are better told elsewhere. Why would I be reading this book to read in detail the plot of Vile Bodies? If I wanted to know about Vile Bodies I would read Vile Bodies! Which I am actually planning on doing anyway. But the biggest problem I have with him summarizing these primary sources is he does it so badly. I know it's hard to condense a book's narrative down so that you engage your reader as well as give just enough detail without spoiling the book, heck I do it with every book review I write. So I think I'm a little qualified to pass judgment here. In the book's chapter entitled "Projections" which is near the end of the book, if you make it that far which I don't advise you to do, all Taylor does is badly summarize the literary efforts of the authors this generation spawned. Now I have read all the books Nancy Mitford has written, ALL THE BOOKS, and I could barely recognize Highland Fling from Taylor's description. The same can be said about Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie. Therefore I can only assume the books I haven't read were just as atrociously summarized. Plus, why do I want to read this when I could just pick up the original book? You would be better off reading all the primary sources then wading into this pompous and pretentious morass that theoretically attempts to unify the authors lives and works into one book.

What is fascinating about this grouping of authors, photographers, heiresses, and what have you is that they were a very egalitarian group, despite being very clannish. Many people site the first world war as the great equalizer. It was the last war where your status could get you a higher commission. The world started to shift from this Upstairs, Downstairs world to a world more founded on merit. Therefore why should it be any surprise that The Bright Young People were also a more democratic lot. Titled "Hons" rubbed shoulders with "laborers" in their midst. The two most recognizable of these lower orders rising up are Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh. While Beaton was more overtly ambitious, these two men, who ironically hated each other, had humbler beginnings then many of their contemporaries among this glittering society. Waugh's father was an author and literary critic, while Beaton's was a timber merchant. While their beginnings weren't so humble as to be penurious, seeing as they went to the right schools and therefore worked their way into this new social circle, it is just fascinating that they had a-typical backgrounds. When you think of the writer to define this generation, this movement, while Nancy Mitford is a close second, Evelyn Waugh takes the top prize. He immortalized this period for future generations. Likewise if one was to think of a person who captured the images of the age, Cecil Beaton, hands down. Sure he went on to even greater acclaim and Academy Awards, but it is his portraiture of this age the captures it for time in memoriam.

One aspect that I found interesting enough to dwell a few minutes on was the idea of the Bright Young "Thing" versus the Bright Young "Person." Because it's an interesting theory I can unequivocally state that Taylor didn't think it up and it's been floating around for awhile, he just doesn't have it in him. While many people refer to the culture of the Bright Young Thing it would be more accurate to replace "Thing" with "Person" or "People" because this was a generation that, while they had an overall vibe, it was the personalities that made this movement important. Which is why little precises of all the movers and shakers would have been so helpful! If this is a movement about the people, it would be helpful to know who all these people are! Name drop all you want Taylor, if I don't know them just reading their names over and over again isn't going to magically enlighten me! This was really the epoch of what we now know as celebrity culture, of the "personality." Sure, there were famous personages prior to the twenties, but their every single detail down to who was at a bridge party at Nancy Mitford's house wasn't published in the press. This was when the exploits of so-called celebrities daily exploits were written up to be consumed by the masses who could barely comprehend living this party lifestyle. We still consume it at probably an even more rapid rate then they did back then. Turn on the television at any time of day and there are some pseudo-celebrities with cameras following them everywhere. And while it is funny to think about what a reality show with Elizabeth Ponsonby or Evelyn Waugh would have been like, in the end would the show be any more captivating then any current reality TV? Probably not. Just more people trying to stay in the spotlight with stunts and parties.

The biggest flaw though, in this overly flawed book, is that Taylor breaks basically the only rule for writing a work of non-fiction, and that is overreliance on one source. When you write non-fiction using only one person's diaries or journals it gives you a skewed view of what really happened. You are only getting one side of the story. You can't provide any kind of faithful narrative with only this one POV. Here the POV is almost strictly that of the Ponsonbys. Taylor must have been so flattered to be allowed unprecedented access to the Ponsonby family archive that it inflated his already inflated ego and turned this book more and more into a platform for the elder Ponsonbys to rail against their daughter, Elizabeth. Firstly, why didn't Taylor just write about them if they were so obviously his pet project, and secondly, the "generational struggle" that the diary entries are supposed to highlight as a typical reaction to children misbehaving don't work. At all. Instead, these diary entries focused on the behavior of their daughter make Elizabeth's parents seem unstable. They appear, quite dramatically, to be psychotically obsessed with their daughter's comings and goings, even onto the point of her sexual activity. If you think OCD helicopter parents are a new trend, I give you the Ponsonbys as proof against that. Seriously, they just give me the creeps. There's a book in their relationship with their daughter, it just shouldn't have been in any part of this one. Also, Norma Bates, you have been outdone, FYI.

The feeling this book leaves you with, beside rage at the author and a desire never to meet the Ponsonbys, is that of overwhelming sadness. The Bright Young People burned bright and fast, falling into ruin and disipation. The book couldn't be bothered with going into the whys and wherefores as to how this generation was formed, aside from quotes from far better authors of the time. But you still get that this generation was lost, not in the typical sense. They didn't disappear, they left their mark, but it was fleeting. They were lost in the wilderness and didn't know how to make a life of parties and treasure hunts and dressing up transition into a real life, with productive work and a future. Of all the personalities profiled, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Powell, Harold Acton, John Betjeman, Edward Burra, Edward Gathorne-Hardy, Babe Plunket-Greene, Brian Howard, Beverly Nichols, Brenda Dean Paul, Bryan Guinness, Henry Green, the Sitwells, and the Mitfords, and many more, the average person would probably only know Evelyn Waugh. If they are more of a reader, perhaps Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Anthony Powell. Of the coeterie of personalities, only a small handful are still known. Only these few had any lasting power. Yet all these people wrote or act or were creative and yet there is nothing to remember them by. So maybe they are lost in every since of the word. It's too too sad making.


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