The Chaperone

It’s 1922 in Wichita, Kansas, and a 15-year-old Louise Brooks is heading off on the path to super stardom, having landed a place with a modern dance company based in New York. She needs a chaperone as a minor in a big bad city, however much she may resent the idea of being saddled with one. For Louise is a very modern girl, free from the inhibitions of her age, precocious and beautiful and ready to take on the world. Her chaperone, thirty-six year-old Cora Carlisle is a very different sort of woman: respectable, prudish, ingrained with the cautious conventions of her time. But in making the trip at all, Cora is taking far greater risks than Louise realises.

No one apart from her husband knows that Cora was an orphan, living in the Home for Friendless Girls in New York before being sent west on the train with others of her kind to be picked over and eventually picked out by strangers. The fate of such orphans was very uncertain – many ended up servants or worse in their new households. But Cora was one of the luckier ones, or at least so she thought, until it became clear to her that even good fortune can hide some unpleasant surprises. But the riddle of her origins exerts a hypnotic fascination, and she takes the opportunity to travel to New York with Louise to find out, finally, who she really is.

I had thought, picking this book up, that it would be mostly about Louise Brooks, and this despite the fact that the title is The Chaperone. Well, duh. To begin with, I confess that I resented this a little, but I wasn’t many chapters in before the skill with which Laura Moriarty unfolds her back story had won me over, and I found Cora’s tale gripping. However, the best part of the novel without a doubt is the section where Louise and Cora are together in New York, knocking spots off each other. At the heart of the novel is the cultural struggle between the old ways of convention and the newfound freedoms for women that were ushered in by the flapper era. Cora is horrified at first by Louise’s flirtatious manner, her sharp tongue, her easy familiarity with men. But when Cora drops her book on the train (The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, recently published) she has to wait for Louise to return and pick it up for her, because her corset prevents her from bending over. It also prevents her from taking more than a few mouthfuls of food at a time, and it’s no fun to be wearing in the summer heat of New York, and in stressful situations. Over the weeks they spend together, Louise unbends Cora physically as well as mentally, forcing her to reconsider society’s strict rulings on matters of decency and constraint.

I was going to review Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace today, but when I sat down to type, I realised that this novel had to come first. What it cleverly shows is that for women to adhere to ideological restrictions over their bodies, they had to inhabit a permanently suspicious and overly-eroticised mindset. They had to be looking out for the slightest signs of sexual intent in others and in themselves, all the time. Every man was a predator, every encounter a possible flirtation to be avoided. The attitude they had to adopt wasn’t sensible or realistic at all, and rather than enhance a woman’s purity, it kept her thinking about sex and its disgustingness continually. The alteration that Cora’s attitude undergoes in New York enables her to make bold choices about herself, and to find a life that fits her properly, unlike her corset that squeezes her into the acceptable shape.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and felt it was a story very well told. The only hesitation I have is that it is genre fiction and not literary. As I was reading I kept wondering why this bothered me, because it doesn’t normally. Yet there was some quality to the prose that I would have wished away. The closest I can get to explaining this is my feeling that in genre novels, characters have to be terribly attentive to the effect they are having on the reader. Central protagonists have to be sympathetic, and their trajectory must be towards enlightenment and empowerment. This is why the story belongs to the fictional heroine, Cora, not the historically based Louise Brooks, who did not have anything like a positive trajectory through life (as the novel documents). Yet she rips through its pages like a breath of fresh air because she does not care what anyone thinks of her. I suppose that, in a novel concerned with challenging old, bad conventions, it unsettled me a little to feel that the conventions of the 21st century genre novel still had to be met. But this is a quibble, and one that does not impinge on the enjoyment the novel has to offer. It is essentially a fine piece of historical storytelling about a fascinating era.

16 thoughts on “The Chaperone

  1. Your observation about the preoccupation with sex that kept women chaste reminded me a great deal of the similar preoccupations I still see in the writings of Christian men, who have to be continually thinking about the snare and entrapment of the female body in order not to be taken in by it. Can’t we all just … you know, get along, and get laid every now and then?

    • Lol! This comment really did make me laugh. And I completely agree – in fact in my experience, men and women are rarely that interested in each other in that way, unless one or other is desperate for unknown reasons. Just getting along is a pretty good aim, and sufficiently demanding of most people’s relationship skills!🙂

    • You made my day with this comment, Tom. Thank you. I’ve always been interested in genre as I think it is very ideologically driven, and can therefore offer much insight into cultural concerns. A different sort of insight to more literary novels, but worth considering.

  2. Sounds like an entertaining read and it says something that even though it turned out to have a different focus than you expected you still enjoyed it. I am curious though about what makes this genre fiction and what genre you put it in?

    • I suppose you’d have to classify it ‘women’s fiction’, although I am never happy with that term as it often has a sort of derogatory air to it that is unfair for a lot of the novels that fall under its umbrella. But it’s about Cora’s journey towards happiness and fulfillment, with a romance story involved in that too. How I know it’s genre is tricky (unless you follow Caroline’s suggestion that the cover gives it away). The writing is competent without making any claims for itself beyond that, and the story follows a groove that in my heart I recognise. It’s like pop music has a beat and classical doesn’t? Well, genre has a sort of beat to the plot, if that makes any sense at all!

  3. The cover shoves it right into the genre corner but I can see that it has some interesting aspects. The way you write about it at the end makes it sound as if it felt anachronistic. Is that what you meant? That’s how it revelas to be genre? I think noticed that in a few historical novels.

    • Well it’s not anachronistic in that Cora’s concerns belong to another age (which I agree with you is terribly prevalent in genre historical fiction). But that genre fiction in the 21st century has certain guidelines, usually well observed, about how characters behave, how stories unfold, certain narrative expectations, if you like, that need to be met to keep the reader happy. It felt to me as if the narrative was straining to keep the reader’s sympathy towards Cora, and even towards Louise. Whereas a literary novel would simply have been interested in who and what they were, without any compulsion to make that likeable. Well, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d be very interested to see how other readers react to it!

  4. Why did I think, too, that this would be about Louise Brooks rather than the chaperone? She seems more interesting somehow, but perhaps that’s not the case at all. When I was reading E Gaskell’s North and South there were loads of notes at the back referring to the Victorian ideas of purity and the need for Margaret to be chaste and not ‘sexual’–it was very interesting. I had never thought of how authors writing historical/genre fiction must be so attuned to the reader’s perception of things–makes sense. I read a lot of genre fiction, but I’ve never thought much about it as a construct –I know lots of people have a problem with it for a variety of reasons. If you ever decide to write more about it I know I for one would be hugely interested.🙂

    • Danielle, I am so glad it was not just me who thought that! I generally don’t have a problem with genre at all – as you know, I’m a big fan of crime fiction, and enjoy all sorts of family sagas and even romance if I’m in the mood for that sort of story. And to be fair to The Chaperone, it’s right up there at the top end of genre fiction and can be proud of itself. But I confess I am fascinated by the difference between literary and genre novels, and it is something that intrigues me, not least because it does provoke strong reactions in people. I will have to think more about it!

  5. Pingback: Literary Fiction as Genre | Dismembering Thoreau

  6. Funny, I just passed on this book at our library’s annual book sale (basically because it WAS about the chaperone). Perhaps I should go back and see if it’s still there. It sounds great.

    • Ha well, you were smart to work that out! And your instincts are absolutely correct – Louise doesn’t feature as much as I’d hoped she might. But this was a very enjoyable and readable book. I won’t tell you to rush out and get it at all costs. But it was a fun read.

  7. I once read someone describe Kurt Vonnegut’s resentment at being cast as a science fiction writer as stemming from Vonnegut’s sense that people confused the genre with what urinals are used for. (Don’t know if it was Vonnegut’s line or the reviewer’s.) It’s funny; I’ve had that bias in my head ever since, even though I like some historical and detective/mystery fiction.

    Perhaps as literary or general fiction is not bound by form, it’s perceived as having to meet higher standards.

  8. You’ve definitely piqued my interest about this one. I tend to shy away from Women’s Fiction so would probably not have picked this one up without your recommendation.

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