Almost every generation considers itself a jeunesse dorée, but few have a stronger claim than that of London in the early years of the 20th century. Wealthy beyond thought on the riches of empire and the industrial age, brought together in unprecedented number by the new focus on the capital, and given urgency by the apocalyptic threat of world war, a privileged set created the modern world via self-expression and self-indulgence on a scale unseen since the fall of Rome. With the attentions of an increasingly bold press, they became figures of sensation and scandal, provoking a focus on youth that had not been seen before. For the first time, too, the women involved were every bit as celebrated as the men, and a succession of strong, original, self-determined females broke free of convention in the most spectacular manner.
The first wave of 20th-century rebels came in the guise of the Coterie. This group was largely composed of the children of the Souls, a high-minded turn-of-the-century clique that eschewed traditional aristocratic pursuits of hunting and fishing for discussions of art and literature. The Souls were at their height at the turn of the century, but the fin de siècle spirit only properly kicked in when the baton was passed to their children. Originally calling themselves the Corrupt Coterie, their devotion to the arts was, if anything, stronger than that of their parents, with most at least dabbling in painting or writing themselves, but with this came careless, guilt-free hedonism in the form of drinking, dancing, gambling and drugs, from chloroform to cocaine. Gathering at balls, at country houses, at the Café Royal or London’s original nightclub, the subterranean Cave of the Golden Calf, off Regent Street, they shocked and inspired in equal measure.
Included in their ranks were some of the most brilliant of their class. There was Patrick Shaw-Stewart, old Etonian and Oxford scholar and the youngest managing director of Barings Bank, and Raymond Asquith, barrister son of the prime minister. Yet world war one ensured that few of the men enjoyed the long careers they deserved. Instead, the spotlight fell on the Coterie’s no less brilliant female members, of which the shining star was Lady Diana Manners, officially daughter of the 8th Duke of Rutland, though well known to be the result of an affair between her mother, Violet, and one of her fellows in the Souls, the writer Henry Cust.