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The Original Cool Girls: ‘Flappers’ by Judith Mackrell

cover flappers judith mackrellThe six women featured in Judith Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation  are not the most famous women of the Jazz Age. But the stories of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Tamara de Lempicka are wonderful illustrations of the challenge in forming identity and a life with guts and swagger (as one blurb enthuses) during the 1920s.

Before I picked up the book, Zelda Fitzgerald was the only name I knew immediately, although I recognized both Josephine Baker and Diana Cooper soon after I started reading their stories (some of Cooper’s family secrets are chronicled in The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey). But they are women across a range of economic and social classes who found themselves inspiring and inspired by the wild ethos of the flapper during the 1920s.

In some ways, each of these women embodied the 1920s version of the Cool Girl that Gillian Flynn wrote about so craftily in Gone Girl. They battled hard to both create the image of the flapper, as well as live in the reality of being a woman in the 1920s and the consequences of being considered a flapper. The theme of image versus reality was so cool to follow through their different stories.

Mackrell made an interesting choice in the way she decided to arrange this book. Each woman is covered in two chapters. Each first chapter covers their childhoods, up until a pivotal moment in the 1920s when each of these women had to make a choice about the life they wanted to live. After introducing all six of these women, Mackrell moves into a second chapter on each that shows the outcome of those choices, and how those choices affected what they decided to do after the age of the flapper was truly over.

At first I struggled a little bit with this structure – it felt like I would just settle into a great biography, only to be shuttled out of it into another woman’s story. But it started to make more sense in the second half as Mackrell made intriguing connections between each woman and how their lives after the Jazz Age veered off in different directions. Some, like Diana Cooper, settled into a contented middle age, while others, like Nancy Cunard, spent the rest of their lives butting up against the expectations the world set up for them.

I read this book alongside Megan Mayhew Bergman’s recent short story collection, Almost Famous Women, which was so interesting. I have a post on that experience going up at Book Riot soon, that I’ll be sure to cross post here. But basically, there are so many connections, literal and symbolic, between the women Bergman fictionalizes and the women featured in this book. All of them pushed against conventions, and all of them had to face the consequences of those choices. But neither author makes the women they wrote about into cautionary tales – they’re truly stories that celebrate women who go against the grain.

The other part of this book that really struck me is how much the underlying pressure and expectations for women have not changed all that much – widespread panic about the morality of young women, for example, is still alive and well. An argument that Mackrell makes near the end of the book resonated with some of the issues I think are still common today:

In this decade of rapid social change, the borderline between freedom and selfishness, ego and egoism, was hotly contended ethical ground. … For male artists and writers, the supremacy of the individual over society was one of the clarion themes of the Twenties. … Most women, however, were experiencing the dichotomy between individual liberty and society in far more practical, problematic and domestic ways. In theory they were living in an era of emancipation … yet women were presented with few narratives of what to do with those choices.

As I think this rambling review suggests, Flappers was a wonderful read, full of engaging stories that also have surprising relevance to the world we live in today.

I was inspired to pick up Flappers this month because of Jazz Age January, a month-long event celebrating books related to the 1920s (novels by Jazz Age authors, nonfiction, or even contemporary fiction set in that era). Thanks to Leah at Books Speak Volumes for hosting this fun event!

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  • Belle Wong January 27, 2015, 5:29 pm

    This sounds like a great read. I recently put a hold at the library on a book that’s a collection of Vanity Fair articles from the 1920s all written by famous authors (I can’t remember the name but it did have “flappers” in it). It might be fun to read these two back to back.

    • Kim February 1, 2015, 3:24 pm

      That books sounds familiar, but I’m not able to come up with a title either. I hope it’s great!

  • Kailana January 27, 2015, 5:36 pm

    I really want to get this!!

  • Michelle January 28, 2015, 9:49 am

    This sounds fascinating! Josephine Baker has always fascinated me because she had two strikes against her but still became famous. I like to think of these famous flappers as the next generation of women’s lib-ers. The first generation earned us the right to vote. Now, this generation was all about pushing the boundaries of women’s roles and images; in doing so, they made it okay to get out of the kitchen and make a name/life for oneself outside of marriage and motherhood.

    • Kim February 1, 2015, 3:25 pm

      Exactly! Her story is so interesting. And yes, I think that’s a good way of thinking about the flappers — they pushed really hard for a decade and helped pave the way for the bigger movements of the 1960s onward.

  • Anita January 28, 2015, 12:48 pm

    You read some wonderful non-fiction books. I think I’d like this. Did you read The Chaperone? I listened to the audio and it was fabulous. Fiction, but something you might enjoy.

    • Kim February 1, 2015, 3:26 pm

      Yes, I did last year (or the year before… so many books!). I thought it was great though, and definitely in the same era/themes of this one.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey January 30, 2015, 10:44 am

    I love learning about women in history and these sound like some fascinating stories!

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes January 31, 2015, 4:20 pm

    Like you, I had some trouble with the structure but liked the way it allowed Mackrell to reference the other women in other chapters. I knew about Zelda and Tamara before reading this book — Tamara features in Ellis Avery’s historical novel, The Last Nude — but it was fascinating to learn more about them and the other women.

    I loved the quote you shared; it ties in so well with the struggles women still face today.

    • Kim February 1, 2015, 3:27 pm

      The structure really had good and bad points. I struggled a bit remembering where I was, but I think it let her tie together themes more effectively than six isolated chapters would have allowed.