A Potted History of the Post War British Bon Vivant

The Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815 and marked the end of the Napoleonic era. Winston Churchill was born in 1874, nearly 60 years later. He would go on to lead Britain in the great war from 1940 to 1945. You might think of Churchill’s life as spanning the great arc of the British empire that ended over 70 years ago.

I mention these times spans to make a point. We are now roughly the same amount of time away from the start of the post-war era as young Churchill was from Waterloo. Using 30 years to mark a generation, we are a bit over 6 generations removed from Waterloo and just over 2 generations removed from the end of the war.

It is no surprise, therefore, that we are still affected by the post-war period. In a sense, we are still “in it” without realizing that we are in something. What do I mean? I Let’s take a cultural idea to see how it has evolved from the 19th century to the post-war era and the present – that of the “bon vivant”.

The bon vivant is

a person having cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink

The phrase seems to have first come into vogue in late 17th century France. It made its way into English, and by the 20th century suggested two things – being “refined” (well versed in the pleasures of the world) and being easily tempted to pleasure (being experienced in indulging and perhaps over-indulging).

So what pleasures?  A prominent example of the bon vivant of the 19th century is Oscar Wilde (he died in 1900). Do you need evidence= How about these quips

  • I can resist anything except temptation.
  • It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating
  • ‘I put all my genius into my life. I put only my talents into my works.
  • I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best

How could he be anything other than a bon vivant? But I would call Wilde a bon vivant of the old school. I say that because Wilde associated this lifestyle with the aristocracy. or at least the educated and prosperous middle class of his time and place.

One was a bon vivant IN society. This need to be “in” society made Wilde’s eventual expulsion from society so painful for him. It destroyed him. BTW, Churchill — who was 20 years younger than Wilde — certainly was a bon vivant of this sort as well. He could not imagine a better life than the one that he had IN society. So as a young man, experiencing great adventure in India, and Egypt, he had a strong urge to write back TO society about what he saw and did.

And what is the main pleasure? Food and drink were important then as now. But excellent conversation also ranks very high. Especially conversation that triggered deeply appreciated relationships. Put another way, the bon vivant life was in being someone in relation to society. That belonging gave special flavor to the various things one might enjoy.

The post-war era brought a different sense to this idea. Evelyn Waugh captures the change in his novel, Brideshead Revisited, which came out in 1945. The pleasures that made society “worth it” have been debauched. A certain rudeness has set in. And the bon vivants of the prior era (like Charles Ryder) have to make the best of it in a new, rather barbaric world.  An exaggerated picture? Of course! But you get the idea. Something has changed and Waugh did not like it at all.

The question arose, where would folks find a renewed sense of the good life? How would one aspire to be a bon vivant in 1946? We might keep in mind that food rationing in Britain was first imposed in 1940 and was not lifted until 1954 – fourteen long years of privation.

This may explain why the food books of Elizabeth David (her first came out in 1950) were so popular. David was fiercely bon vivant and she wanted to write about it.  Her books are called “cookbooks” but in fact, they are much more. They are homilies to the way food should be experienced if one expected to live the good life.

Here she is as a young lady

Image result for Elizabeth David

David was quite a character

Born to an upper-class family, she rebelled against social norms of the day. She studied art in Paris, became an actress, and ran off with a married man with whom she sailed in a small boat to Italy, where their boat was confiscated. They were nearly trapped by the German invasion of Greece, in 1940 but escaped to Egypt, where they parted. She then worked for the British government, running a library in Cairo. While there she married, but the marriage was not long-lived.

The key event in David’s life was meeting the writer Norman Douglas in 1940.  This excerpt from the same Wikipedia bio explains

(David and her husband) halted at Marseille and then, for more than six months, at Antibes, where David met and became greatly influenced by the ageing writer Norman Douglas, about whom she later wrote extensively. He inspired her love of the Mediterranean, encouraged her interest in good food, and taught her to “search out the best, insist on it, and reject all that was bogus and second-rate

David may have been a character, but Douglas was by far the more eccentric of the two – part of his mystique was how he stayed “one step ahead of the law”.. They had one thing in common – their values were ferociously bon vivant – not for society, but despite society. They would live well — contra mundum!

What does a bon vivant contra mundum lifestyle look like? One traveled to remote places where things are better and you are better too. in part you are better because you are no longer bothered by the bores and snobs and whatnot whom you left behind.

Gerald Durrell’s book “My Family and Other Animals” captures this lifestyle brilliantly.

Image result for my family and other animals

From today’s Guardian

When My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956 it was as if someone had flung back the curtains, thrown up the windows and let in a stream of bright light. British readers, having only in recent years torn up their ration books, were transfixed by the naturalist Gerald Durrell’s account of his biophiliac childhood on prewar Corfu in the bosom of his eccentric family. Here was the comic opera version of Elizabeth David’s wildly popular Mediterranean cookbooks – the same colours, textures and sand-between-the-toes lyricism but with an added helping of wacky local characters, naughty fauna and ribald – “Rabelaisian” was the word the Durrells liked to use about themselves – humour.

As the article points out, the story remains popular today, as evidenced by the recent British TV series, The Durrell’s.  It matters not that the real lifestyle of the Durrells took place, shall we say, on a considerably lower level. Go to the Guardian article if you want to learn more about that. The image of how life could be better – how one could become a bon vivant,  contra mundum — is what matters and we love it still!

We forget, however, that while Elizabeth David is a cult figure now among foodies, she might not have had the same appeal in an earlier time. And 100 years from now, folks may have some difficulty understanding why someone would pay a  huge sum to buy her used kitchen table and set of knives. Don’t believe me? Then explain to me the reason why fops and dandies were so at odds in Regency London?

Gotcha! Errr … at least I think I gotcha.


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