Judith spoke with incredible eloquence about why she’d written the book, what the six women whose lives she told meant to her and why they were so significant in defining the age in which they lived. Then she answered questions from us and from the audience and revealed that her favourite flapper was ridiculously chic heiress, poet, political activist and muse to many (including Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley and T. S. Eliot), Nancy Cunard.
It was interesting that for both of us, Tamara was one of the most impressive characters in the book – she achieved so much, ensuring the survival of her family through sheer bloody-mindedness, while it felt like Nancy was one of the least ‘successful’ in terms of her professional attainments – her life felt the most unfulfilled and painfully chaotic. She dabbled in so many different ‘careers’, from poetry to publishing, but never achieved the dizzy heights she aspired to. However as a stylish, beautiful woman who lived her life fearlessly, without caring about society’s rules or constraints, she was sublime – and why can’t that be enough?
I noted that while we’re astonished and impressed by the progressive attitudes and boundary-smashing stances that these six women adopted – to our eyes they seemed seriously ahead of their time – perhaps to the girls who were aware of them in the 20s, they were nothing more than glamorous celebrities of their time whose exploits fascinated people in the papers.
Judith agreed that this might have been the case with some of the women in her book, but for a figure like Josephine Baker, her influence on poor black Americans following her dramatic exploits back home, you couldn’t underestimate how much her achievements inspired them to think that anything was possible.
I think lots of us may have felt at some point “who am I going to BE, what am I going to DO?” and the women who came of age in the 20s faced these existential questions for the first time. Many of them didn’t have to do anything, but they felt – like, I suspect we do today, that choosing a career or profession (and making a success of it, obvs) is a statement to the world about your character. Today when we ask someone “what do you do?” we’re really asking “who are you?
After Judith’s talk and Q&A, we had a cake break, then regrouped to discuss Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. It’s always a challenge when you’re writing about a real life character who had her own incredibly vivid, unique voice, to recreate that in fiction – and its even riskier when she’s got a protective and obsessive cult following all of her own too. I don’t know if the author necessarily pulled it off, plus you can find all of the same information in Zelda’s own writing and her biography. But the story gathered pace towards the end of the novel.
We broadened out the discussion to include (forgive me for using this nauseating term) ‘literary wags’ of the period – Zelda, Hadley, June Mansfield (Henry Miller’s wife). While reading Z, Flappers and other books about the time, I’d been wondering, would it be better or worse to have literary ambitions of your own, like Zelda, or to stand deliberately outside that world and dominate the domestic sphere like Hadley?
We need to talk about Ernest…
We asked the audience if they’d read any Hemingway, because I haven’t and I’m fascinated by the way he’s (unfavourably) portrayed in both these books. It’s starting to feel like the women rewriting the history of this period are reassessing Ernest’s reputation, moving away from the hero-worship he’s perhaps been traditionally afforded and aligning their sympathies more with Zelda and co. They’re not falling for his macho man schtick (I love the fact that Pablo Picasso didn’t buy it either) and are highlighting his misogyny.
I can see why Zelda found this incredibly frustrating – especially when Scott’s name was put on her stories. My sympathy for her increased towards the end of the novel – she seemed well aware that she was a ‘dabbler’ and there’s a sinister section (which may or may not be true) where she has to pretend to accept that she must subsume her ambitions to those of her husband in order to be released from a mental hospital – very disturbing.
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Recommended reading (and watching) around the Flappers theme – and beyond:
Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson. As one historian wrote, ‘in 1914 the door of the doll’s house opened’ for many young women in terms of opportunities to have a life outside the home, but while our Flappers had various husbands and lovers, they were almost the exception in the twenties – the lucky 10% if you will. Many women were not able to marry and this book tells their story…
How the Girl Guides Won The War, Janie Hampton
Girl Trouble, Carol Dyhouse
Bachelor Girl, Betsy Israel
Diana Cooper, Philip Ziegler
The Edwardians, Vita Sackville West
The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall
The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy
Midnight in Paris
The House of Eliott
and one I really want to read: Superzelda: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald by Tiziana lo Porto
Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.