The interwar years are famous for their hedonism and glamour. The age of jazz, fast-evolving fashion, luxury liners, and Hollywood, it was also a time of great angst and despair. Dr Milena Borden explores the lives of the Bright Young Things and the literature that this era inspired.
Who were the Bright Young Things?
Evelyn Waugh pronounced the best definition: 'There was between the wars a society, cosmopolitan, sympathetic to the arts, well-mannered, above all ornamental even in rather bizarre ways, which for want of a better description the newspapers called “High Bohemia.”' The Bright Young Things included writers, artists, society women and rich club members memorably satirised by Waugh in Vile Bodies (1930).
Behind the party mask of the exuberant and decadent glamour, however, the Bright Young Things were marked by anxiety, melancholy and desperation in the face of a the changing 20th-century world. Having married and separated within one year, Waugh converted to Catholicism whereas his friend, the writer Henry Green (nom de plume of Henry Vincent Yorke), turned to factory work and drink to escape depression.
Although the Bright Young Things had a reputation for disregard of literary convention, they wrote carefully mastered English prose to entertain the reader. Nancy Mitford, the eldest of the six Mitford sisters, lacked formal education but had diverse literary interests stretching from classics to her contemporary George Orwell. Waugh liked to demonstrate disregard for the Oxford academics, but at the same time he had the highest standard of English grammar and prose.
The Bright Young Things had a double-sided relationship with modernism. Waugh loathed everything modern, yet his satirical novels were avant garde parodies full of cinematographic characters as glittering as Hollywood celebrities. He fragmented his early comic novels Decline and Fall (1929) and Vile Bodies (1930) with interrupted scenes, voices and telephone conversations. Anthony Powell, a staunch conservative, used time and memory in innovative ways in the fashion of Proust, whom he admired. The comic simplicity of Mitford’s bestseller The Pursuit of Love (1945), portraying aristocratic life in England, became a 20th century ‘country house novel’ classic.
The Second World War changed the lives of the Bright Young Things. Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Churchill’s Britain provoked their political opinions and tested their morals. Nowhere was this felt more dramatically than in the Mitford family, divided by the two main 20th century ideologies of fascism and communism. When, in 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia and Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws were passed in Germany, Nancy Mitford published Wigs on the Green (1935) – a satire attacking her sisters Diana and Unity for their involvement with British fascism, publicly exposing the rift between them and refusing to make changes as long as she lived. During the Blitz, Nancy Mitford worked in a hospital in London; there she met and fell in love with Gaston Palewski, a Colonel in the Free French Forces and a political aide to Charles De Gaul. She remained loyal to the Bright Young Things in her fashionable dress and fiction – funny and intellectually unburdened, mainly apolitical but with socialist leanings. The title of Love in a Cold Climate (1951) was a quote from George Orwell’s socially critical novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936).
During the war, Henry Green suffered from obsessive fear of death and wrote his autobiography Pack My Bag (1940) with the presentiment that his time may be running short. His experience while serving in the Fire Service influenced his novel Caught (1943), reflecting on loss. He wrote to Waugh: ‘Am very depressed, lonely, & overworked.’
Waugh was disillusioned with the war after having sailed for service in Egypt in 1941, and served as an intelligence officer in the battle of Crete in 1942. He wrote two novels about the war: Put Out More Flags (1942), a comical satire, and the trilogy known collectively as The Sword of Honour (1965) – full of fine detail in its description of military order, Catholic beliefs, the battle of Crete and the campaign in Yugoslavia.
The main character, Guy Crouchback of the fictitious Royal Corps of Halberdiers, observes through a surreal haze the sacrificial attack carried out by Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, alone and under fire. The theme of sacrifice and betrayal is cinematic. Waugh juxtaposes a fast-paced close-up shot and a long-range shot to describe heroism and death. He also contrasts the Brigadier’s going ahead with the others’ retreating. Such lines from the closing chapter of Unconditional Surrender are the locus classicus of Waugh’s writing:
Two figures emerged from the scrub near the block-house walls and were advancing across the open ground. Guy remembered the precept of his musketry instructor: ‘At 200 yards all parts of the body are distinctly seen. At 300 the outline of the face is blurred. At 400 no face. At 600 the head is a dot and the body tapers.’ He raised his binoculars and recognized the incongruous pair; the first was Ritchie-Hook. He was signalling fiercely, summoning to the advance the men behind him, who were already sinking away; he went forward at a slow and clumsy trot towards the place where the rocket-bombs had disturbed the stones. He did not know that he was followed, by one man, Sneiffel, who like a terrier, like the pet dwarf privileged to tumble about the heels of a prince of the Renaissance, was gambolling round him with his camera, crouching and skipping, so small and agile as to elude the snipers on the walls. He spun completely round, then fell forwards to his knees, rose again and limped slowly on. He was touching the walls, feeling for a handhold, when a volley from above caught him and flung him down dead.
Anthony Powell embarked on writing a sequence of twelve novels, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75). The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, grows up in the shadow of the First World War and is dislocated by the Second World War while moving among literary, artistic and political partygoers. Powell’s memorable character Kenneth Widmerpool ruthlessly pursues power against the background of a panoramic view of the war. Waugh praised Powell for using coincidence as a literary device to depict the reality of life full of unpredictable chances and encounters.
Journalism and life writing
Recording life was central to the Bright Young Things. Waugh, who sharply observed and mocked the obsessive partygoers in Vile Bodies, also wrote diaries, three biographies, seven travel books based on his experiences in Europe, Mexico, Africa, British Guiana and Brazil, plus reviews, press articles and a great number of letters.
Powell was a literary editor of Punch (1953-59), regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and within six years published four volumes of memoirs collectively titled To Keep the Ball Rolling (1976-82).
Humour and prose style
The Bright Young Things relished and cultivated humour. The comedy of life was their natural environment. Everyone was a character, eccentric, maniac, mad, witty and absurd. Waugh’s comic satire of journalism, Scoop (1938), creates a funny world of corrupt philistinism and mocks the ‘originals’ of many characters, ladies and lords who live in the ‘lush places’ of the English countryside and rely on newspapers called The Beast and The Brute for news from far away unreal countries like Ishmaelia. As a comic writer Green never enjoyed the popularity of Waugh, although he shared Waugh’s taste for ‘sick humour’ and joke tragedy and his later novel Nothing (1950) parodies his own sensitive character.
But behind the lustre of uproarious London life during the 1920s – where celebrities, Oxford dons, homosexuals and foreign royalty gathered as described in Powell’s book A Buyers Market (1952) – the war years darkened the fun. The people of London’s Mayfair and Fleet Street were moving to the army barracks. The final lines in Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love can be read also as the end of the Bright Young Things: ‘A light went out, a great deal of joy that never could be replaced.’
 Footlights and Chandeliers. Review of The Wandering Years, by Cecil Beaton. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, Edited by Donat Gallagher, (1984).
 Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford: A Biography, (2002).
 Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honour Trilogy: Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), Unconditional Surrender (1961), (Chapman & Hall).
 Jeremy Treglow, Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green, (2000).
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