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.