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Back in the 1980s, Michael Shelden wrote Friends of Promise, an account of Cyril Connolly and the circle around him at Horizon, the literary magazine he edited throughout the 1940s. It remains the definitive work on this key aspect of literary London during wartime. That is the book, I think, that D.J. Taylor wanted to write. He had, after all, already written a biography of George Orwell, probably the most significant writer to have been published in Horizon (and, curiously, Shelden would follow up Friends of Promise with a biography of Orwell). Taylor had also written a book on the Bright Young Things of London society during the gilded age of the 1920s, and also The Prose Factory, a survey of literary life in England since 1918. Within such a spectrum of interest, Horizon and Connolly is not just a natural fit, it almost feels like the inevitable next step.

But Shelden had already taken that step, and despite the fact that letters and diaries and other resources have emerged since Shelden’s book was published, it is unlikely that Taylor would really have been in a position to write a startlingly new and different take on the same subject. So he let his gaze wander from the centre to the periphery, in particular to the young women who circled around Connolly, as lovers (or occasionally wives), secretaries, helpmeets, confidants. There were four of them in particular: Lys, Janetta, Sonia and Barbara. Collectively, Taylor calls them the “Lost Girls”, taking the term from Peter Quennell’s autobiography, The Wanton Chase. Taylor doesn’t wholly accept Quennell’s term, but he doesn’t exactly question it either. My own sense, on the other hand, is that they were neither lost nor girls. They were beautiful, ambitious, sexually active young women who found themselves in a particular wartime bohemia, and they took advantage of their circumstances that would have been unquestioned, even unremarked, if they had been men. The women who came before them in the 1920s were the same, as were the women who came after them in the 1960s, but because this was the 1940s they were somehow regarded as courtesans. Men who behaved the same would have been hailed as adventurers. Taylor doesn’t lay out the contrast so starkly, I’m not even sure he is fully aware of it, but it is there buried in the assumptions and subtexts of the book.

It is notable, for instance, that the first view of any of these women in Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature 1939-1951 comes from the male gaze. After Quennell’s description of the lost girls in general, there are four single-sentence quotations, one for each of the women: Edmund Wilson on Barbara, Stephen Spender on Sonia, Evelyn Waugh on Lys, and George Weidenfeld on Janetta. The women are perennial adjuncts to the men, to be seen from outside. The real interest is in the men who are doing things in Horizon, these women are just there to provide a different perspective on the main action.

Sonia Brownell on the left, Lys Connolly on the right

Lys, Janetta, Sonia and Barbara: the men in this book are Connolly, Quennell, Orwell, Waugh, Topolski, and so on, but the women are always addressed by their first names. In a long preamble, Taylor explains this as being because their surnames changed so often. Lys, for example, began life as Lys Dunlap; she married Ian Lubbock but soon thereafter left him to become Cyril Connolly’s mistress, changing her name to Connolly by deed poll when he wouldn’t marry her; after she left Connolly at the end of the decade she eventually married again and became Lys Koch. But she was Lys Lubbock or, by her own choice, Lys Connolly, for the entire period covered by this book. Sonia Brownell was known by that name throughout the 1940s until, right at the end of the decade, she became Sonia Orwell; similarly, Barbara Skelton had that name throughout the decade until, in the closing pages of the book as it were, Lys left Connolly and Barbara became, for a while, Barbara Connolly. Significantly, when she began publishing books in the 1950s she published under the name Barbara Skelton. There must, I think, have been more subtle, less sexually pointed ways, of identifying the various characters throughout the book.

Without exception, by the way, the men in this book are total shits, and the shittiest of them all is Cyril Connolly. At the end of the 1930s he was married to Jean but had left his wife to live with Diana, whom he then left to live with Lys. Lys remained his mistress, housekeeper, secretary, hostess of his innumerable parties, and general dogsbody for nearly ten years, but he would not marry her and spent an inordinate amount of time belittling her in conversation. Yet when she did leave him he spent years stalking her, bombarding her with letters, and insisting that they should get back together, all while having now married Barbara. This, by the way, was serial behaviour: when his marriage to Barbara ended, George Weidenfeld was cited in the divorce; when that marriage ended, Cyril Connolly was cited in the divorce. But it wasn’t just his treatment of women that was execrable. At the centre of this whole menage was the magazine, Horizon, which he had launched in December 1939. Part of the thinking behind this launch seems to have been that as editor he would be in a reserved occupation and thus not liable for any form of war work. The magazine was major literary and artistic centrepiece in mid-century Britain, but Connolly was a rather lazy editor who left much of the work to the women who worked there. Sonia Brownell in particular seems to have been the de facto if unacknowledged editor of the magazine throughout the last years of its life while Connolly used his expenses to fund foreign travel, a hectic social life, and fine food and wine, while occasionally remembering to write back to base and ask, casually, how the magazine was going.

The sex appeal of Cyril Connolly remains a mystery.

Actually, for a book ostensibly about literary London in wartime, we learn very little about Horizon itself. Only a bare handful of contributors are even mentioned, and there is no analysis of what it published or how it shaped the literary landscape for years to come. George Orwell appears because he went on to marry Sonia; Joan Rayner, whose photographs were published in Horizon, is mentioned because she was a sexually active member of that milieu who Connolly fancied before she went on to marry Patrick Leigh Fermor. Yet this neglect of Horizon as a literary artefact jars with the fact that Taylor is a good literary historian. One of the best things about this book, something that does make it well worth reading, is the adept way he uses novels and memoirs of the period to paint a vivid picture of how things were at the time. And there is a fine late section of the book in which Taylor traces the afterlife of the four girls in postwar novels by writers who knew them at the time. Barbara, for instance, is a recurring character in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence.

All told, therefore, it is an interesting and at times revealing book hampered by the way it approaches the four women who are supposedly its central subject matter.