Focus on Artists’ Lifestyles – A Smattering of Socialite Poets

Note: This is a guest posting from Annaliese McSweeney, dramaturg for our Fall MainStage production of Miss Buncle’s Book.

This article about the poetry and artists’ lifestyle in the 1930s provides insight into the inspiration for the character, Countess Marina Pavlova, in Christina Calvit’s adaptation of Miss Buncle’s Book. Christina created this character to help Miss Buncle on her journey through the play. The character Christina drew is a mix of the figures highlighted below.

Bright Young Things

In the late 1920s in London, a social group emerged that was referred to as the “Bright Young Things”. Described as “attention-seeking, flamboyant, decadent, rebellious, promiscuous, irresponsible, outrageous and glamorous,” they were the original celebrity personalities – defined in the eyes of the public by their raucous parties, bohemian outlooks, public practical jokes and overall extravagance. The movement started with upper class women hosting famous and boisterous treasure hunts all around town. These events attracted young men who, eager to join in the action, provided mobility for the group with their new cars and extended the events to day trips into the countryside. The larger the group, the more elaborate the parties became for the London socialites, the more raucous the nightlife they represented, and the more attention they got from the public. These Bright Young People were from the generation that was too young to fight in World War I but were reacting to the changing circumstances of the waning aristocracy and the rapidly changing social landscape in Britain. The group had an odd mix of the upper class socialites and the hard-core bohemian fringe, both choosing to live lives of leisure, which created an environment for an unusual number of writers, as well as other artists, some more dedicated to and more lasting in their art than others. Within their troupe, they encouraged and supported each other’s projects, particularly in their writing careers. They would publicize each other’s books and some of the higher-class members opened up their homes as meeting spaces. The more affluent members even financially supported writers’ groups in order to feel a greater sense of participation in the movement. By 1931, interest from the press and the public’s infatuation with the group began to wane since the excesses they were displaying became distasteful in the face of worldwide depression; however, some of their number did go on to become quite successful in the artist domain.

Bright Young Things at one of the infamous dress-up parties.
Bright Young Things at one of the infamous dress-up parties.

Here are some of the women who published poetry from the group or profited from writing about the Bright Young Things.

Edith Sitwell – Born into an aristocratic family, she and her two younger brothers had a significant impact on the art world of the 1920s. Influenced by the French symbolist movement, her greatest contribution to the modernist movement was as an editor, but she wrote her own poetry as well. Her work was stylized with a theatrical and grand use of emblems and diction. Robert K Martin explained:

Although she always remained a poet committed to the exploration of sound, she came to use sound patterns as an element in the construction of deep philosophic poems that reflect on her time and on man’s condition. [… She should be remembered as] an angry chronicler of social injustice, as a poet who has found forms adequate to the atomic age and its horrors, and as a foremost poet of love. Her work displays enormous range of subject and of form.

In her social life, she became “passionately attached” to the homosexual Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, and she never married. She was a strong advocate of London’s poetic circle, to whom she was unfailingly generous and helpful, even so far as to opening her home up as a meeting place for local poets.

Sylvia Townsend Warner – Educated at home and with a strong musical and literary background, she was first introduced to the writing world by being instrumental in getting Theodore Powys’ novels published. She was primarily a novelist and poet, known for changing the way unmarried women were represented in fiction at the time, but also a talented musicologist, a diarist and letter-writer, a political journalist, an occasional translator and biographer, and a prolific short-story writer. She published a joint collection of poems with Valentine Ackland, her lover in 1933. By 1935, Sylvia and Valentine became committed members of the Communist Party, attending meetings, fund-raising and contributing to left-wing journals.

Nancy Mitford – The eldest of the six legendary Mitford sisters, Nancy was a novelist, biographer, and journalist known for her novels on the upper class social scene and her life in England and France. She began writing in 1929 and her first novel was published in 1931, despite having no prior formal writing training. Her novel was a semi-autobiographical piece about her time as part of the Bright Young Things. During the war, she worked at a bookstore, which became a meeting place for the London literary society and her friends. Her online biography says, “She hid her deepest feelings behind a sparkling flow of jokes and witty turns of phrase, and was the star of any gathering.” Although this quote suggests she was unhappy in her personal life, she found great success later in life as a writer – publishing multiple novels including some worldwide bestsellers.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova is considered one of the greatest women in Russian literature and a political and poetic ideal. Having joined the poetry group Acmeists in St. Petersburg, she married the group’s leader in 1910. After a few years, the two of them moved to Paris to immerse themselves in the culture and gain experiences of the poetic lifestyle abroad. Upon returning to Russia as a leader of Acmeism in her own right, she praised the virtues of lucid, carefully crafted verse in reaction to the vagueness of the Symbolist style that dominated the Russian literary scene of the period. To the group’s ideals, Akhmatova added her own elegant colloquialisms and psychological sophistication that demonstrated full control of the subtle vocabulary of modern intimacies and romance. In her writing, a small detail could and was meant to evoke a whole gamut of emotions. Her first collections were published as early as 1912, but in 1917 her primary themes of tragic love morphed to include the civic, patriotic, and religious motifs of the changing Russian society; however, she did not sacrifice her artistic conscience and personal intensity in developing her style. Her personal life was rocky and hindered by the political landscape in Russia at the time. In 1921, her ex-husband was executed under the new regime, and during the 1930s her son and her third husband were imprisoned while a close friend died in a concentration camp. She didn’t publish any poetry between 1921 and 1940 as there was an unofficial ban on her poetry by the government. During this time she took on other forms of literary work – translations, as well as literary criticism. Throughout her career, while she faced plenty of government opposition, she was beloved by the Russian people because she refused to abandon her country in their difficult political times.

Sources and Further Reading

Academy of American Poets Website. “Anna Akhmatova.”

Freidin, Gregory. “Anna Akhmatova.” Encyclopedia

Johnson, Ben. “Bright Young Things,” Historic UK.

The Mitford Archive. “Nancy.”

The Poetry Foundation Website. “Edith Sitwell.”

Sylvia Townsend Warner Society. “Biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner.”

Waters, Sarah. “Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer.” Appeared in The Guardian on March 2, 2012.