DJ Taylor begins his new book with a detailed description of a party that never happened... It doesn’t matter much to Taylor that he has made it all up; he tells us that there is “every chance” that parties like this happened. It is an odd opening to a book that continues to puzzle and mystify. Taylor emphatically says from the outset that this is not a book about Cyril Connolly, which it patently is.
An Elephant in Rome
" January 1, 2021 Read this issue IN THIS REVIEW AN ELEPHANT IN ROME Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City 224pp. Pallas Athene. £19.99. Loyd Grossman Acheerful bricolage of biography, art history, trivia and travelogue..."
— Times Literary Supplement
Their fragility comes across strongly in these pages; and it’s the undertone of sadness beneath all the sex and the partying that makes the book so poignant. Taylor is too truthful a writer to make crass generalisations but, in order to steer us towards the essence of the phenomenon he’s trying to put his finger on, he posits some general truths about the Lost Girls – the four main players being Lys, Janetta, Barbara and Sonia. Notably, he does not give their maiden names when he first introduces them: it’s as if they have been cast so far adrift from their roots by the time they arrive in this story that they’re already floating free, at the mercy of the prevailing winds of literary London. They are, in fact, Lys, née Dunlap, then Lubbock, then Connolly, then Koch; Sonia, née Brownell, then Orwell, then Pitt-Rivers; Janetta, née Woolley, then Slater, then Kee, then Jackson, then Parladé; and Barbara, née Skelton, then Connolly, then Weidenfeld, then Jackson.
Were the Lost Girls simply femmes fatales by another name? Some were more fatale than others, using their undoubted sexual allure to get even with, or ahead of, men who had previously called all the shots. Others — Sonia and Lys — were more victim than victor, as Taylor makes clear in his entertaining, ever shrewd account. Precariously at large in wartime London, their aim to be independent working girls points to a nascent feminism of sorts, and was abetted by the unpredictability of life in the Blitz. If they flew too close to the flame and their modest ambitions were ultimately derailed by the hyper-inflated ego of ‘the cultural panjandrum of Bedford Square’ and his Horizon circle, it was a sad loss, and not only to them. In the end, men still called most of the shots, the Lost Girls were bad choosers of men — and the rest is history.
The result is an often very funny chronicle of fiendishly complicated and rackety love lives. Like a map of ever-revolving Venn diagrams, the social lives of upper-class and intellectual Britain intersected at parties, weekends, cottages, on continental holidays, in shabby flats and grand houses... Connolly’s appeal to women is elusive on the page: almost all accounts eagerly detail his laziness, snobbery, cruelty and exploitation; he played his multiple lovers off against each other... Although Taylor’s wry fascination with this moment of British social and intellectual history is infectious and mostly deliciously readable, it does occasionally feel as if he is peering through a grimy wartime window, trying in vain to lip-read the clever chatter of the partygoers inside.
In Lost Girls, Taylor presents a colourful portrait of this fascinating, sophisticated and highly sexualised literary world. The chaos of the lives of these lost girls, their husbands, lovers, friends and enemies, is expertly narrated. Taylor also offers excellent descriptions of the daily routine in the Horizon office and, crucially, of that ruthlessly dominating figure, Connolly himself. Occasionally, the stage becomes a little overcrowded: there are a few too many digressions, too many lesser-known figures, past and future husbands and wives, lovers, friends, writers and members of society, all of them interesting in themselves but slightly distracting, their appearances too often turning the spotlight away from the leading members of this eccentric cast. All in all, however, this is a remarkable work and an important addition to the extraordinary wartime history of literary London.
Taylor has a brilliant eye for quotation and Lost Girls is, as well as being a superior group biography, a collection of glittering glimpses of personalities (everyone from Bowen to Waugh, Osbert Sitwell to Nancy Mitford), of prose, and of insights. Taylor’s urbane, acute and stylish presence is everywhere... The book abounds with piquant detail, while not losing sight of the larger picture.
Taylor is a strikingly versatile writer — novelist, critic, historian, author of the standard biography of Orwell, and the acerbic wit behind Private Eye’s What You Didn’t Miss column. He starts this book with a brilliant snatch of spoof history in which a guileless young woman from Shepperton finds herself, by mistake, at a party among an alarming gathering of 1930s Bloomsbury intellectuals. He ends it with an account of a real-life interview that Janetta, aged 94, granted him in 2016, in which she pooh-poohs his whole idea of Lost Girls (“I think it’s rather silly really”).