I hadn’t heard of Beverley Nichols (1898-1983) before finding this novel in a box of donations. As soon as I started to do my research it became clear that he is yet another writer who was extremely well-known in his day, and almost entirely forgotten now. Nichols had an amazingly prolific and wide-ranging writing career. He wrote satirical novels, mystery novels, novels for children; short stories; plays; books on politics, travel, gardening, cooking; and finally, about cats. For a full bibliography see http://www.beverleynichols.com/index.php.
From the beginning of his career he was determined to become a celebrity, and he achieved this. Osbert Sitwell called him ‘the original Bright Young Thing’, and he wrote his first autobiography at 25. (His ambition is clear from the opening line: ‘Twenty-five seems to me the latest age at which anyone should write an autobiography’. It is called, imaginatively, Twenty Five.)
Crazy Pavements (1927) was Nichols’ fourth novel. His first, Prelude (1920), was a critical success; his third, Self (1922), was a best-seller. The Bookman described Crazy Pavements as:
‘An amazingly original entertainment, teeming with epigrammatical brilliancy and not a little, too, of the pathos of youth’s inevitable disappointment.’
Set in the London of the Bright Young Things, the novels tells the story of Brian Elme, a young, good-looking, and rather impoverished gossip columnist, who spends his time making up Society gossip. Usually he writes about people he knows to be abroad, but on this occasion he makes the mistake of writing about Lady Julia Cresey – who is not abroad. She demands an apology for the lies published about her, and thus the two meet. Lady Julia, sophisticated and bored, finds Brian amusing, and invites him to dinner. Seen through the innocent eyes of Brian, the rest of the novel is a dark, satirical journey through the London of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.
The novel is unflinchingly explicit about drugs and homosexuality, perhaps surprisingly so. However, the reader, it is understood, is as sophisticated as the writer. The narrator often addresses the reader: ‘Why, then, did Brian adopt this ignoble profession? For the same reason as any other mental or physical prostitute. He had to live.’ (p. 11) ‘Enough of these analyses of character. They bore me as much as they bore you.’ (p. 21).
There are many parties, most notably a party where the Lords and Ladies of the Society set dress, behave and talk like children. The narrator notes that: ‘as a typical social phenomenon of the post-war period it is worthy of study.’ (p. 152)
Does this remind you of anything? In this ‘amazingly original entertainment’ there are many similarities with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, usually regarded as the archetypal novel of the Bright Young Things, which was published three years later, in 1930. Waugh apparently enjoyed ‘chronically strained relations’ with Nichols. In a splendidly snotty letter in the 1950s, Waugh wrote:
‘There is a poor old journalist called Beverley Nichols on board who cares more about his personal appearance than the vainest of ladies and he has come on to this ship purely in the hope of sun-bathing and acquiring a becoming sun-tan. It has been far too stormy to venture out on deck and he is in tears of disappointment.’
It is amusing to note that despite writing many well-received novels Nichols is snobbishly dismissed as a ‘poor old journalist’. Nichols was far too witty, popular and prolific to be taken at all seriously.
The Dictionary of National Biography entry for Nichols argues that his wit was marred by sentimentality, but I disagree. One of the most interesting and poignant elements of Crazy Pavements is Julia falling in love with Brian. She is the archetypal 1920s sophisticate: upper-class, wealthy, beautiful, dissipated and hopelessly bored. Brian is to be Julia’s refuge against ennui, nothing more. When she falls in love with him it is the first pure and unselfconscious emotion she has ever experienced. What makes this love so poignant is Julia’s unsentimental knowledge that it will pass, and she will be as hard, selfish and bored as she ever was. She tells no-one about this love – this would be unthinkable self-exposure – and instead writes impassioned letters, ostensibly to Brian, but really to herself. It is clear that love is impossible for Julia because it is unsophisticated:
“I am ashamed, and yet proud, of every word I write. I am ashamed because it is so ridiculously ‘ordinary,’ and I hate to believe that I’m an ‘ordinary’ creature. I hate (or rather, the traditional part of me hates) to believe that I can fall in love in the same way that people love in penny novelettes and popular songs.” (p. 176)
Loving, to Julia, is to behave ‘like a housemaid’ (p. 192).
“I am loving you now because I have stepped out of myself. Julia is lying in wait for me somewhere. She’s lying in the shadows, laughing at me, sneering at me, telling me I am a fool.” (p. 176)
There are dark, sinister currents to this witty novel. Julia sees herself as having two selves, and the cruel, mocking self the world sees is by far the most powerful. Her friend, the cocaine-addict Lord William, makes masks of his friends which express their true characters. Locked in a secret room, Lord William expresses his hatred of them all:
“He leaned forward and picked up a mask, fondling it, and sneering at it too. With a sort of drunken insolence he flicked a saddened face on the nose, stared suddenly into a pair of smooth eyes, fondled a grotesque, held to mockery a swollen cheek, snarled at a mouth with hypocrite’s twist.” (p. 92)
Brian, who until now has kept up an internal commentary which translates all the eccentricities of the bright young people he meets into copy for his gossip column, is shocked and silenced. Lord William prophesises:
“You’ll see. One day you’ll find them out. You won’t see their masks any more. You’ll see their faces. Their beastly faces and their abominable souls. And then perhaps you’ll think of this little room, and what I told you.” (p. 92)
The masks Lord William makes, ironically, reveal the true faces. Towards the end he makes one of Brian too, ‘inane and beautiful’.
All in all, it was a darker, odder book than I was expecting. Well worth a read, especially as a companion to Vile Bodies.
Sources: Letter to Margaret and Harriet Waugh en route to Bermuda, January 1955, The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, Amory (ed.), p. 437.
D. J. Taylor, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation (Chatto and Windus, 2007).
Bryan Connon, rev. Clare L. Taylor, ‘Nichols, (John) Beverley (1898-1983)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press 2004-12.