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A Reading Life

Most definitely misbehaving

Some Bright Young People, 1931, including Elizabeth Ponsonby (far left). Some Bright Young People, 1931, including Elizabeth Ponsonby (far left). (Ponsonby family archive)
By Katherine A. Powers
January 11, 2009
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Less than two weeks into the new year's regime of clean living and industry, some of us are already beginning to feel the call of the wild and to forget how tiresome revelry and dissipation really are. A most salutary reminder comes in the shape of D. J. Taylor's "Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London's Jazz Age" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27). They are now known best to us in their fictional form, trooping through English novels of the late 1920s into the '30s, among them Anthony Powell's, Nancy Mitford's, Henry Green's, and, above all, Evelyn Waugh's "Decline and Fall," "Vile Bodies," and "A Handful of Dust." "Set down in the pages of fiction," Taylor observes, "Bright Young People invariably come accompanied by a kind of spiritual leper bell." In life they were, in the main, insolent, hedonistic, and, despite inner melancholy, deeply and aggressively shallow. The real wonder is that Taylor has made such an absorbing book about such a wearisome, generally untalented, and, for all their frenzy, essentially joyless group of people. Those with talent and depth or just talent were either exceptions or something like fellow travelers.

Who were the Bright Young People? They are not to be confused with Bright Young Things: a looser, international genus of flapperdom, of which the Bright Young People were a small, distinct, British, and, notwithstanding their racketiness, exclusive species. Born around 1905, they were most visibly drawn from privileged backgrounds of social consequence, though that mix was spiced up with artists, exotics, and would-be's from other ranks. Their reign, distinguished by outré parties and dress-ups, public escapades, and drunken pranks, was short, lasting only from the mid-1920s to at best 1931. They were marked by hostility to the preceding generation, with which they associated the war and their own blighted prospects. They assumed an air of hectic doom or, in Taylor's words, of "sorrowing in the sunlight, good times gone, the myriad champagne corks bobbing away on a stream turned unexpectedly chill."

Taylor spends a good deal of time nailing down who precisely was and was not - and was not quite or only briefly - a Bright Young Person. He discusses the group's connections, style, self-image, wherewithal, employment, appetites, proclivities, and most notorious capers and parties. But, in the end, he shows that the element that really made them an entity, that defined and even created them, was the press. Various newspapers took them up in gossip columns (some written by Bright Young Persons themselves) and made of their exploits a continuing saga with familiar, recurring figures chiefly for the consumption of middle- and lower-middle-class readers. A life of a Bright Young Person became, in print, a "faintly sinister frieze, in which quiddity [was] reduced to idiosyncrasy."

The book really takes hold when Taylor seizes on the actual trajectory of the lives of individual members, most terribly and poignantly that of Elizabeth Ponsonby, the daughter of a Labor minister and later a lord, and thus perfect fodder for press coverage. The difference between the press's version of Ponsonby as a well-born madcap bent on high jinks, and the reality - an alcoholic vandal and wastrel, a torment to her family - is gruesome and in the end heartbreaking. The pages devoted to her, enriched by Taylor's access to the Ponsonby family papers, are all the biography her lack of accomplishments and frittered-away youth warrant; yet they greatly deepen this study of a social phenomenon.

Evelyn Lord's "The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies" (Yale University, $32.50) is not quite the account of bad behavior that its title promises, though it is a fine excursion into one of the British Enlightenment's more unlikely contributions to culture. Hell-Fire Clubs came with antecedents in the shape of small bands of upper-class hooligans roaming the streets of London, wreaking havoc on property and mayhem on passersby. This sort of carry-on may have been a reaction against the former puritanical rigors of Cromwell's regime, but it also had a distinct class element, being an exercise in the brutishness that is as characteristic of British toffs as passing the port.

The spirit of upper-class wickedness - at least in the public estimation - found a settled home in 1721 with the first of the Hell-Fire Clubs, just one of the countless clubs formed in that most clubbish of centuries. Its aims and activities, beyond shocking the public, having a good time, and keeping its membership secret, must, Lord notes, be distinguished from the myths that continue to this day. The violation of virgins and summoning of the devil were not on the agenda, though the Enlightenment's elevation of happiness as a virtue and its questioning of traditional religion encouraged a modicum of sex of one sort or another, as well as the drinking of vast quantities of booze out of obscene glasses, and a good deal of heterodox theologizing.

Lord runs through the influences, varieties, and members of various Hell-Fire Clubs and their increasingly louche predecessors. The most notorious of the latter was the Medmenham Friars, or Knights of St. Francis, often erroneously considered the original Hell-Fire Club. Its motto was "Fay ce que vouldras" ("Do what you will"), and its members' penchant for dressing up was equal to the Bright Young People's, though its pursuits were far more priapic. Still, the Friars' reputation for obscene and diabolical rituals is, according to Lord, exaggerated, not only because of the public's prurient speculations about a club so secret and top-drawer, but because of John Wilkes's vendetta against it. Crusader for freedom of the press and the rights of American colonists, Wilkes was also a confirmed libertine and enthusiastic participant in club activities. But he fell out with his fellow members over politics and turned on the club, bringing tales of sordid goings-on to Charles Johnstone, who incorporated embellished versions of them into his novel "Chrysal: Or, the Adventures of a Guinea." This provided readers with what they wanted, and a quick rummage though the Web shows that this dish is still being served up, though with rather touching earnestness.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@verizon.net.

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