Magazine article The Spectator

Flappery Will Get You Nowhere

Magazine article The Spectator

Flappery Will Get You Nowhere

Article excerpt

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell Macmillan, £20, pp. 488, ISBN 97802130752337 I'm never quite sure what the term 'flappers' means. How did these creatures flap, and why? Where did they flap? Did they flap all day, or only at night? Were they in a flap, or being flapped, sad-flaps or flaphappy? Did they open flaps, or close them?

Did they flap Jacks, or flip Jills, or both?

Reference books don't help much.

The OED says the word means a flyk i l ler, and you rea l ly don 't want to know the Dictionary of Slang's definitions. So what was, in the accepted vo-deyo-do-ing, headache-band-browed, fancy-dress costume and Baz Luhrmanesque image, a 'flapper'?

One might assume that in this substantial, erudite and detailed, but oddly humourfree book, Judith Mackrell would set out to enlighten us. But instead she focuses on six women, each renowned in their own way, 'of a dangerous generation', as her subtitle has it. The 1920s were essentially their early adult years, but surely that decade was less dangerous than the one before it, or those to come?

Like the relieving interval in some interminable opera, the author breaks her subjects' stories into two five-year chunks apiece, in which each one's life (practically day by day), parents, affairs, marriages, correspondence and thoughts are delved into in lengthiest detail, fleshed out by what we already know of them through several biographies, not to mention memoirs and autobiographies.

Admittedly these women were headstrong, original and groundbreaking - I fear the word 'empowered' lurks somewhere in Mackrell's prose - but she somewhat arbitrarily pins the badge of flapper onto some really rather serious lapels. I mean, Diana Cooper, most unrufflable of characters, a flapper? Or the deeply, darkly, socially-conscious Nancy Cunard?

Nor , su re ly, d id the te rm app ly to Zelda, one half of the most irritating - pace the ir l iterary output - couples of the time. What with the Fitzgeralds' falling out with each other and falling into bed with everyone else, their droning rows, their drinking bouts, their flocking to fashionable faces and places, there was little time for Zelda to flap, though plenty for self-dramatisation.

The book's cover-girl, Josephine Baker, sleek in a slippery silken negligee at the Folies Bergere, was more famously nearnaked in that bouncy banana kilt (suggested by Jean Cocteau - 'on you', he told her with typical irony, 'it will look very dressy'). …

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