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International Bright Young Things

from the NY Observer

Vile Bodies


Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age
By D.J. Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 361 pages, $27

British tabloids of the 1920s bestowed the sobriquet “Bright Young People” on the generation born near the turn of the century, a generation alienated from older siblings traumatized and decimated by the Great War, and even more alienated from parents whose pre-War mind-set stranded them on the far side of a moral chasm. Their isolation led the Bright Young People to create a new kind of social life—less formal, more sensation-seeking, essentially communal in character. vile.pngThey invented “gatecrashing,” popularized late-night scavenger hunts, and threw the wild dress-up parties that have come down to us in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930): “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs. …”

The legend of the core group is well known: A clique of literary aesthetes bound by ties to Eton and Oxford—some, like Waugh and Anthony Powell, with an edge of seriousness; others, like the Mitfords and Brian Howard, for whom “idiosyncratic” is too mild—took up residence in Mayfair and presided over a revolution in decorum. Then as now, it was a matter of time before the scene they started was co-opted, packaged and sold back to the public as society gossip. By 1931, their heyday had passed and only a few, creatively speaking, survived.

In Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age, D. J. Taylor, author of a first-rate life of George Orwell, shows the sharp instincts of an expert biographer in his approach to 1920s English youth culture. He knows, for example, that the essence of a social scene is most faithfully preserved in the lives of its failures—those who, unlike Waugh, never managed to transcend the group identity that first brought them notice.

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Posted on February 1, 2009 by Editor

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