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Saturday, March 30, 2013

“Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age”, by D.J. Taylor

384 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374532116

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, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age.

Britain’s “Lost Generation” grew up immediately after World War I. Too young to take part in the fighting, their childhoods were scarred by loss and privation. Its small wonder that in the early 1920s these young men and women began to make their marks as brainless partiers intent on having a good time, unchecked by the influence of older brothers (dead on the battle field) or parents (somewhat poorer and definitely out of fashion). D.J. Taylor does an excellent job of chronicling the lives of these men and women through the 1920s and 1930s and then beyond.

Many of the Bright Young People were highly gifted writers, like Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, and Nancy Mitford. They began producing novels and thinly disguised memoirs of the Bright Young People while the group was still in its heyday. Others, like Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brian Howard, squandered whatever creative talent they possessed in a fog of booze, drugs, and ceaseless but purposeless activity. I enjoyed reading the many anecdotes with which Taylor enlivens his text, describing elaborate masquerades or complicated and sometimes cruel practical jokes, but it grew wearisome to think that the people participating kept it up unceasingly for more than a decade. Often what seems like a good idea and a lot of fun at 21 begins to seem rather dull and pointless by 25 and unbearable by 30, but that never seemed to dawn on many of the Bright Young People, making that sobriquet seem even sadder and more ironic. Taylor thoughtfully provides us with an afterword in which he summarizes the later careers of the Bright Young People, some brilliant and many more banal.

Bright Young People is an entertaining work which will appeal to social historians and scholars of twentieth century English literature, as well as anyone who enjoys reading about gifted and talented young people and their less brilliant but still amusing hangers-on.

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