Something for the New Year

Constable has announced the publication later in the new year of a book by D J Taylor entitled Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature: 1939-51:

Who were the Lost Girls? At least a dozen or so young women at large in Blitz-era London have a claim to this title. But Lost Girls concentrates on just four: Lys Lubbock, Sonia Brownell, Barbara Skelton and Janetta Parlade. Chic, glamorous and bohemian, as likely to be found living in a rat-haunted maisonette as dining at the Ritz, they cut a swathe through English literary and artistic life in the 1940s. Three of them had affairs with Lucian Freud. One of them married George Orwell. Another became the mistress of the King of Egypt and was flogged by him on the steps of the Royal Palace. And all of them were associated with the decade’s most celebrated literary magazine, Horizon, and its charismatic editor Cyril Connolly.

Lys, Sonia, Barbara and Janetta had very different – and sometimes explosive personalities – but taken together they form a distinctive part of the war-time demographic: bright, beautiful, independent-minded women with tough upbringings behind them determined to make the most of their lives in a highly uncertain environment. Theirs was the world of the buzz bomb, the cocktail party behind blackout curtains, the severed hand seen on the pavement in the Bloomsbury square, the rustle of a telegram falling through the letter-box, the hasty farewell to another half who might not ever come back, a world of living for the moment and snatching at pleasure before it disappeared. But if their trail runs through vast acreages of war-time cultural life then, in the end, it returns to Connolly and his amorous web-spinning, in which all four of them regularly featured and which sometimes complicated their emotional lives to the point of meltdown.

The Lost Girls were the product of a highly artificial environment. After it came to an end – on Horizon‘s closure in 1950 – their careers wound on. Later they would have affairs with dukes, feature in celebrity divorce cases and make appearances in the novels of George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Nancy Mitford. The last of them – Janetta – died as recently as three months ago. However tiny their number, they are a genuine missing link between the first wave of newly-liberated young women of the post-Great War era and the Dionysiac free-for-all of the 1960s. Hectic, passionate and at times unexpectedly poignant, this is their story.

Waugh certainly mentioned all four of the “Lost Girls” in his letters and portrayed some, if not all, of them in his novel Unconditional Surrender. These were the four secretaries of Everard Spruce, editor of the wartime literary journal Survival┬á(much like Cyril Connolly and Horizon). Two are named Frankie (frequently barefoot like Janetta Parlade) and Coney (who may be based on Sonia Brownell). The other two are not named but they are collectively described by Waugh in the novel:

The secretaries were dressed rather like [Everard Spruce in reclaimed clothing] but in commoner materials; they wore their hair long and enveloping, in a style which fifteen years later was to be associated by the newspapers with the King’s Road. One went bare-footed as though to emphasize her servile condition. They were sometimes spoken of as ‘Spruce’s veiled ladies’. They gave him their full devotion; also their rations of butter, meat, and sugar…When they were not engaged in domestic tasks–cooking, queuing, or darning–the four secretaries stoked the cultural beacon [Survival] which blazed from Iceland to Adelaide: here the girl who could type answered Spruce’s numerous ‘fan letters’ and the girl who could spell corrected proofs. Here it seemed some of them slept for there were divan beds covered with blankets only and a large, much undenticulated comb. (Penguin 1975, pp. 40,42)

Other Waugh-related events to be anticipated the new year include the 75th anniversary of the first (serialized) publication of Brideshead Revisited starting in November 1944 and the publication of more volumes of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh (Put Out More Flags has been rumored to be the next novel), as well as presentations at Durham University, the Chipping Camden Literary Festival and Lancing College mentioned in previous posts.

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