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Brenda Dean Paul: Morphia, Camels, Lipstick and Chiffon Knickers

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

It is possible to read the life of Brenda Dean Paul in a variety of ways. While Elliott Hicks in a recent article focuses very largely on class relationships in interwar Britain, this short piece concentrates more on issues with a specific connection to the drug policy context and to the development in Britain of social modernism. These lines of inquiry are of course linked to social class but cannot be ‘read off’ from class positions.


By the term social modernism, I am referring to lifestyle practices associated with modernism in the arts and literature, alongside which it crossed the English channel in the interwar years. Brenda Dean Paul belonged, largely through the influence of her mother Irene Poldowski, to a rich and complex European modernist network. The lifestyle practices to which I refer would include divorce, bisexuality and same sex relationships, travel, bohemianism, liberal views of the proper relations obtaining between parents and children, the frequenting of nightclubs and so on. Although modernism has frequently been associated with a disdain for popular culture, it is noteworthy that jazz music and jazz modes of dancing were also part of this mix and would lead some of its adherents into the politics of race in the United States. Social modernism was also closely linked to experimentation with drugs.


The Bright Young People (BYP), as they were known in the 1920s and 1930s, (‘Bright Young Things’ being a more general term that came later) included Brenda amongst its ranks. This grouping, which was composed of (mostly) young aristocrats and bohemians, became the site of fairly intensive drug use toward the end of the 1920s. The BYP valorised Paris and French culture, drawing on Oscar Wilde and the 1890s movement, and it was in Paris that Brenda first encountered ‘white drugs’, the contemporary term for powdered drugs such as heroin, morphine and cocaine. Through her mother Irene, a modernist composer and performer, Brenda had introductions to much of the bohemian arts community in the metropolitan centres of continental Europe and was both an adherent to and a medium of social modernism in Britain. Irene was bisexual and highly unconventional, making a precarious living from performing her music following her separation from baronet Sir Aubrey Dean Paul shortly after the First World War. She was undoubtedly a powerful influence on her daughter during these years.


By about 1928, when she was 21 years old, Brenda was regularly using morphine, and approached various London doctors for supplies of the drug. During her mother’s long bronchial illness in 1931, she approached several doctors simultaneously and thereby fell foul of the Dangerous Drugs legislation established in 1920. Her use of opioids took place early in the era of the ‘British System’, formalised by the Rolleston Committee in 1926. This regime enabled her to receive supplies from her physician, because she was regarded as unable to live a normal life without them. The 1930s court cases are discussed both in my book and in the work of Hicks mentioned above. In court, Brenda was defended on the grounds that she had succumbed to addiction accidentally while receiving medical treatment in Paris. The same argument was given in the more sympathetic accounts of contemporary newspapers, while others fastened upon her as a representative of aristocratic decadence, or even as the victim of an old family curse that had visited tragedy upon several of her ancestors.


However, her class status was at this point highly conflicted. She was, during much of the interwar period, and most pointedly during the Second World War, effectively declassé, expunged of her class status and demoted into the ranks of the ‘other’. It was a process that took place at the symbolic level and also at the economic: in addition to being frozen out socially by many of her peers and former friends, she lost her allowances from her father and from the Dean Paul family friend, Lady Howard de Walden. There were times when she was genuinely penniless, living in low-grade rented rooms that were remote indeed from the relative luxury of her childhood and early pre-criminal career.


For much of this period, she managed to derive an income from narrating her drug experiences to newspapers, one set of which was turned into an autobiography. Some of this material has been deployed to criticise her lack of honesty and to identify evidence of the degradation supposedly caused by her use of drugs. While not particularly seeking to plead her case, it should be recalled that her narrative trajectories are massively impacted by the drug policy context of the era. It is, in this sense, a period that we continue to inhabit.

There were two roles, institutionally embedded in British society, out of which she could speak in these published works. One was as a patient, the other as a criminal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paul elected to speak as a patient. It was an option provided to her by the British System, and the present policy context is still structured largely around this choice. From reading what Brenda Dean Paul does NOT say, to the silences in her accounts, to her slips of the tongue, and to the comments and asides of those who knew her, I would suggest that she did not in fact consider her dependence on drugs to be problematic in and of itself. Like many people who are dependent upon opioids, she probably wanted, more than anything, a stable supply. The appetite deriving from daily use of opioid drugs is, for the consumer, as urgent as that for biologically driven needs such as hunger, thirst, sex. Her adoption of a medicalised subjectivity was informed by a pragmatism previously demonstrated in the United States; it remains a survival tactic for heroin consumers in our own day.


It was stratagem implemented by many British drug users in the interwar years, who have been understood by historians as being committed to the medical conception of their status, an assessment that should arguably be made with considerable caution, since rejecting the medical understanding of their lifestyle was liable to result in a term in prison, an experience that would indeed later be bestowed upon Paul. Power was exercised over these consumers by making some forms of speech and conduct difficult, other forms easy.


Brenda Dean Paul was by no means the only ‘society addict’ of her day; there was a network of young upper-class women who shared her doctors and her practices. Nonetheless, she was constituted as the singular target of a formidable array of state resources, which were mobilised by the Home Office (including at the highest levels), the Metropolitan Police, the Ministry of Health and other high-ranking individuals carrying social, medical, juridical and political authority. The sheer volume and social positioning of those involved belie the claim that this was driven by public health imperatives focused on her consumption of drugs. As is invariably the case, drug consumption was instead very largely a symbolic factor in these legal and health interventions, which were much more concerned with her social modernism and its implications for gender roles, social and economic class status, industrial discipline, notions of Englishness, racial purity, imperial identity, inter-generational conflict, and so forth: essentially, the entire cluster of discourses and subjectivities that helped tie together the old conservative order that was in the process of being degraded by the movements inherent in modernity. The cultural substance ‘drugs’ provided a largely uncontroversial channel for articulating these anxieties.


During some of her court cases in the early 19030s, Brenda Dean Paul shared a small Chelsea terraced house with her bestie, Anthea Rosemary Carew. They were both well-known users of morphine, their cases receiving copious press coverage, obtaining supplies from their doctors via the British System. Anthea Carew was the daughter of the Dean of Exeter cathedral and had been married to The Times’ cricket journalist and friend of Evelyn Waugh, Dudley Carew. The marriage was short lived. She was now divorced and outside direct male control, while Brenda and her brother Brian ‘Napper’ Dean Paul (also a morphine user) had fallen out with their father Sir Aubrey over Brenda’s drug use and the associated scandal. These were young women at large, out and about on the public thoroughfares of London. Though they complied with the medical model in their public speech, in their conduct they were insubordinate and unruly: detectives continually refer to the apparent lack of seriousness with which they greeted the legal cases against them.


Discovered naked and intoxicated in bed together by hotel staff, they were evicted from the Park Lane Hotel by the manager, who spoke to officers of his desire to get to know ‘what mode of life these women were leading.’ They moved on to a room at the Dorchester. For Aubrey, his errant daughter represented the worst aspects of modernity and the female emancipation it entailed. He had visited Scotland Yard to protest at his daughter’s access to drugs, only to be told by senior detectives that this was a matter for the medical profession and that the Police were powerless to intervene. The conflict between the generations of Dean Pauls had been brewing since Brenda was a child; Aubrey had been in the British army during the Great War and clashed with his wife Irene over her wartime pacifism. Brenda had always taken her mother’s part in these disputes. More broadly, it is clear that the BYP were reacting against their parents’ generation, which they held responsible for the horrors of the global military conflict. It is a theme that would be reiterated in the 1960s, again with drugs playing a key symbolic role on both sides. Napper Dean Paul claimed repeatedly that his father’s close relationships with London’s authority figures had worked against his sister in her legal problems; there is no currently known documentary evidence to support or refute this claim.


Following her escape on appeal from a five week stint in the gothic austerities of Holloway prison, to which she had been sentenced for six months by the Tower Bridge magistrate Morgan Griffith Jones, Brenda announced that, ‘Never did chiffon knickers feel so wonderful…Oh the joy of a Camel and lipstick once more; the joy of kind, loving attractive people each side of me.’


Brenda’s case is certainly proven to have been widely discussed amongst legal and medical authorities in Britain, and she was considered to be a dangerous figure embodying the disorderly potential of the BYP and social modernism. She therefore had, and arguably retains, a political significance, albeit a deeply complex and multi-faceted one that in my view goes beyond the left and right categories that structure contemporary political paradigms. She was, and perhaps endures, as a problematic figure for both sides.

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