Today I finally finished reading Judith Mackrell's Flappers. This big doorstop of a book tells the story of six famous flappers: Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka. Mackrell alternates between the lives of each woman, creating a fascinating picture of life as a 'flapper' in the 1920s. However, despite the book's title, the author's focus is set firming on these women: their desires, aspirations and careers, rather than the phenomenon of the 'flapper' with which we are so familiar with today.
Her chosen subjects come for a range of different backgrounds, from the poverty experienced by Josephine in the ghetto, to the aristocratic lineage of Diana Cooper. But all these women were united in their desire to make something of themselves - be it through dance, art, theatre, poetry or pure stardom. Some of these lives collided in the small circles of the 1920s, many of them ending up in Paris with its condensed circles of writers and artists, from Fitzgerald and Hemingway to Stein and Picasso.
Flappers shows the lengths these women were willing to go in order to live their own lives on their own terms. Eschewing traditional domestic roles, women such as Tamara de Lempicka and Nancy Cunard took lovers rather than settling down into a conventional marriage. Determined to be liberated sexually, Nancy experimented with same sex relationships, whilst Tamara captured erotic intensity with her paintings, cementing her own status and financial security. If Flappers reveals anything about these women it was their utter belief in themselves and their desire for independence. From Josephine's rise from poverty to Nancy's investment in political activism, to Zelda's existence as the ultimate flapper girl, these women were consumed by the idea that in the 1920s, that anything was possible, and for them, it was.
Flappers, at 444 pages, is by no means an easy read, and at some points I felt like I was reading six biographies in one go! But ultimately I found the book extremely rewarding. Mackrell expertly sheds light the lives of these women, capturing the decade in all its visual brillance. Following these women into old we see some of them clinging on to the decade that made them, the glimmer of the 1920s left in forever in the past. When I reached the end of this book I really did feel like I'd spent a few hours in a different era.
I found out about Flappers at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival in June. Read all about it here