The TLS in this week’s issue has published for the first time a 1920’s story written by Nancy Cunard. She was one of the Bright Young People and went on to become something of a free-lance intellectual and left-wing political activist in Paris during the 1930s. She apparently wrote the story (her only known fiction) entitled “A Lost Night” while in a relationship with novelist Michael Arlen (best known for his novel The Green Hat) in 1920s London. As explained in the TLS article by Anna Girling introducing the story, its writing style reflects that of Arlen. Girling is a PhD student at Edinburgh University, and it was she who discovered the story among some papers left by Arlen’s daughter who died in 2011. Girling’s introduction opens with this:
[…] In her lifetime, Cunard’s prolific literary and political activity was overshadowed by her image as a perpetual Bright Young Thing, and she is now remembered, if at all, for her colourful personal life, multiple (male and female) sexual partners, flamboyant fashion sense, and her fictionalized appearance in a number of novels from and about the interwar period, the 1920s in particular. Characters apparently based on Cunard feature in works by Aldous Huxley, Richard Aldington, Michael Arlen, Wyndham Lewis and Evelyn Waugh. All but Waugh were one-time lovers of Cunard’s, and all depict her as voraciously over-sexed – “a lecherous octopus”, as Aldington put it. One can but speculate about the degree to which dented masculine pride contributed to the viciousness of these partial portraits, but Cunard is, for example, known to have compared sex with Huxley (who would go on to depict her as “a perfumed imitation of a savage or an animal”) to “being crawled over by slugs” […]
What characters in Waugh’s works were based on Nancy Cunard is not mentioned, but she could well be imagined as one of those in Vile Bodies. Waugh seems to have had more contact with Nancy’s mother Emerald (an American who married one of the shipping line heirs whose parties he attended during his social climbing days) than with Nancy herself.
Girling’s story goes on to describe Nancy’s experience as a publisher in 1930s Paris when her most notable effort was the publication of a door-stopper anthology entitled Negro. Its success in the book market was checkered, but according to Girling, it was recently reissued by a Parisian publisher in a facsimile edition of the original. Donat Gallagher also notes in his collection of Waugh’s journalism that it was Nancy who, together with Louis Aragon, canvassed writers in 1937 to determine which side they supported in the Spanish Civil War. Waugh was one of the few respondents who, if forced to choose, preferred Franco’s Fascists to his leftist opponents (EAR, p. 187).