Writing the Roaring Twenties

May 30, 2017

Morgan McCarthy’s brilliant The House of Birds publishes in paperback this week. Deemed ‘enthralling’ by the Observer, and a ‘lovely, sumptuous, immersive read’ by Cathy Rentzenbrink, this is a novel that will transport you to 1920s Oxford to discover the secrets the House of Birds has hidden for so long…

In the following essay, Morgan explores why the 1920s as a decade continues to enthrall and inspire us.   

There’s no decade quite like the twenties. Something about it continues to draw in writers, year after year. It’s a love affair that’s not simply a fascination with the aesthetics of art, music, style, but with the spirit of the age. And I believe that the spirit – the essence – of this particular era is alluring precisely because it can’t be precisely defined. It’s transitional, contrary, a time full of contrast and of cusps, remarkable not for one defining mood but for its uneasy collisions of new and old, grief and relief, boisterousness and vulnerability.

Take, for example, the position of women. Like their hemlines, women’s rights were on the up, but – crucially – only by a few inches. They may have won the (partial) vote, but equality was a long way off. As Sophia notes, Oxford University only began awarding women degrees in 1920, and Cambridge didn’t give in until 1948. In the workplace, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was meant to prevent women being sacked for getting married (on the grounds that their new husbands would now be providing for them) but this wasn’t happening in practice, and the law wasn’t able to immediately reverse societal disapproval of women occupying jobs that ought to have been given to returning soldiers.

The female body in particular was a battlefield on which very little ground had been gained. At the time of Sophia’s diary, abortion was illegal, there was no such thing as rape within marriage, and contraception was not widely available or understood. Marie Stopes had only just opened her first family planning clinic, in 1921, which had earned her the enmity of the medical establishment and the Catholic church. Sophia might view Dr Harris as antediluvian, a relic of the Victorian age, but the reality was that he was the representation of authority. Medicine was on the side of Dr Harris. Indeed, the story Sophia relates about a woman whose doctor decided not to tell her that her husband had given her an STD is a true one.

Some of the most striking contrasts of the time came as a result of the First World War. After the initial post-war boom of 1919 and 1920, the economy nosedived. Over supply, competition in international markets, depleted coal reserves, and national debt contributed to the decline. By 1921 unemployment had risen to a record 11.3%. And yet the wealthy middle and upper classes continued to be wealthy, and certain manufacturers even more so.

The contradictions of the era didn’t stop there, with work or rights or money. The truest, deepest division of the 1920s was an emotional one. Modern representations of the decade – including my own – find rich pickings in the existence of two national moods. First, that of the bright young things, rushing to keep up with the exciting evolution of fashion: learning jazz steps, bobbing their hair, drinking cocktails – trying cocaine, even – and playing at fancy dress. Sometimes glamorised, sometimes satirised, the sophisticates of London garnered publicity to the extent that they have become synonymous with the era.

And yet, equally powerful, is the spectre of the First World War. Over 700,000 of the UK’s young men died, and those who came back were wounded physically and emotionally.  The phrase ‘shell shock’ entered the vocabulary; the concept entered our consciousness. Wives and relatives mourned the missing, relationships changed, familiar people were pressed into new forms. For Sophia the war is a presence and yet an absence, something that cannot be described but can never be escaped. It is over, but every day it is felt.

For me, the mood of the twenties was prefigured in 1918, on Armistice Day. The Great War was over and people took to the streets to celebrate and cheer. According to the Daily Mirror, ‘London generally gave itself up wholeheartedly to rejoicing’. And yet side by side with those celebrating were people mourning their loved ones. The heightened love of life and the heightened awareness of death: this became the spirit of the era, a juxtaposition that preoccupied its greatest novels – from Mrs Dalloway to Brideshead Revisited – and has continued to inspire generations of novelists ever since.

  • Morgan McCarthy

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