Children of the Sun: A Narrative of “Decadence” in England After 1918.
by Martin Green.
Basic Books. 470 pp. $15.00.
This study of the Bright Young People who came to prominence in British intellectual life in the years after World War I is curiously divided against itself. In the autobiographical “Confessions and Conclusions” at the end of the book, Martin Green presents himself as still vaguely loyal to the sturdy moralism of F. R. Leavis and the Cambridge critics with whom he first studied, but now tempered by age and, after the epidemic Dionysianism of the 60’s, feeling a need to be in touch with the more flamboyant and frivolous varieties of imagination that have been anathema to Leavis and his followers. The author’s candor about his own ambivalence is admirable, but it in no way guarantees him against a blurring confusion of attitudes in the presentation of his material.
The valuable achievement of Children of the Sun is to provide a minutely informed, perceptive history of a revolution in taste and sensibility, while most of the book’s problems stem, I think, from its tendency to regard shifts in taste and dialectical movements of cultural creativity as interchangeable terms. Green follows the rise, step by step, of a dandy-aesthete posture among British literary people through the 20’s and 30’s till its eventual decline in the dozen years after World War II. The leading emphases of this posture—homosexuality, ostentatious attire, high camp, aggressive snobbery, orgiastic promiscuity, a love of fantasy, militant aestheticism, the avoidance of seriousness, the cultivation of permanent adolescence as an ideal—are plausibly seen as a rebellion against the solid public values of the Victorian and Edwardian fathers who spawned (the word seems appropriate) this first 20th-century literary generation.
The large canvas of figures dealt with, all of them born in the first twelve years of the century, includes Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, Cecil Beaton, Peter Quenell, Alan Pryce-Jones, John Betjeman, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Randolph Churchill, Nancy Mitford, and, the two protagonists of the narrative, Brian Howard and Harold Acton. It is clear that of the list only Auden could lay claim to something like a substantial imaginative achievement, and even that claim, Green suggests (in my view, sensibly), is hard to sustain when Auden’s work is compared with that of the major modernist poets. At the beginning of his final chapter, Green raises the very question which is likely to trouble many readers through all these pages: “Why investigate all that in so much detail? I haven’t, after all, been finding out that the dandies were a much larger phenomenon than I used to think them, intellectually or imaginatively. Have I done anything more than merely understand how Englishmen could then want to be dandies?” There is, I’m afraid, no satisfactory answer, either in the body of the book or in its introspective conclusion, to the author’s own question. Perhaps as readers we have been invited to want more than he can deliver because he has led us to expect deep significances which the subject itself cannot yield.
Green is at his best when he is most purely descriptive. The narrative sprawls over so many personages that it sometimes seems repetitious or diffuse, but the evocation of a generation’s manners and mannerisms, with all their contexts and antecedents, is consistently fine. Green provides a wonderful contrast between the Victorian imperial ritual of cricket and the new aesthetes’ cult of ballet. He is astute in showing how the commedia dell’arte provided both an aesthetic model and a fixed repertory of roles to play. He has interesting things to say on the new fashions in clothing and the new use of cosmetics in the 20’s and how they relate to the dandy conceptions of art. “Life-style,” that great blight on contemporary English, is a term used here frequently and justifiably, for it is just that—not imaginative life or a way of life—which is the real subject of the book.
For this reason, the rather odd choice of Brian Howard and Harold Acton as the two major figures of the narrative makes perfect sense. Waugh and Auden produced far more that was worth reading, but Acton and especially Howard are exemplary precisely in their relative sterility. From their days at Eton and Oxford, they were above all the leaders of a new “life-style,” executing a series of cultural gestures—the founding of an ephemeral journal, the precocious publication of slender verse and fiction, the management of extravagant parties—with such panache that they succeeded in imposing themselves on their contemporaries as brilliantly promising writers. One comes away from this whole account with a new understanding of the edge of fierceness in the campaign on behalf of moral seriousness and “maturity” waged by the Leavisites in Scrutiny against both Bloomsbury (dealt with only obliquely by Green) and the dandies.
Unfortunately, Green insists on buttressing his chronicle of a “lifestyle” with terms that suggest a ponderous importance transcending gesture and taste. He is possessed by a rage of taxonomy, constantly dividing the figures he discusses into dandy-aesthetes, naifs, rogue-rebels, hearties, fathers, uncles, and generating through such classifications a numbing rhythm of reiteration rather than a real illumination of the individual figures. Mythological models abound in similar fashion. The result is to give the misleading impression of an inexorable pattern in general cultural history where a momentary constellation in the evolution of English sensibility is being described. The conceptual armature of the book and its title are drawn from the 19th-century Swiss anthropologist J. J. Bachofen, who saw a universal pattern of cultural diffusion by migration in which the new king-gods from abroad are viewed by the natives as creatures “from the sky,” a perception the self-aware new ruling elite encourages by proclaiming its members Children of the Sun. Green makes it clear that he is using Bachofen’s idea only in a broad metaphorical sense, but of course any metaphor carries with it the associations of the realm from which it is drawn, and it is surely a little preposterous to think of figures like Acton and Howard even metaphorically as culture-bearing Children of the Sun for the simple reason that the only culture they had to diffuse was derivative manner, empty gesture, sterile rebellious stance.
Pursuing this will-o’-the-wisp of a universal cultural pattern, Green veers noticeably off target whenever he tries to extend his argument from the English dandies to serious literary creativity. Thus, to explain England’s insignificant role in the great flowering of modernism in the 20’s, he proposes that this “whole generation of English writers . . . preferred the purely playful dandyism of English aristocrats to the dangerously experimental dandyism of international aestheticism.” The assertion may be accurate for the English writers, but “dangerously experimental dandyism” and “aestheticism” are a woefully inadequate characterization of the modernist enterprise. It works, more or less, for Proust (a cult figure among the English Decadents), but it makes skewed sense, or no sense at all, for Joyce, Yeats, Broch, Mann, Biely, Gide, Faulkner, Stevens. Elsewhere, mesmerized by his scheme of Victorian fathers and their rebellious sons, Green actually describes Conrad’s Nostromo as “the fullest celebration of the pre-1914 Englishman in fiction,” when it is excruciatingly obvious that Conrad is ruthlessly exposing the yawning emptiness of the traditional Englishman and his colonialist code of manly action, embodied in the novel in Charles Gould.
Finally, the warp resulting from the confusion of sensibility and creativity is most visible in the treatment of the writer who turns out, somewhat peculiarly, to be the secret hero of this book—Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov was a student at Cambridge in the early 20’s. As a very young man he cultivated certain dandiacal mannerisms (which he retrospectively mocks in Speak, Memory), and in his adolescence he was an eager reader of the arch-aesthete Diaghilev’s World of Art (as almost any alert young literary intellectual in Russia would have been at the time). Green’s effort, however, to see Nabokov as a 20’s-style British dandy and to convert Nabokov’s vigorously public-minded parliamentarian father into a Russian dandy is utterly unconvincing. Nabokov, in the book’s peroration, is said to “hold the key to the locked door of England’s dungeon” because he is, as Green contends elsewhere in the book, “a dandy and an aesthete who transcended dandyism and aestheticism,” managing to write novels that “are cultic celebrations of the dandy and aesthete but at the same time serious works of art.” I share the admiration for Nabokov, but I must confess that I can’t imagine where one can detect these cultic celebrations of the dandy and the aesthete in any of his mature novels. Nabokov does, of course, continually affirm the shaping power of consciousness and art, and the structure and texture of his novels are elaborately wrought in consonance with that idea; but to see this as a cultic celebration of dandy values is to misread the novels by confusing a concept of “life-style” with a mode of cognition, imagining that self-conscious art always means aestheticism.
The confusion of realms is, I would guess, a reflection of Martin Green’s desire to find some bridge between the trivial and the significant and thus justify his deep involvement in a subject which, by the light of his Leavisite education, would be deemed intellectually unworthy. In his conclusion, he repeatedly claims that the understanding of the dandy-aesthete is now crucial for “criticism,” but it is precisely the lack of any real critical perspective that is the major limitation of his book.