Introduced by David Lodge
Illustrated by Kate Baylay
The Bright Young Things of 1920s London pursue debauchery and abandon in this most scathing of satires.
Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood … all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodiesCounting Stephen Fry, David Bowie and V. S. Pritchett among its ardent admirers, this inventive satire depicts the ‘Bright Young Things’ of 1920s Mayfair, a group to which the author himself belonged. These bohemian socialites lived in a whirlwind of drug-fuelled parties, extravagant practical jokes and shallow romances, outraging their elders and delighting the tabloid press.
‘A savage study in public and private morals … It is uproarious. It is also ferocious’
Waugh described the Bright Young Things as ‘cosmopolitan, sympathetic to the arts … and above all ornamental even in rather bizarre ways’. In his portrayal of their frivolous and impulsive world, they and their relatives are reduced to two-dimensional, unlikeable characters whose names alone – Prime Minister Outrage, Miles Malpractice, Mrs Melrose Ape – show the mercilessness of Waugh’s acid humour. The jargon they adopted – ‘how shaming’, ‘it’s all rather bogus’, ‘how too divine’ – is captured perfectly by his dialogue, while his exacting prose and rapid scene changes, described by the novelist D. J. Taylor as ‘a kind of filmic shorthand’, mock their fleeting dramas. The novel’s anti-hero is the hapless Adam Fenwick-Symes, whose parodic pursuit of the beautiful Nina sees him borrowing money from her senile father, who mistakes him for a vacuum-cleaner salesman.
Beneath this capricious, inconsequential scene lurks the mood of unease peculiar to the inter-war era. The Bright Young Things belong to a conflicted generation, at once shaken and made defiant by the horror of the First World War, and their debonair attitudes belie a sense of vulnerability which the novel’s sober conclusion proves all too accurate. What’s more, Waugh’s cynical view of humanity was reinforced by the failure of his first marriage part-way through the writing of Vile Bodies. As he notes in his preface (included in this edition) ‘the reader may notice the transition from gaiety to bitterness’.
Evelyn Arthur St John Waugh, the son of a publisher, was born in London in 1903. Educated at Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford, Waugh worked briefly as a schoolmaster before turning to writing full time. His first book, a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was published in 1927, followed in 1928 by his first novel, Decline and Fall. His second novel, Vile Bodies (1930), was written shortly after the breakdown of his brief first marriage; he later remarried and had six children. His journalistic career took him from Abyssinia (at the time of the Italian invasion in 1935) to British East Africa and South America; his extensive travels formed the basis of further novels and travelogues, including A Handful of Dust (1934) and Scoop (1938). He served in the Royal Marines and Royal Horse Guards during the Second World War. Written during six months’ leave from battle, Brideshead Revisited was published in 1945 to enormous acclaim. He died in 1966.
David Lodge is a novelist and critic, and Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, where he taught for many years. His novels include Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988), and most recently Deaf Sentence (2008) and A Man of Parts (2011). His numerous works of criticism include The Art of Fiction (1992), The Year of Henry James (2006) and Lives in Writing (2014). His most recent publication is Quite a Good Time to be Born: A Memoir 1935–1975 (2015). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, was appointed CBE for services to literature and is also a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Kate Baylay received her first full book commission for The Folio Society’s edition of The Olive Fairy Book (2012) while studying illustration at the University of the West of England. Since graduating Kate has worked as a full-time freelance illustrator for clients including Everyman’s Library and the Goethe-Institut. She illustrated Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales for The Folio Society in 2013. Her work is created with a combination of pencil, watercolour and digital media.
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Review by anon on 2nd Mar 2016
"I really enjoyed this and it could have been written in 2016, so little has changed."