Just what is a flapper anyway? If you read Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation you’ll get an answer – but it might not necessarily be the right one.
The lives of actresses Diana Cooper and Tallulah Bankhead, poet and publisher Nancy Cunard, dancer Josephine Baker, artist Tamara de Lempicka and creative muse, writer, artist, dancer and eternal mystery Zelda Fitzgerald are examined in a sweeping and surprisingly fast-paced read in this group biography, emblematic of the Jazz Age.
Mackrell’s previous biographic effort was the entertaining Bloomsbury Ballerina, on the life of former Ballet Russes dancer Lydia Lopokova – who was almost a flapper before the flapper was invented – so she seems poised to capture a story built on the foundations of excesses; voracious sexual appetites for both genders, irresponsible drug use, mental illness and profligate spending.
But, and this is a big but, the lives of the six women in the book remain well-tromped over ground, and the reader interested in finding out something new about her favourite dangerous woman will be disappointed. The strands that tie these women together are tenuous at best – sometimes they’re in the same place at the same time, but the promise of a silken spiderweb of interconnected experiences just does not materialise. At best, only Fitzgerald and Bankhead could be considered flappers (and maybe, just maybe, Josephine Baker, too). They are fast women who liked to shock, but with no overriding political or emotional ties to the world at large in their early days.
The trouble with the flapper is that she epitomises irresponsible youth. She doesn’t have a care in the world, and if she does, she does a pretty good job of hiding it. All of the women in this book, like real women all over the world, have worries and issues and insecurities. They are not flappers – a flapper is just a literary construct, a side of a person’s personality. To call them flappers is an injustice, but thankfully Mackrell strives to give us as rounded a portrait of her subjects as possible.
However, this book is important as it ties together the lives of women who, had they been living two decades earlier, would probably have been ostracised, isolated, placed under immense societal pressure and (in the case of Nancy Cunard, who scandalously flouted anti-miscegenation sentiment with her black lover) incarcerated for no good reason other than being themselves.
Still, many of these women were products of the time that they lived in. The pressure was on the flapper to be a wild, reckless thing; many battled mental issues and illnesses that could easily have been a product of personality as well as environment. Today, the pressure is on to lead a perfectly balanced life, so while Flappers may seem a little alien to the modern woman, it is also all-too familiar to any woman who has dealt either with overindulgence, terrible boyfriends, sexual experimentation, debt or pregnancy scares – which is pretty much all of us.
Sarah Waldron is @The_Licentiate