"From now on you must be free to do anything you want."
A reasonable, if perhaps a bit extravagantly phrased, injunction from a mother to her daughter. But when Angela Culme-Seymour's mother delivered it to her daughter in the 1920s, when Angela was in her mid-teens, the follow-up was, to our ears, distressingly of its time: "When you're older, you must have lovers. You're so pretty you should have heaps of them."
D. J, Taylor's book The Lost Girls: Love, War, and Literature, 1939–1951 places us right in the gap between those first and second wishes. Drawing on a heap of published and unpublished writings, he re-creates the world of the wartime magazine Horizon, a world centered, in both social and literary terms, on its editor, Cyril Connolly. It's a world where women—or at least women above a certain class—were beginning to have ambitions that went beyond marriage, but were having them in a society that still had no real idea how to handle the concept.
Taylor weaves profiles of a dozen or so women with an account of the history of Horizon and, inevitably, the life and whining of Cyril Connolly, whose gravitational pull distorts nearly all the lives it comes near. "To know Cyril Connolly was, instantly, to be part of his schemes," Taylor writes. Anthony Powell, reviewing a collection of Connolly's writing, put it this way: "Connolly's outstanding quality is his pervasiveness, his determination that you are going to like what he likes." That was true of art and literature, and it was also true of Connolly's greatest concern: himself. Most of the women featured in Taylor's book were romantically involved with (or married to) Connolly at some point; almost none of them escaped at least doing underappreciated drudge work for him. They proofed manuscripts and answered letters and corrected proofs and dealt with visitors and balanced books, and they also listened to his self-pity and forgave affairs and tolerated comparisons with other women and largely refused to stand on their rights. Which, while maddening all these decades later, is also understandable: mostly they didn't even consider that they might have rights.
"Nothing, of course, is quite so relative as emancipation," Taylor writes, and that's the sad truth at the core of his book. Compared to their Edwardian forebears—whom Anthony Powell remembers from childhood being tut-tutted for their drinking and smoking—these women thought they had almost everything. Many of them lived on their own and earned their own income. They chose lovers and friends without regard to their parents' wishes. They participated in the cultural life of their day. They were, it's reasonable to believe, frequently happy. To Taylor's credit, they come to life in these pages in a way they largely haven't before, when they've been relegated to supporting roles in the biographies of better-known men. In particular Barbara Skelton, a writer best known these days as the model for Pamela in A Dance to the Music of Time, and Sonia Brownell, primarily known now as Orwell's widow, are treated with a respect and appreciation that enables them to stand on their own, agents of their fates.
The more we learn about the lives of these women, the more we chafe along with them at the restrictions that limited them. The simplest is that something like Horizon would have been inconceivable with a woman at the helm. While many of these women had men dancing attendance on them, none could have assembled a coterie like Connolly, and none would ever have been afforded anything like the regard given Connolly's every pronouncement. Certainly, Connolly was a rare talent—all these years later, his writing still sparkles. But could none of these women, or some other woman who never even got the limited opportunities granted this group, have shown as much if given the chance? We'll never know.
Thinking about Taylor's book carries extra potency this weekend: On Friday, my 96-year-old grandmother died. She had a good, long life. She had a family she loved and was loved by. She was happy. If you'd asked her, I don't think she'd have said she felt she missed out on anything or was kept from anything she wanted. Unlike the women Taylor chronicles, she didn't attempt to push boundaries. But she also wasn't encouraged to, and I can't help wondering what she might have done under other circumstances. Grandma Jackie was smart. She was a reader and continually engaged with culture and current events. She had a phenomenal memory. What might she have done? What talents did she—and countless other women of her generation, to say nothing of our own—not unlock because society didn't make a place for them?