The Brightest of the Bright Young People
Last year I read D.J. Taylor’s Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age and developed fascination with several of its members. Stephen Tennant, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Nancy Mitford, Cecil Beaton and the others all led extraordinary lives; although Tennant spent much of his time in bed, he did have a love affair with war poet Siegfried Sassoon. By all accounts Tennant’s life was unique, his great aspiration was to be a great beauty. Photographer Cecil Beaton routinely captured Tennant’s striking features. All of the Bright Young People made a name for themselves: Beaton was a photographer for Vogue, Nancy Mitford was a novelist, Evelyn Waugh and Noel Coward were arguably the most well known. The least accomplished members have the most compelling stories.
Elizabeth Ponsonby gave parties. Sometimes I wonder if she asked what does it all mean and simply decided the answer was an endless stream of parties. Taylor describes an aimless, but charming young woman with no real goals. Her story is more tragic than most of her peers. There were parties to numb the dullness, her elaborate costumes and social life were all that she wanted. In some ways, Ponsonby was similar to Tennant. They both desired the superficiality of it all. I wonder if she grew bitter after her attempts in acting failed as she watched her friends’ success grow. Ponsonby was slowing depleting her parents’ finances. She married Denis Pelly at St. Margaret’s Westminster, she also divorced him. There were more parties. Ponsonby drank a great deal too much and died of alcohol poisoning at 40.
Stephen Tennant may have spent his later years lounging in his Wiltshire estate, but he was a remarkably brave. Homosexuality was illegal and he lived without fear of prosecution. Tennant’s relationship with Siegfried Sassoon is detailed in Philip Hoare’s biography Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant. From the moment I saw Tennant’s photograph in the National Portrait Gallery, I was drawn to him; his delicate features and those eyes that possessed innocence and knowledge at same time. Tennant served as inspiration for Lord Sebastian Flyte, a character in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Flyte lacked Tennant’s narcissism, in fact, he’s far less complex than his real-life counterpart. Tennant and Sassoon’s tumultuous affair is detailed in Hoare’s book. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of Tennant’s character, I had imagined him a kind, tender man but Sassoon’s letters/diaries reveal someone who could be cold and distant. Sassoon was left heartbroken, although he married and had a child. There could be no happy ending for either man.
Tennant’s only book Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook was published in 1937. Perhaps he was talented, it’s said to be a witty novel and the book features Tennant’s own drawings, which demonstrate his creativity. It’s hard to imagine Tennant had time to write, his chief concern seems to have been maintaining an aesthetic.
Evelyn Waugh depicted versions of Ponsonby and Tennant in his novel. So much of Ponsonby’s life is a mystery, her world is described through the eyes of her confused parents. They couldn’t imagine why she squandered her many talents for a feckless existence. Ponsonby is a blank slant, in some ways, she remains unencumbered by history. Taylor used her parents’ diaries but we don’t have her thoughts. We just have pictures of a beautiful woman in costume. Some part of Lady Julia Flyte is based on Ponsonby, but we’ll never know how much. She’s the perfect character because we see what we want to.
Stephen Tennant as Prince Charming
Beaton in Vogue