Rather D.J. Taylor than me, when it comes to untangling the unbelievably complicated and messy love lives of the so-called Horizon circle: the people who clustered adoringly around Cyril Connolly during his years as editor of the short-lived literary magazine (1939-50). Was Connolly still carrying on his affair with Diana Witherby when he started his affair with Lys (while still married to Jean and while Lys was still married to Ian)? Was Barbara Skelton having an affair with the Polish war artist Feliks Topolski when Peter Quennell came onto the scene, still married to his third wife, Glur, but making Topolski so jealous that the men resorted to fisticuffs over Barbara? What made Janetta, still married to Hugh Slater, fall in love with Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, and would that relationship last?
Taylor wades deep into the cigaretty fug of that small literary circle awash with till-boredom-do-us-part love affairs conducted in rented accommodation. (The love affairs were usually shorter than the tenancies.) I had to take reams of notes to keep tabs on everyone’s current status. ‘J not actually married to K, has baby Nicolette, K going off to Balkans, now J falling in love with Robert Kee, who spends weekend at Ham Spray, F. Partridge approves,’ and so on. Sometimes it all seemed very distant and unimportant. And as for Frances Partridge’s approval, I think I would have gone a long way to avoid spending a weekend at Ham Spray (that Bloomsbury house near Hungerford where Lytton Strachey died and Dora Carrington killed herself) with Frances Partridge watching my every move and writing it all up in her diary, honed for publication.
Sometimes Taylor seems to feel as exasperated by the flighty characters he’s writing about as I do. Wryly, he describes the way the lives of the women in what he calls ‘wartime bohemia’ are ‘crammed with split-second desertions, lightning throwings-over, affections transferred from one man to another at the drop of a Cartier cigarette case’. He’s a thoughtful, witty writer, not a sycophant, and I take my hat off to him for bothering to get to the bottom of who fell briefly in love with whom and why. What binds his book together is his tenacious grappling with a phenomenon of womanhood between the 1930s and the 1950s: the so-called ‘Lost Girls’, a name coined (much later) by five-times-married Peter Quennell in his 1980 memoir, The Wanton Chase. The Lost Girls were the small group of love-seeking and work-seeking women floating around literary London in the late 1930s who were drawn into Connolly’s circle, and for whom happiness and stability seemed perpetually elusive. ‘What distinguished them – and used to touch my heart – was their air of waywardness and loneliness,’ Quennell said.
Their fragility comes across strongly in these pages; and it’s the undertone of sadness beneath all the sex and the partying that makes the book so poignant. Taylor is too truthful a writer to make crass generalisations but, in order to steer us towards the essence of the phenomenon he’s trying to put his finger on, he posits some general truths about the Lost Girls – the four main players being Lys, Janetta, Barbara and Sonia. Notably, he does not give their maiden names when he first introduces them: it’s as if they have been cast so far adrift from their roots by the time they arrive in this story that they’re already floating free, at the mercy of the prevailing winds of literary London. They are, in fact, Lys, née Dunlap, then Lubbock, then Connolly, then Koch; Sonia, née Brownell, then Orwell, then Pitt-Rivers; Janetta, née Woolley, then Slater, then Kee, then Jackson, then Parladé; and Barbara, née Skelton, then Connolly, then Weidenfeld, then Jackson.
There are several similarities between these four women: they were all born around the time of the First World War (Janetta, the youngest, was born in 1921); they all experienced some kind of personal trauma in their childhood that set them on a lifelong course of lostness; they had ‘pungent’ individual personalities; they all found themselves caught in Connolly’s slipstream, craving his attention and his praise; they were all highly intelligent, with little formal education; and they all had a taste for (to borrow the title of Diana Holderness’s recent memoir) ‘the Ritz and the Ditch’ – in other words, for the high life and the low life. They’d be dining at the Ritz (usually at someone else’s expense) and go straight from that luxury to spend a sleepless night in an unheated or rat-infested bedsit where (as Taylor sums it up) ‘boyfriend a is a peer of the realm while boyfriend b is a penniless painter.’ This, Taylor writes, was ‘the war-era bohemian life in which glamour and sophistication and something very close to poverty [were] inextricably combined’. All four at some point shared a bed with Lucian Freud; at least three of them slept with Arthur Koestler; and two of them married Derek Jackson, who had previously been married to Pamela Mitford and would eventually tot up six marriages.
Before I go on, I want to mention a paradox that I’d like someone to explain to me. On the one hand, divorce in the mid-20th century was still utterly taboo: some boarding schools wouldn’t even take pupils whose parents were divorced, and women who grew up in the 1940s and early 1950s have told me that they would have preferred to tell their friends that their father had died rather than admit their parents were divorced. On the other hand, the upper-class world was awash with shallow, short-lived marriages and the bewildered children of those marriages. It seems as if there was a small substratum of society that acted under different rules. I would have liked Taylor to analyse the taboo, or lack of taboo, about upper-class divorce and single parenting.
A quick run-through of the four chief Lost Girls. First, Lys. Her father emigrated to Wyoming after the Alaskan goldrush and married a Welsh schoolteacher. Lys was orphaned in her mid-teens and had to fend for herself. ‘Capable, industrious, and extremely good-looking’, she trained at Pitman’s secretarial college, modelled for Vogue, married a schoolteacher in her early twenties, separated from him, and would spend the war years as Connolly’s live-in lover, organiser and helpmeet, living in perpetual hope that Connolly would divorce his American wife, Jean, which he didn’t. Eventually Jean died, but by then Connolly was in love with Barbara Skelton, and Lys was a nervous wreck from having been, as she put it, ‘played around with so much’.
Was Lys ever so slightly dull? Taylor describes her as ‘ever humble and almost infinitely pliable’ with a ‘tendency to prattle’ – but she was beautiful, and Connolly seemed not to mind dullness in his women, as long as they admired and adored him: ‘People say she is dull,’ Connolly once remarked of a woman he was pursuing, ‘but she is interested in yours truly, and that is what yours truly likes.’ Connolly, it seems, not only looked like a teddy bear but talked like a teddy bear.
Downe House-educated Janetta and her mother, Jan Woolley, lived a hippy-ish life in Spain in the mid-1930s, before the Civil War forced them to return home. They’d both run away from a dull household: Jan had made the mistake of marrying (second marriage) a square soldier and later chaplain of Harrow, Captain Woolley (Janetta’s father), and immediately regretted it. The free-floating mother-and-daughter pair were semi-adopted by Ralph and Frances Partridge, spent Christmases at Ham Spray (it sounds like a scented furniture polish), and were thus drawn into the Connolly circle.
Barbara was the really sultry, sexy, chaotic, miserable one. Taylor throws us into the deep end of her misery, opening his chapter about her with a quote from Skelton’s 1941 diary: ‘Wake up. Foul mood. Detest myself.’ That does just about sum Barbara Skelton up. Her emotional frailty is frighteningly visible in her every self-destructive act. She had, Taylor tells us, ‘a germ of temperamental excess’ that led her, at the age of four, ‘to attempt to run her mother through with a carving knife’. Later, an Armenian uncle put his hand down her nightdress and ‘invited her to search for sweets in his trouser pocket’ while out driving. She was expelled from her convent school. At the age of 15, she was allowed to go and live in a London YWCA hostel. At the age of 17 she was seduced by a millionaire friend of her father’s, who set her up in a flat in Marylebone, took her to France in a chauffeured car, and then took her back to London for a discreet abortion. Bored with being a rich man’s mistress, she left him, and modelled for Hartnell and Schiaparelli. At their wits’ end, her parents sent her to India in the so-called ‘fishing fleet’ to search for a suitable husband. She and a young officer called Charles Langford-Hinde did fall in love, and Langford-Hinde stowed away with her on the ship back to Britain, but he was discovered, arrested and thrown off the ship at Aden. He would die soon afterwards in an ambush at the North-West Frontier.
So, a nicely damaging early life for Barbara, setting her up for a wrecked adulthood. ‘The roster of [her] boyfriends in the early part of the war … runs comfortably into double figures,’ Taylor tells us. One of those boyfriends was the literary critic Peter Quennell, all too soon reduced to whimpering in his letters: ‘Barbara Darling! For the 100th time I feel completely wretched about you … Where are you anyhow?’ Not only was she emotionally absent: she also had a habit of physically vanishing. Another of the boyfriends would be King Farouk of Egypt, whom she met while working as a cipher clerk in Cairo in 1944. He liked to flog her with his dressing-gown cord on the steps of his palace. She was dangerously beautiful – the danger being for herself as much as for others. The ‘romantic pass-the-parcelling’ (another good Taylor encapsulation) left ‘ineradicable scars’. Barbara would never be able to have children after her several abortions.
You simply cannot believe that this short-tempered, melancholic, commitment-phobic woman would go on to marry Connolly, who had many of the same characteristics – but she did (in 1950), and it was a disaster. Connolly didn’t even get as far as the honeymoon before regretting it: he realised he’d made a mistake the moment he emerged from the register office. Five days after the wedding Barbara found him standing naked in the bedroom staring into space. What was the matter? ‘It’s marriage,’ he said. ‘I feel trapped.’ On New Year’s Day 1951, Barbara recorded in her diary that she woke at noon ‘with screams for food from Hubby who has put on an inch of jowl since Christmas’. There’s no doubt that, of the four chief Lost Girls, Barbara makes for the best copy.
Finally, Sonia, who comes across as a positive Cinderella by comparison, only marrying twice. As Taylor has already written in his superb bi0graphy of George Orwell (2003), the wedding of Sonia and George took place round a bed in University College Hospital, and Orwell would be dead from TB three months later. ‘A shrewd investment, or an act of self-sacrifice?’ Taylor asks. No one will ever know; but Taylor reminds us that Orwell then was not nearly as famous as he would posthumously become, and he surmises that Sonia married him because she loved him and felt genuinely sorry for him.
Another dose of Catholic damage in that childhood: Sonia was so revolted by the harsh Jesuitical training she’d received at the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton that for the rest of her life she spat in disgust whenever she saw a nun passing. Her father died on a golf course at the age of 36, and her mother escaped from a failed second marriage to run a dreary boarding house in South Kensington at which Sonia had to help out. After that she went on to the properly traumatic job of disinterring bodies from bombsites in a wartime first aid unit.
All four women were magnetically drawn into Connolly’s circle – or his ‘self-aggrandising wake’, as Taylor puts it. ‘To a bright but undereducated girl with literary or artistic ambitions’, he writes, Connolly’s ‘attention was worth having’. He took Janetta on road trips through France in his Armstrong Siddeley in the late 1930s, when she was a teenager, and, as she later said, he ‘took it for granted that he could share my bed’. Connolly romanticised these road trips in The Unquiet Grave (1944): ‘Peeling off the kilometres to the tune of “Blue Skies”, sizzling down the long black reaches of Nationale Sept, the plane trees going sha-sha-sha through the open window, the windscreen yellowing with crushed midges, she with the Michelin beside me, a handkerchief binding her hair.’
Sounds deliciously French and idyllic; but it wasn’t all like that. Janetta was revolted by the sight of juice trickling down Connolly’s white hairy fingers as he gorged on strawberries, and she ran off to have a fugitive love affair with an aspiring left-wing writer, Hugh Slater, coming home for an abortion paid for by her lifelong minder, Frances Partridge.
Both Lys and Sonia worked in the Horizon office in Bedford Square, their working lives immortalised in the photograph on the jacket of this book: the blonde and the brunette at their desks, dressed in demure wools and tweeds. The sign on the wall of the Ladies’ should have read: ‘You do need to be beautiful to work here.’ It was a looksist world for aspiring women writers in those days. Actually, Sonia was much more than a pretty face: she virtually solo-edited the magazine in the late 1940s, when Connolly was off on his travels in postwar France, hungry for praise and international adulation. But of the ninety or so contributors to the magazine over its 11-year existence, only seven were women.
There’s a hilarious sort of squawking Greek chorus running through the book, in the shape of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford’s gleeful letters to each other commenting on the life and love affairs of the circle. After Taylor’s painstaking examinations of his characters’ changes of mind and heart, it’s pleasing to have these goings-on witheringly summed up, and belittled, by Waugh and Mitford, who saw the absurdity in everything and everyone. Here’s Waugh’s description of the Horizon office: ‘horrible pictures collected by Watson [Peter Watson, financial backer of Horizon] & Lys & Miss Brownell working away with a dictionary translating some rot from the French’. Here’s his summing up of Sonia marrying Orwell (Waugh and Mitford’s nickname for Connolly was ‘Boots’, short for ‘Smartiboots’): ‘Boots’s boule de Suif what was her name? Sonia something is engaged to marry the dying Orwell and is leaving Horizon so there will not be many more numbers to puzzle us.’ He was right. Horizon closed down in January 1950, bringing these bombastic words from Connolly: ‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude and the quality of his despair.’ Taylor calls those words ‘horribly disingenuous’: it was really Connolly’s own laziness that brought the magazine to a close.
Waugh was not all cynicism: he did say (later) that Horizon was ‘the outstanding publication of its decade’. Using the interludes technique, Taylor, too, stands back from the intricacies and paints a wider picture, giving us occasional side essays and thumbnail sketches of other Lost Girl-types, and summing up the 1940s style and the way the women of the 1940s spoke. The Lost Girls, he writes, had a liking for plain language: ‘sex was “fucking”; a homosexual “a bugger”; menstruation “the curse”.’ He surmises that their dreary office days – ‘a long, fatiguing afternoon in a badly ventilated office dense with cigarette smoke’ – ‘were relieved only by the promise of the evening’s entertainment’.
There’s also an excellent chapter on ‘The Lost Girls in Fiction’, in which Taylor locates Barbara Skelton both in the character of Virginia Troy in Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, and (more fully) in Pamela Flitton in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, where she is summed up by a wartime boyfriend: ‘She’s cross all the time. Bloody cross. Thrives on it. Her chief charm. Makes her wonderful in bed.’
The final ‘what became of them all’ chapter is a jaw-dropping chronicle of the choppy love lives of these women and their later marriages, with more withering summings-up. Here’s James Lees-Milne describing Janetta in 1990, by which time she’d married a Spanish interior decorator, her previous husband Derek Jackson having left her for her half-sister: ‘now a bad seventy, straight hair pulled back like a skull-cap, one drooping eye, raddled skin, hollow chest and bulging stomach’. You can hardly blame her for her raddled appearance, after everything she’d been through.
Marvellously, Taylor managed to visit the widowed Janetta in her nineties, in her final flat in Cadogan Place, in April 2016. We hear the actual voice of a very old Lost Girl, and it’s delightfully posh-sounding and denigrating. Expecting her to wax poetic about her fellow Lost Girls, Taylor is surprised when Janetta says, of Lys: ‘I mean, she was not this fascinating, intelligent, wonderful person. She really was a bit of a nightmare.’ But ‘she was a very good typist.’
Janetta puts her finger on the essence of the Lost Girl taste: the chief thing they couldn’t abide was anyone being ‘a bore’. Taylor devotes a whole interlude to the subject of bore-avoidance. Here’s 94-year-old Janetta on the subject. Of Connolly, she remarks: ‘Of course, he wasn’t a bore in any way.’ And then: ‘I think I was awfully lucky in knowing an awful lot of people who weren’t bores.’ All very well, but these great bore-avoiders (both the men and the women) did sometimes bore me with their pathetically short-lived passions.