DJ Taylor finds intelligence as well as raciness among the women who scandalised Britain’s postwar literary set

The Observer recently reviewed DJ Taylor’s Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-1951.

Miranda Seymour writes:

Twenty years ago, the so-called “lost girls” of the 1940s were described by Hilary Spurling as posh but under-educated typists. Spurling’s focus was on Sonia (Brownell) Orwell, whose wartime job on a magazine gave her excellent 2002 biography its title: The Girl from the Fiction Department. DJ Taylor, who has previously written about the bright young things of the interwar years, makes a convincing case for seeing Sonia and her peers as a racier, tougher and far more intelligent group than has previously been allowed.

The “lost girls” could refer to at least a dozen or so young women at large in blitz-era London, but Taylor mainly concentrates on four: Lys Lubbock, Sonia Brownell, Barbara Skelton and Janetta Parladé, née Woolley. Chic, glamorous and bohemian, and more likely to be seen dining at the Ritz than living in a rat-infested garret, they cut a swath through English literary and artistic life in the 1940s. Three of them had affairs with Lucian Freud. One of them, as we know, married George Orwell.

United by their independent spirits and the kind of beauty that makes young fools of the savviest of sages, these bright, bold girls of the 40s were incurably improper. Treated atrociously by the predatory writers and artists who professed to worship them – Cyril Connolly possessed even fewer scruples than either Lucian Freud or Peter Quennell – these young women acquired a resilience that enabled them to give every bit as good as they got.

The emotional detachment that got the lost girls through some of their stickiest moments derived, Taylor suggests, from having had to fend for themselves from a very early age. Most were the products of broken marriages; all learned – fast – to rely on their good looks. Woolley, seduced at 17 by a man of 40, explained later, lamely, that it was “what one did”. Culme-Seymour, told by her mother that lovers were a mark of freedom, was urged to take “heaps of them”.

Shame played no part in their uncommonly promiscuous careers. Culme-Seymour did eventually admit that eloping with one of her younger half-sister’s husbands (the serially married Derek Jackson) might have been just a touch inconsiderate (Woolley refused to speak to her for almost 30 years). Skelton, during a postwar interlude in which (Taylor observes primly) her companions were “not of the choicest”, shared a rarely solitary bed with two obligingly virile boys. “3 fucks from V”, ran one diary entry; another concisely recalled the moment of epiphany as having arrived when “Graham and I pass out on the bed clutching a bottle of wine”.

There’s no doubt that Sonia Brownell, always determined to do well – she proved uncommonly courageous during harrowing wartime work on a mobile first-aid unit – emerges as the star among the girls. But Connolly’s is the rotund planet around whom their glittering and essentially cold personalities revolve. What was it that had made him so irresistible, Taylor asked the nonagenarian Janetta Parladé, best-known today as a cherished former mistress of the Duke of Devonshire. She didn’t hesitate. Avoiding bores was the great purpose of one’s life. And Cyril, whatever his failings, had never been a bore.

This Observer review was written by Miranda Seymour and published Sun 1 Sep 2019. Read the full article here.

We are proud to welcome DJ Taylor to Buxton Saturday 20 October, 10am – 11am. Tickets are £12, book here.