Expensive,fast cars – particularly when driven by expensive,fast women – are an enduring symbol of the Jazz Age in the USA and the Bright Young Things phenomenon in England. From the Futurists onward cars epitomise modernity. When driven by women they represent freedom but also danger and excess. They also, given their price, represent ostentatious wealth.
The photographs of Elvira stepping into her fashionable Delage, the day after her acquittal, is the one that most caught the popular imagination. The common interpretation was that this woman, neither humble nor contrite, was about to step into her luxury automobile to re-commence her wild and immoral life. The fact that she nearly crashed into her successful (but unthanked) defence lawyer, Sir Patrick Hastings,two months later on a road in France, merely confirmed the image of supreme and selfish egotism.
Elvira was no stranger to car crashes. She had been arrested in 1930 after an incident in Croydon – where she had furiously berated the poor arresting officer – reminding him of her high station in life and threatening to get him sacked. (This behaviour was repeated on the night of the shooting – “You bloody swine, how dare you threaten to take me to a police cell -do you know who my mother is?”.)
In June 1931 – just before Gordon Russell’s fatal accident (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/arthur-streek/ ) Elvira was involved in a collision in Piccadilly Circus -breaking her jaw and losing a tooth. Her passenger was Brian “Napper” Dean Paul, brother of the most famous addict of the Bright Young People, Brenda Dean Paul.This incident went unrecorded at the time but was resurrected by The Times just before the trial – thus linking Elvira to the much more high profile Brenda – whose exploits and excesses the press had been documenting for years.
Brenda and Napper
In Vile Bodies the character Agatha Runcible (very much a portrait of Elizabeth Ponsonby) suffers a nervous breakdown after her escapade in a racing car. The sense of ever accelerating speed ending in disaster becomes a metaphor for Waugh’s vision of the inevitable disaster and downfall that will be the fate of the Bright Young Generation. Speed, on land or sea, was glamorous and newsworthy ( Brooklands, Cobb and Campbell, Cunard Liners and,not forgetting Joe Carstairs). The frequency of car crashes – the inter-war statistics are mind-boggling considering the general level of car ownership – was the dark underside of the new freedoms brought about by modernity.The new freedoms of the road also symbolise new sexual and social freedoms and the car-crash here takes on a particular moral significance. Additionally, post-Wall Street 1929 – the term “crash” acquires even greater resonance.
Elvira’s choice of a Delage was significant. Chic, French and with very rapid acceleration, Delage cars were closely associated both with motor-racing and high society in the 1920s. Like many enterprises, the economic conditions of the 1930s saw the company’s commercial decline. Hers probably cost a £1,000 or so ( the average house price in 1930 was £590).
For expensiveness and exclusivity however, the Delage couldn’t touch her cocktail party guest Arthur Jeffress’ 1933 purchase – a personalised drop-top Rolls Royce. This one-off is, for those who might be able to afford it, currently for sale.