The scene with which DJ Taylor begins his 26th book, Lost Girls, in which a girl enters, with some trepidation, a literary party in a house in Bloomsbury, is striking for many reasons. It is, as befits a Booker-longlisted novelist, involving and full of detail about the allotments that then took up the north side of this grand central London square, the railings taken for Spitfires, the bomb craters; it is an outsider’s view of a world in which the reader is shortly to be entirely immersed. It is interesting because the girl is fictional and the scene a composite – there is no proof that George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, Lucian Freud, Peter Quennell and Cyril Connolly actually stood together in that room, the offices of the literary magazine Horizon, in the autumn of 1942. And the scene is striking, above all, because Taylor has chosen to write it from the point of view of a woman, who in turn notices the women at the party most acutely, not the famous men.
It was Quennell, poet, critic, biographer and general man-about-town, who first called Janetta Woolley, Lys Dunlap, Barbara Skelton, Sonia Brownell and a small penumbra of women like them “lost girls” and although, a few pages from the end of his book, Taylor says “any attempt to label ought to be resisted”, it is a designation he finds remarkably useful. “Lost”, he is clear, has nothing to do with moralistic Victorian put-downs. Rather it is a general “air of waywardness and loneliness”, as Quennell put it, and also of courage among a small band of good-looking, well-born, well-connected young women who for one reason and another – two world wars and the rackety, traumatised, inattentive family situations the wars left in their wake; an inchoate but powerful instinct to do something that fed their minds; an urge not to be constrained as their mothers had been – have a claim, Taylor argues, to being a missing link in the history of female emancipation between the bright young things of the late 20s and the burgeoning freedoms of the 60s.
Woolley, who had a brief relationship with the much older Connolly when she was 17, was a painter. Dunlap was orphaned in her mid-teens, worked as a typist and model and was already married when she met Connolly, whose life she then efficiently and loyally ran for most of the next decade. Skelton, who was married to Connolly for six years, left home at 15 and by 17 was the sports-car-driving, Paris high life-enjoying lover of a millionaire. Bored, she left to model for Schiaparelli and Hartnell and embark on an amorous career that included Lucian Freud, King Farouk, Kenneth Tynan and Bob Silvers.Brownell, who married Orwell, had by her early 20s already experienced “loss, abandonment, genteel poverty” and trauma, and found kindred spirits at Horizon and a perch from which to exercise her considerable organisational and editorial talents.
Taylor has a brilliant eye for quotation and Lost Girls is, as well as being a superior group biography, a collection of glittering glimpses of personalities (everyone from Bowen to Waugh, Osbert Sitwell to Nancy Mitford), of prose, and of insights. Taylor’s urbane, acute and stylish presence is everywhere, as when he says Connolly honed a persona at Eton as “a court jester and talented trifler, the boy who succeeds without conscious effort, whose hard work takes place offstage and whose affectations are always backed up by a dazzling catalogue of formal achievement”. (This type, it appears, is ever with us.) The book abounds with piquant detail, while not losing sight of the larger picture.
He also has a good sense of the traps inherent in his project – but, oddly, doesn’t spell them out until quite late, when the reader has already been worrying about them for a good 200 pages, namely, “Hanging over the question of Lost Girl sexual behaviour was the unignorable fact that the judgments passed on it were made by men ... with axes to grind” – Quennell, for instance, who fought for Skelton’s mercurial attentions for years. The first chapter devoted to Dunlap is dominated by Connolly, whose friends used her tireless work on his behalf to dismiss her as boring, and Taylor is especially struck by the treatment of Brownell, who is variously described as bossy, interfering and an “art tart” (Malcolm Muggeridge and Anthony Powell) or, if she had said no to sexual advances, frigid.
Not only does Taylor know this skews what we see of these lost girls – he is also aware that it obscures “what [actually] went on inside their heads”. Arresting quotations from Skelton’s novels, memoirs and diaries – “gloom gloom. Polished off the gin … Depths of despair … Loneliness and awfulness”, for instance – only underline the silences. This reader at least began to long for the idiosyncratic and unmediated voices of women (Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Diana Athill, Elizabeth Jane Howard) who wrote from or about similar (beautiful, privileged, damaged, amorously adventurous, sometimes disturbingly passive, even lost) lives. And to appreciate the fictional woman with whom Taylor began.
As for their place in history as feminists, they cannot, as Taylor acknowledges, really be called that – but their sense that “what mattered most was not material comfort but autonomy” makes a case for the importance of their example. Beautiful they might have been, and that is a kind of power, but they were handicapped before they began, not by lack of funds (though that happened frequently) but by a lack of education, entitlement, cultural capital and sheer expectation, which gave a manipulative, charming, horrible man like Connolly untold power over them. Taylor seems depressed by their servitude to this “pudgy figure hanging over the playpen rail”, and it is depressing. Even when they begin to detach themselves, “deep down they suspect that his are the sensibilities that matter most” – and, as even the last lines of Lost Girls, which is meant to be their story, attest, they are not wrong.
• Lost Girls is published by Constable & Robinson (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.