Children of the Sun

A Narrative of “Decadence” in England after 1918
By Martin Green
Paperback: $15.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-001-4

Summary

Children of the Sun is Martin Green’s term for that brilliant and influential generation of young men who, in the aftermath of World War I, refused to become the fathers, husbands, and heads of households their fathers had been before them. Instead, they cultivated all their lives, alternative styles of young manhood—the dandy, the rogue, and the naïf—which then became for a time the dominant cultural styles of much of the English-speaking world.

Martin Green traces the fate of that gifted generation through the lives of two of its central figures, Harold Acton and Brian Howard, and some forty of their friends, most of whom attained considerable importance in British life, notably, in the arts and letters, but also in the sciences, diplomacy, and politics. Prominent among them are Evelyn Waugh, Randolph Churchill, W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Cecil Beaton, Cyril Connolly, John Strachey, “Kim” Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald MacLean. Their story takes us from Eton, Oxford, London in the twenties, through the Depression and World War II, into exile, the decay of hope, aging, and suicide. A contrapuntal them of Green’s book is the rise of the opposition to “the Children of the Sun,” in F.R. Leavis, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, and others whose “turn” came in the late 1950s.

About the Author

Martin B. Green was born in 1932 in England. He is a professor, writer, playwright, editor, and publisher. His numerous books explore psychoanalysis, philosophical nonviolence, counter-cultures, and adventure among other social and intellectual topics.

Acknowledgments

Illustrations

Prologue: A Visit to La Pietra

1: Children of the Sun

Definitions and Perspectives

Dandyism in the 19th Century

The Commedia Dell’arte and the Ballet

2: England in 1918

The Men of Action

Fathers and Sons

Uncles for Rogues

The Men of Feeling

The Undermining of the Fathers

Uncles for Dandies

The Defiance of the Fathers

3: The New Dandies Arrive

4: 1918–1922: Eton

Brian and Harold and Their School

Other Etonians

Raising the Banner of Art

5: 1922–1925: Oxford

Brian and Harold at Oxford

The Larger Scene

New Friends

Other Undergraduates

The Dandies’ Rivals and Enemies

6: 1925–1932: London

Brian and Harold in London

New Friends and Allies

Waugh and British Dandyism

Enemies and Rivals

Brian’s and Harold’s Careers

7: 1932–1939: Chinese Philosophy and German Politics

Brian and Harold in the ’30s

Men of the ’30s

Auden and Company

Old Friends

Aesthetes and Anti-Aesthetes

8: 19391945: The War

Harold and the Patriots

Brian and the Traitors

The Manhattan Project

Waugh and Old Friends

Orwell and Old Enemies

9: 19451951: Exile and the Decay of Hope

The National Trauma

Harold Acton and the Right

Brian Howard and the Left

Guy Burgess and Politics

The Manhattan Project

Aesthetes and Anti-Aesthetes

10: 19511957: Aging and Suicide

Acton and Howard and England

Waugh and the Others

New Voices

Trouble in Institutions

Aesthetes and Anti-Aesthetes

11: Confessions and Conclusions

The Critic’s Conversation with Himself

The Second Conversation

The Third Conversation

Appendices

A: A Dramatis Personae

B: Children of the Sun: A Short History of the Concept

Bibliography

Notes

Permissions

Index

From Chapter One: Children of the Sun

Definitions and Perspectives

I want to describe the imaginative life of English culture after 1918 and to trace the prominence within it, the partial dominance over it, established by men of one intellectual temperament, the men I call England’s Children of the Sun. I am concerned primarily with the high culture of the country, and within that primarily with the intellectual and imaginative literature, though I want to use that as a focus, a lens, and to look through it at the imaginative life of the whole society. If I am granted that point of view, I think I can show that a certain type of experience, appropriate to a certain mode of being, was cultivated by the young men who felt that they were the generation of English writers growing up after the War; who convinced most of their contemporaries who cared about books that they were right; and who, therefore, established a new identity for “England,” a new meaning to “being English,” in the world at large and in the privacy of individual minds.

The hegemony of this temperament was always challenged by many who disliked this idea of “Englishness,” who stood for an older or a different idea of England. At the end of the period I shall describe—that is, by 1957—these other men seemed to have won the cultural battle, although now it is not so clear that that hegemony was ever completely deposed. In any case, the occurrence of such challenges and contradictions is a necessary part of any cultural dialectic, and so of any temperamental hegemony. The imaginative history of any period can be, should be, described in terms of the clashes between a dominant temperament, the culture’s “thesis,” and its opponents, the “antithesis.” The thesis itself always begins as a contradiction of something previously established—in this case the consensus humanism of Victorian and Edwardian culture, against which the 20th-century Children of the Sun rebelled. But their dandyism provoked rebellion too. Thus we shall expect to find men of other intellectual temperaments who claimed to be “England” in this period. But we shall also expect to find that their books (their ideologies, their narratives, their images) present themselves as being in opposition.

And this is surely what we do find in the writings of George Orwell and F. R. Leavis, and of their allies and disciples, in Scrutiny and Tribune and Julian Symons’ magazine, Twentieth Century Verse. These are the men of the antithesis, and a characteristic note in their writings is a bitter protest against “the gang,” or gangs, that had taken over English literary life in the 20th century, had usurped the great heritage of 19th-century England. One of these gangs they identify with the names of Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman; another with those of W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, John Lehmann.

These are the men of the thesis, and they themselves acknowledged the existence and the functioning of their “gangs.” The two sub-sets thought of themselves, in the early 1930s, as mutually opposed, because the first were frankly aesthetes, the second aggressively not so. But it will be my contention that both were varieties of the same imaginative temperament. And allied to one or other of these groups—usually to both—were other figures, some not primarily of the world of the arts, like Randolph Churchill, Guy Burgess, and Brian Howard. The life of Brian Howard, together with that of his close friend, Harold Acton, will provide the narrative nexus of this study, because between them they tried nearly all the major options of self-realization which the period offered to men of that temperament.

These two were respectively thirteen and fourteen when the war ended, both schoolboys at Eton. They had been to good prep schools, and were to go on to Christ Church College, Oxford. They were central, socially, to the first group of writers I mentioned, and ahead of it intellectually and aesthetically until about 1930. At the same time they had always been outside the main stream of English culture because they were born into families that were Roman Catholic, American, and “aesthetic.” Both their fathers had been painters and art dealers, and lived in the world of cosmopolitan connoisseurs. This heritage put at the disposal of Brian and Harold ideas, styles of expression, worlds of experience, unknown to their schoolfellows, with which to lead the latter in rebellion against British philistinism. But above all it was by means of their own personalities that they took that lead—by making those personalities such vivid manifestations of the dandy temperament and by defying the disapprobation of more mature and responsible and “English” types.

Both were themselves poets and fiction writers to begin with, but more importantly they were impresarios of others’ talents and of the international modernist movement. They were friends of the Sitwells, and Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteau, and others. After they came down from Oxford in 1925 they were members of those groups of Bright Young People who figured so often in the gossip columns. But as the initial impetus of their dandy revolt wore off, they realized that some hitherto more obscure members of their group—for instance Evelyn Waugh—were making more of that revolt in literary terms, and that they themselves must find new ideas.

In the 1930s their paths diverged. Harold Acton spent the years 1932 to 1939 in China, cultivating a “Chinese” kind of pacific serenity and aesthetic scholarship; he wanted to make himself an ambassador of hedonistic wisdom between East and West. Brian Howard’s equivalent adventure was in Germany, where he encountered first a religion of life-values, of living according to the rhythms of the earth, and then the anti-Nazi and, more generally, the anti-Fascist movement. He became a leading spokesman against Nazism in the literary world, and a friend of Auden, Isherwood, and Spender.

During the second war, both were in England most of the time, in fairly ignominious positions. After the war, both went to live abroad again, Harold Acton in Italy, Brian Howard mostly in France, where he committed suicide in the first weeks of 1958. With his death I shall close the narrative, because it coincided with the eclipse of dandyism in England and the rise of the Angry Young Men. That coincidence was appropriate, for Brian’s life, and Harold Acton’s, was an adventure of ideas, and those adventures were interwoven with the main fabric of the imaginative life in England in those years. Many readers will have already met the two men without knowing their names, for they were the men from whom Evelyn Waugh drew Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited and Ambrose Silk in Put Out More Flags; and Brian was, as much as anyone else, the fashionable left-wing intellectual whom Orwell and Leavis often denounced. Above all, throughout this period the major currents of English life can be seen through their individual lives, because they knew everybody, including non-literary figures like Guy Burgess and Randolph Churchill. They moved with all the people who, in their various ways, seem to me to have belonged by temperament to the cultural “thesis.”

What I mean by their temperament is most briefly to be explained by calling it dandyism, although the dandy is only one type, one crystallization, of the temperament, and its other types are quite different. But we are concentrating on writers, and they were very often dandies; they were preoccupied with style, worshipped Adonis or Narcissus, were rebellious against both their fathers’ and their mothers’ modes of seriousness, were in love with ornament, splendor, high manners, and so on—all that is commonly meant by dandyism. In order to really understand the idea of the Children of the Sun, however, we need to both broaden and deepen our definition. We need to associate the dandy with two other types, seemingly unrelated, the rogue and the naif, and to see that temperamentally the three types are all first cousins. All three go in defiance of the “mature” modes of seriousness that our culture sponsors; all are “young men’s” styles of being. And we need to give a longer evolutionary perspective to these terms by calling all these types—on occasion—Sonnenkinder—Children of the Sun. This extra dignity is appropriate when these young-men types are made the objects of an imaginative cult, when a group of people significant in numbers, talent, or power idolizes the young man as the supreme form of life. To some degree, such a cult always exists. It can be traced back throughout the history of Western culture; but it has taken very different forms and very varying degrees of importance in different phases of that culture.

The simplest psychological fact at the root of this cult is that worship of the male adolescent by older men that is expressed in the myths of Narcissus, Adonis, and such. This phenomenon occurs, and recurs, even in cultural contexts that make nothing of it. But certain phases of Western culture have made particular use of it, have developed activities and institutions that have—often secretly—that worship at their core.

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