Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Heroism and Hedonism: reviews of books concerning the Downton Abbey generation.

“Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War.”
Virginia Nicholson. Viking. 2007. pp336 0670915645

Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1939.”
D.J.Taylor. Chatto and Windus. 2007 pp336 0701177543

Leaving aside the riotous pyjama parties, treasure hunts across London in the small hours and gallons of champagne, the generation of “bright young people” who emerged in the aftermath of the First World War, were often less luminous and less young than history has remembered them. Yes, they may have had brought London to a standstill with their stunts and filled the gossip columns week-in, week-out but their relentless hedonistic pursuits were, in many cases, less of a recipe for happiness than the lives of quiet determination led by the huge army of surplus women eking out a packet of tea alone in a single room. Nicholson and Taylors’ books make for fascinating comparisons and readers will find themselves surprised, amused and sometimes frustrated at the contrast.
 2008 marked the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice treaty. Soon after its signing, Virginia Woolf described in her diary the “mental change” she had noticed in the air: “we are once more a nation of individuals. Some people care for football; others for racing; others for dancing…taking up their private affairs again…people quite at their ease and the shops blazoning unshaded light.” It seemed that the world had come back to life and yet, Woolf was full of foreboding: “yet it is depressing too. We have stretched our minds to consider something universal” and was disappointed to find “we contract them at once.” It is this feeling of waste that still lurks behind Taylor’s attempts to avoid passing judgement on the hedonisitic socialites of inter-war London. Immense social change and sacrifice was dismissed by a group bent on pleasure at any cost; amid the entertaining anecdotes of themed parties and uncontrolled self-annihilation, lie glimpses of dismissive and even vicious, responses to the war and its veterans; one young lady dismissed her friend’s fiancée with disgust as having been old enough to fight. Yet for all their wealth and glamorous exuberance, the tragic stories of the Bright Young Things can stir the reader’s sympathy. Take Elizabeth Ponsonby and Brenda Dean: two beautiful, privileged young women who drifted through the twenties with apparently no awareness of the potential consequences of their excess: both died unnecessarily young and unhappy; the letters and diaries of the bewildered Ponsonby parents betray their pain.
 The sense of waste is more powerful for the millions of women described as “surplus” by the government in 1919, whose stories Nicholson has traced in fascinating detail. Here though, the spinster, or “bach” (short for bachelor girl), confined by class, finances or commitments, emerges as more glorious and successful as the Chelsea socialites, surviving through daily acts of heroism and appreciation of their small lot. These are the real bright young things of the era: Victoria Drummond, who became the first female Chief Engineer, Beatrice Gordon Holmes who used her earnings as the first woman stockbroker to buy rose coloured carpets. A flurry of survival books helped the “bach” live life “to the full,” through visits, concerts, small comforts and friends. The reader senses these women enjoyed their small pleasures more than the extravagant parties of the fast set, which the press lampooned as self-conscious freak-shows.
 Both books make good use of the achievements of their subjects: Taylor has the novels of Waugh, Powell and Miller and the photographs of Cecil Beaton: Nicholson has Winifred Holtby, Radcliffe Hall and Angela Du Maurier. Politically, Taylor charts the intimacy developed by Diana Mitford with Mosely and Fascism, which contrasts sharply with Nicholson’s story of Florence White’s campaigns for the introduction of pensions for single women. Female sexuality is a visible and modern facet of Taylor’s subjects; love affairs and divorces created an environment where the pursuit of pleasure and the sustenance of relationships often collided, as the novelist Bryan Guinness found to his cost, when wishing to set up a country home with the party-loving Diana. The raw, rule-breaking homosexual world of the Bright Young Things reinforces the stereotypes of Nicholson’s old maids, rightly or wrongly accused of lesbianism and writing desperate letters to Marie Stopes in hope of a champion for a little solitary or same-sex pleasure.
 Despite containing more draw-out suffering and far less gossipy anecdotal joy, Nicholson’s book is the more positive in conclusion, as it deals with the survivors of a generation of women, drawing many accounts from interviews with centenarians and the autobiographies of their peers, several of whom claim to be willing to live such lives again; it is difficult not to speculate though, about the many women who failed to “survive” and disappeared into unhappy obscurity. Obscurity was not a problem for the likes of Diana Mosely and Elizabeth Ponsonby; their lives were lived in the spotlight, a powerful negative example as the shadow of war loomed again in the late 30s.
 The juxtaposition of two such opposing accounts, could encourage a reader to “take sides.” However, what both books make clear, is the terrible quest for happiness that eluded so many of this generation and instead, incites equal pity. Ironically, the happiest figures emerge as those who dedicated themselves to a life of service, making them useful in some way and prolonging the war-time spirit. For the surplus women and the bright young things, survival meant different things, as Woolf wrote in her 1918 diary: “peace is rapidly dissolving into the light of common day.”

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