06 October 2016

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

All is not champagne at the Bollinger Club – the exclusive university dining circle which modest student Paul Pennyfeather joins upon his arrival in Oxford. This outrageously entertaining and darkly humorous novel charts a young man’s changing fortune as he fraternises with glamorous 1920s’ high society and becomes naively entangled in their illegal exploits. This was Waugh’s first published novel and he was so anxious that it would be taken as a serious social critique that he stated in his author’s note it is most definitely ‘meant to be funny’. 

 

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf 

On a bright day in June, Mrs Dalloway is full of excitement and trepidation as she strides purposefully through London preparing for a party she’s throwing that evening. But in a nearby neighborhood, a WWI veteran is still haunted by the horrors of battle. Woolf’s captivating and influential style of writing beautifully expresses the mixture of buoyancy and sense of foreboding in the interwar period, when celebrations were overshadowed by traumas of the past.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The psychological damage caused by fighting in WWI is also still felt in the 1920s by Larry, the tortured hero of Maugham’s forceful novel. On the brink of marrying and joining in the new decade’s prosperity he instead seeks out a bohemian lifestyle and eventually searches for deeper spiritual meaning. Though Larry turns away from the comforts and pleasures of success, seeming foolhardy in the short-term, Maugham shows how it might make a person more resilient to the trials still to come – especially the stock market crash at the end of the decade. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Amidst the buoyant prosperity of the Roaring Twenties anyone with sufficiently few scruples could become an overnight success. At a young age Jay Gatsby may have earned all the wealth and popularity needed to throw the best parties around, but it’s all a glitzy front; this decadent splendour hides his lovesick heart. As a writer who frequented fabulous soirées, Fitzgerald knew all too well the jubilant highs and sordid lows of the Jazz Age. He captures the true spirit of this time here, in his most perfectly realised novel. 

Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis 

Inspired by his real life eccentric aunt, the author created one of the most funny and fabulous characters in literature with Mame Dennis. This ultra-liberal glamorous aunt embodied everything that was hip and new in the 1920s. Her legendary parties brought together cutting-edge artists, psychologists and philosophers – all with a little help from the bootlegger! Brilliantly embodied by Rosalind Russell in the 1958 film, Auntie Mame is a vibrant personality you won’t ever forget. 

 

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck 

Not everyone in the Roaring Twenties was swept along by glitz and glamour. Steinbeck’s classic novel is the story of an oddball pair of down-and-out friends who seek to build a simple and peaceful life for themselves on their own farm. Their journey shows how individuals might be rendered powerless because of the economic, social and political climate of the time. Yet this beautiful and emotional book inspires with its depiction of the power of friendship amidst difficult circumstances.  

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

For a very different perspective on what was happening in the world at this time, Isak Dinesen’s enduring memoir recounts her troubled marriage and experiences as a newly single woman managing a farm in Kenya. What at first appears to be an idyllic paradise soon sours when the author is confronted by hard realities. This fascinating book sensitively depicts the unique racial, economic and environmental tensions felt by a woman trying to forge an independent existence during the last period of the British Empire. 

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway 

This posthumously published memoir set in 1920s Paris gives a vivid, engrossing account of the social lives of some of the century’s most enduring and influential artists. Unlike Hemingway’s more refined fiction, this book taken from his manuscripts and notes has a delicious gossipy feel. Read about Gertrude Stein’s infamous literary salons, drinking sessions with F. Scott Fitzgerald and boxing matches with Ezra Pound. This book transports you to the beating heart of the decade with insight into the highs and lows of its most colourful writers and artists.

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