By D.J. Taylor

Constable. 387 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-47212-686-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

According to Peter Quennell, the “Lost Girls” who are the subject of D.J. Taylor’s book, were “adventurous young women who flitted around London, alighting briefly here and there, and making the best of any random perch on which they happened to descend”.

It’s a description which attracts attention, but is at bottom less than fair to certainly the main protagonists in Taylor’s informative and entertaining account of various women who were all, in one way or another, caught up in the world of Cyril Connolly and Horizon magazine. They were all thrown into the uncertainties of what he refers as “the notoriously rackety 1940s”, and it’s perhaps inevitable that, as a result, aspects of their lives gave an impression of “waywardness and loneliness”.

But there was always more to them than that. The experiences of Janetta Woolley, Lys Dunlap, Barbara Skelton, and Sonia Brownell demonstrate that they all had character and often made a valuable contribution to whatever activities they were involved in. One thing that does need to be made clear is that they were not representative of a generation, group, or of the many young women drawn into London during wartime. Taylor’s ”Lost Girls” had a “far more exclusive status in which a whole host of factors, ranging from looks to social connection, combined to produce a figure who is more or less unique”.

Janetta Woolley perhaps wasn’t born into a wealthy family, but it was certainly a comfortable one in financial terms, if not in its domestic arrangements. Her father and mother soon separated, and Janetta spent some time in Spain in the 1930s with her mother. When they returned to England following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, they were taken up by Ralph and Frances Partridge, survivors of the Bloomsbury set. They were to play a big part in Janetta’s life as she encountered a variety of men, often of a literary or artistic bent, who were attracted to her striking good looks. When she was seventeen she fell in with Hugh Slater, a veteran of the International Brigades in Spain. Mixing in his circles brought her into contact with a loose group of bohemians, including Cyril Connolly and the selection of women who appeared to be sufficiently attracted to him to provide the usual comforts, and help in publishing Horizon.    

Slater was much older than she was, and she later had a relationship with another older man, Kenneth Sinclair-Loutit, who interestingly was someone else who had served with the International Brigades. Taylor documents Janetta’s adventures as she made her way through liaisons with several men, including Arthur Koestler, Robert Kee, Patrick Lee-Fermor, Lucien Freud, and the Duke of Devonshire. I’ve left out a couple of names. I’m not sure that any real purpose is served by listing all her lovers and others.  She eventually married a Spanish nobleman in 1957 and lived until 2018. Taylor has a lively chapter about a visit he made to interview the elderly Janetta, and the crisp manner in which she quickly dismissed a suggestion that she was one of “the Horizon team”.  Nor had she been over-impressed by some of the people who were. Lys Lubbock “really was a bit of a nightmare” and Barbara Skelton “incredibly selfish”, and “a menace”.

Lys Lubbock stuck with Connolly for many years, and only finally gave up on him when his general behaviour, and failure to seriously consider marrying her, brought matters to a head. Despite what Janetta said about her being “a bit of a nightmare”, it does seem that Lys was often largely responsible for getting Horizon out on time. I suppose what might arouse curiosity is why an obviously attractive and intelligent woman should be so besotted with someone like Connolly? He appears to have been lazy, selfish, largely indifferent to the problems of others, and arrogant. He was clever, and had the knack of making himself seem intellectually superior to people in his presence. From what Taylor says, none of the “Lost Girls” had what might be called a good formal education, and as a consequence could have been over-impressed by someone like Connolly with a gift for what came across to them as brilliant conversation full of classical quotations.

Barbara Skelton was the one “Lost Girl” who had some literary talent, and she wrote several novels and autobiographical accounts of her misadventures. She married Connolly in 1950, though it wasn’t a match likely to last. Horizon, like so many magazines in the post-war period, had finally thrown in the towel, largely because Peter Watson, its long-suffering financial backer, had called it a day. And Lys Lubbock had moved on, though Connolly couldn’t quite accept that she had. After years of using her, and ignoring her emotional needs, he was convinced he couldn’t live without her, despite having married Barbara Skelton. Barbara herself had something of a long track record when it came to lovers, one of them being King Farouk of Egypt. There were others, such as Peter Quennell and the artist, Felix Topolski.  They came to blows as they contested for her affections.

As for Sonia Brownell, she may be best remembered for her marriage to George Orwell when he was dying. She had met him while working in the Horizon office, where she was reputed to have been energetic and efficient, and probably responsible for putting the final few issues into print. Connolly, as always, was increasingly lacksadaisical about the practical work required to keep a publication operating to schedule. Late-rising and long liquid lunches don’t make for efficient editing.

But there was a question about Sonia that Taylor phrases as “What did Sonia want?” He quotes Stephen Spender who thought that she had “always been on the look out for a great man, a titan of art or literature, to whom she could devote herself and whose interests she could self-denyingly serve”. Before Orwell, she had relationships with the painter William Coldstream and the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, though neither was ever likely to leave his wife. Orwell was unmarried and riding high following the success of Animal Farm and 1984 when they married in 1949.  After he died, she worked hard to keep his name alive. I think it’s worth noting that in the 1960s she was involved with the very fine magazine, Art and Literature, which survived for a dozen first-rate issues.

I’ve given a brief summary of the four women that Taylor mostly focuses on. There were others he deals with, and there were moments when I almost lost track of who was who and doing what. I did like the comment he ascribes to “Glur” (Joyce Francis Warwick-Evans), who he says, “had no ambitions to run a magazine office, marry that elusive great man or go to literary parties”.  She did marry Peter Quennell, however, though she later plaintively said, “I thought it would be fun being married to a writer, but he’s always writing”.  It’s a complaint that many a weary wife has no doubt expressed over the years.

The Lost Girls” is clearly designed to throw light on the personalities and activities of the women at the centre of Taylor’s book, and he does that in a splendidly informative and entertaining manner. But the fact that all, or most of them, were involved with Cyril Connolly in one way or another, or even in several ways, means that he also looms large in the story. As does Horizon, though not too much is said about its contents. A reader wanting to know more about that side of the magazine’s history perhaps ought to turn to Michael Sheldon’s Friends of Promise; Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1989) for a full account. Or better still, try to have a look at a few copies of the magazine, or at least the anthology, edited by Connolly, of some of the best work from it, The Golden Horizon (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953). It’s easy to see why it was considered of importance at a time when civilised living seemed to be almost on the brink of extinction. To launch a publication like Horizon as war started, and keep it running through the years of hostilities and the period of austerity that followed, was no mean feat. There are some who might say that Penguin New Writing offers, in retrospect, a wider and better portrait of the 1940s. It was surely more representative of the democratic beliefs and aims that characterised the times, but there’s no denying that Horizon had an air of being concerned to preserve the high-minded approach to examining the arts and society.

I have to admit that, reading about Connolly, I was inclined to think that he was not a very nice person. He seems to have been something of an opportunist, and always ready to cultivate friendships with the wealthy who would then invite him to spend weekends with them. He was not alone in this, of course, and reading about several others makes me suspect that it was rather expected that the rich, if they had any pretensions towards an interest in the arts, would provide support for indigent writers and artists. As for his treatment of the women he was involved with, I doubt that much positive can be said about it. He usually had more than one affair developing, and had no conscience when it came to brutally abandoning a lover if he thought that she stood in the way of his relationship with another. And he expected the cast-off party to both understand and tolerate what he had done. He was what in earlier days would have been called a cad or a bounder. 

The Arts Council, once it came into existence, took on the role of stepping in to give grants and awards to individuals, as they did with magazines. But Horizon, as far as I can make out, existed solely thanks to the goodwill and generosity of Peter Watson. He comes across, in Taylor’s telling, as one of the more-sympathetic characters in the book. A homosexual, at a time when to show it was to invite attention from the police, he  put up with a lot of Connolly’s indolence, rudeness,  and other failings until it all became too much, and he finally pulled the plug on the financial support he provided. It probably came as a shock to Connolly, who had become used to having a steady supply of funds he could rely on for the magazine and some of his personal needs.

D.J. Taylor has written a fast-moving and colourful book about years when everything was said to be seemingly dull and dreary. As well as the main actors, a wide range of writers appear on stage, including Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Brian Howard, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Raymond Mortimer,  the heroin-addicted Anna Kavan, and John Davenport. Taylor sets them all in context, and provides details of how their novels, stories, and memoirs recorded the events and atmosphere of the period.

I suppose a purist might find the thought of people enjoying themselves, sometimes with black market food and wine, at a time when many were going hungry while in situations of great danger, unpalatable. Why celebrate these people? And certainly with someone like Connolly, who was inclined to whinge and whine instead of being grateful that he wasn’t in uniform or limited to basic foodstuffs, it’s easy to be contemptuous. But history will no doubt remember him for his literary accomplishments, rather than his personal follies and foibles. And Taylor’s “Lost Girls” may also have a place in the sun thanks to the diligent work he has done on their behalf.