Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell

Some weeks ago I contacted Philippa McEwan from Pan MacMillan asking for a review copy of Confessions of a Sociopath. She kindly directed me to the colleague who was in charge of that book but, seeing as I was interested in the 1920’s and women’s representation offered me a review copy of Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell and I very gladly accepted it.

From GoodReads:

Glamorized, mythologized and demonized – the women of the 1920s prefigured the 1960s in their determination to reinvent the way they lived. Flappers is in part a biography of that restless generation: starting with its first fashionable acts of rebellion just before the Great War, and continuing through to the end of the decade when the Wall Street crash signal led another cataclysmic world change. It focuses on six women who between them exemplified the range and daring of that generation’s spirit.

Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka were far from typical flappers. Although they danced the Charleston, wore fashionable clothes and partied with the rest of their peers, they made themselves prominent among the artists, icons, and heroines of their age. Talented, reckless and willful, with personalities that transcended their class and background, they re-wrote their destinies in remarkable, entertaining and tragic ways. And between them they blazed the trail of the New Woman around the world.

One thing that I need to highlight is that I am not a huge non-fiction fan in my free time. As a literature student, I read lots of non-fiction for my research and for lessons, but during my free time, I had never found myself gravitating towards the genre. But, always up to a challenge and since I was very interested in Confessions of a Sociopath, I decided to give non-fiction a challenge. Words cannot express how incredible this first venture into the genre was. As many of you know, my main interest in the book came from the Zelda Fitzgerald chapters, but I found myself equally enthusiastic about the other five women in the book.

You see, my review was originally organized according to the six women, but I have been giving it some thought (I finished the book a week ago) and I’ve decided not to spoil anything about them. For me, not knowing who those women were and what had happened to them was key to enjoy the book and since I think it is a marvellous, charming book that will probably be underrated and not reviewed enough, I am going to try to present it to you.

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation focuses on six women who fought against society’s rules and expectations. With the Victorian ideals still very present, the roaring 1920’s saw a generation of women break away with tradition and create new identities for themselves. The book focuses on Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka who, each on her own ways, can be considered a landmark in the history of women. Some came from privileged backgrounds, others did not, but all of them created a particular and distinctive identity that was as far as their mothers’ as possible. And because they were crafting their own identities, they lacked references to inspire or motivate them, and obviously, society lacked those references too viewing these six women and their new ways of being with suspicion. But, despite society’s suspicion – their very own families’ included – they lived their lives as accordingly to their own codes as possible. Some of them married and had children, but they struggled to combine their domestic lives – still highly influenced by Victorian codes – and their more public lives as artists.

The book is organized into twelve chapters, devoting two chapters to each woman and not in consecutive orders so that their stories are clearly interwoven and more connected than it appears at first sight. But what I loved the most is the collection of photographs – some even printed in colour – that the books include. It helps me to assign a face, clothes and gestures to women who I had never heard of and was at that particular moment getting to know. What I am thankful for is the discovery of the incredible Tamara de Lempicka and her paintings. They are so colourful and passionate and they are clearly a reflection of the decade’s changing views on art and life. If you love The Great Gatsby, you may recognize the following as the cover of Oxford World’s Classics’ edition:

TDL38
Portrait of a Young Girl in Green Dress (1930) by Tamara de Lempicka

One thing I did not really like was, as you can assume, Zelda’s chapters. My previous read was Therese Anne Fowler’s historical biography Z and it shed a lot of light about Zelda and her creative drive. Mackrell seems to subscribe to the wide-spread notion of Zelda as being the weak and unstable wife to Scott Fitzgerald. For example, Fowler clearly states that Zelda’s famous fur coat was bought by Scott on his obsession to create the Fitzgeralds´ image while Mackrell makes it clear Zelda insisted on buying it even though the couple could not afford it.

But in general, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation is a great reading especially if you are passionate about the 1920’s and how women shaped them. The lives of the women it deals with are so inspiring that you will find yourself eager to read and write more, to develop your artistic tendencies as these women did. And I hope we all do! So it is for sure that thanks to this book I’ll read more fiction and I’ll continue investigating the decade – with a special focus on my beloved Zelda – for some time now.

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17 thoughts on “Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell

      1. Hi – just wanted to let you know I’ve now read the book, and absolutely loved it. Like you, I’m not a big reader of non-fiction, but this was so well-written and readable. I think your review is absolutely spot-on!

        1. Wow, thank you SO, SO MUCH for coming back to comment!! I do think it is a great non-fiction reading and I highly recommend it to anyone.

          Which of the women was your favourite?

        2. That is really difficult to answer! I think the author did a great job of presenting the women with all their flaws, but you still really rooted for them in their bids for a different life. They were all just so unique and impressive, I’d be really interested to find out more about all of them.

        3. Same happened to me but was enchanted by Tamara’s obsession with diamond bracelets. I was not very happy with how she portrayed Zelda though. Do you plan to read Z by Therese Anne Fowler?

        4. I do now! After I finished this book I added Z to my wishlist. I think Zelda’s been mistreated by biographers, its good that there’s something written that looks beyond her reputation as just an unstable wife of a great writer.

        5. How great! Please come back if you feel like it and have a little chat about it 🙂 And yes, VERY mistreated by everyone, so sad!

    1. It is, Iris. Had you heard about if before? I don’t think there are a lot of review copies around which is a pity since it’s such a great read.

      1. No, had never heard of it! So I’m glad you had the chance to read and review it and put it on my wishlist 🙂

  1. This book sounds fantastic! Flappers and feminism, I’m in!

    You might like a novel called The Last Nude by Ellis Avery; I read it last year before I started blogging, and it imagines the story of Tamara de Lempicka’s muse, who was the subject of her painting The Beautiful Rafaela. It’s a gorgeous painting, and the novel is an interesting look at the art scene in 1920s Paris.

    1. I’d never heard of it, but it sounds just perfect! I was actually wondering if maybe there was a Tamara biography out there 🙂

  2. This book was already on my wishlist, so I’m pleased to see that you liked it 🙂

  3. This sounds fascinating, last week I finished reading Careless People by Sarah Churchwell – biography of the novel The Great Gatsby and Zelda featured heavily in that – I instantly wanted to know more about her.

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