Somewhere, back in the midst of late lockdown, I received a text from a friend that I think about often. “You know what I miss?” she wrote, “fun. You know, proper FUN.” Even for the lucky among us, who have our health and homes and enough necessities to get by, fun is something that has been rather lacking in 2020. After all, it’s difficult to have a party in a pandemic.
But if we must stay in, then at least we can live vicariously through literature’s most extravagant soirees. And there are plenty to compile a reading list from to ride through those post-curfew hours.
If you’ve not changed out of your tracksuit bottoms since April, the frills and corsetry offered by parties in the classics may offer some comforting escapism. Anna Karenina’s black velvet dress at Oblonsky’s ball from Leo Tolstoy, the off-the-shoulder number donned controversially by Meg for her posh mate’s ball in Little Women, the elegant Regency dresses that blow the mind of Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet: the past is a different country, they dressed better there.
But if your idea of fun is rather less trussed-up than having polite, if hugely consequential, conversations while wearing a bustle, it may be worth reading slightly more contemporary fiction. A century on, and faced again with a pandemic and unprecedented political upheaval, it’s increasingly easy to look upon the Roaring Twenties in a new light.
An obvious place to start is with F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Granted, Gatsby may have reached an unfortunate end, but that was quite the last summer, made of long nights where “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”.
Fitzgerald describes parties that make the heart yearn for them in his most famous book, ones that involve huge acts from moving parts over the course of a weekend before climaxing:
"The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and the more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.”
Further down Long Island, Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem became a bestseller when it was released in 1928 thanks to its unapologetically explicit depiction of the nightlife in the New York City neighbourhood. McKay’s protagonist is Jake Brown, a longshoreman returning to Harlem after a stint at war and time in Europe, and the author makes no attempt to hide Brown’s excitement at what it promises: “Brown girls rouged and painted like dark pansies. Brown flesh draped in soft colourful clothes. Brown lips full and pouted for sweet kissing.” As the novel progresses against the rhythm of Harlem’s “pure voluptuous jazzing”, Jake doesn’t struggle to celebrate his homecoming.
Back across the pond in England, the players of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies attempt to distract themselves from the grim realities of the world with a plethora of parties: “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris…”
Which leads us toward the more humble house party. While clubs and bars have done their best to keep open during Covid, social distancing and the Rule of Six have made those most memorable of domestic soirees – the one where there’s always a few gatecrashers nobody knows, someone gets naked and the dancefloor moves to the kitchen worktop – a no-go. The opening chapter of White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, contains an ‘End of the World’ Party, which the forlorn – and uninvited – Archie Jones attends, much to the host’s umbrage, and winds up meeting his wife.
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In Supper Club, author Lara Williams charges parties with a socio-political movement: freeganism, feminism, body positivity and drugs collide in this uneasy and invigorating novel about friendship and rebellion. The parties are clandestine and illicit, fuelled on rampaging highs and devastating lows – not dissimilar, then, to the lockdown raves Gen Z organised during the summer of 2020.
Perhaps reading of these dizzying do's from times gone by may introduce a pang of sadness, or longing, for the kind of unbridled winter parties that make you feel grateful for a grey day after – all the better to bundle up with a duvet. But take heart. The parties will be back – and with them plenty of conversations about the books we've read.
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