The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London
By D.J. Taylor. (Pegasus Books, 388 pages, $28.95.)

Outside, fires were raging across London, but inside the heat came from seduction. In the Bloomsbury neighborhood, young women were rejecting traditional roles for "a kind of war-era bohemian life … where boyfriend A is a peer of the realm and boyfriend B is a penniless painter."

In "The Lost Girls," British biographer D.J. Taylor does a richly researched dive into this transgressive 1940s subculture where men and women changed partners and apartments with equal ease. He traces Barbara, Lys, Sonia and Janetta, all brilliant, beautiful and willful women who orbit the social circle around the Horizon literary magazine. At the center is the self-absorbed "man of letters" Cyril Connolly, a character both fascinating and repellent.

Diary entries and letters track the women as they spend the war years swapping lovers and drinking deep from the Bloomsbury party atmosphere. Guest appearances come from writers Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and even George Orwell. But these party girls wear a melancholy tinge. "Their unhappiness, it might be said, was part of the price they paid for being the people they were," Taylor says.

Readers who can't set aside 21st-century attitudes toward feminism and sexual politics could be dismayed by the scenes of talented women subordinating their goals to Connolly's ego, "doing his chores, typing his letters … conciliating his whims and occasionally risking his serious displeasure by striking out on paths of their own." And yet most did manage to carve out lives for themselves at a time when many doors were still closed to women.

Before judging, Taylor urges readers to take a more historical view of the Lost Girls. "In their spiritedness, their independence and their determination to be themselves, they offered a template for some of the female behavior that came afterward."