Wednesday 20 March 2013

Flappers by Judith Mackrell - Pan Macmillan Reading Group Panel

A change of direction for the Pan Macmillan Reading Group Panel this time.  We moved away from fiction and read Flappers by Judith Mackrell.

Judith Mackrell is the Guardian's dance critic and is the author of four other books, all non-fiction, and all based around dance.

Flappers, sub-titled 'Six Women of a Dangerous Generation' is a multi-biography.  Judith Mackrell follows six women from the 1920s who between them were the faces of this generation.

Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka were either adored or scorned by the public.  They were women who broke the mould, who dared to be different, to be independent and to be noticed.

I was instantly intrigued by the thought of reading about these six women, especially Diana Cooper as her family home; Belvoir Castle is not far away from where I live and I'd also recently read The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey which had aroused something of a fascination with the strange, almost dysfunctional Rutland family of Belvoir.   Judith Mackrell has cleverly interwoven the six separate stories by only allowing each women two chapters each.  Each has one chapter in the first half of the book, and one chapter each in the second.  I thought this was an excellent way of keeping the reader's interest in each of the women.

There is no doubt that these six women caused chaos and controversy everywhere that they went.  With the exception of Josephine Baker, each of them came from rich and privileged backgrounds and were able to use their contacts to achieve their aims of wealth, fame and, to some extent beauty.  Surrounding themselves with the beautiful people of the day, dancing in the fashionable clubs and wearing the highest fashions, these women broke boundaries.  Not for them, the stay-at-home, traditional female role, their aim was to shock, whether that meant taking drugs, lesbian love affairs, sleeping around or dancing naked in public.

Each woman, in their own way was damaged to some extent, and although Judith Mackrell has relayed documented facts in this book, her writing does not try to force an opinion upon the reader.  It becomes our choice as to whether we can forgive such awful behaviours because of things that may have happened to Zelda, or Diana, or Tallulah in the past.

Beneath the glamour and the excess, the tragedy and the fame, this is the story of how six women changed the world for a little while.  They were a new breed; daring and explicit and paved the way for women, especially in show-business and in art.  Regardless of what we may think of their behaviour, there is no doubt that they made being female more equal and probably easier for generations to come.

Judith Mackrell
The Pan Macmillan Reading Group Panel had a lively debate about this book.  We particularly found it interesting to compare and contrast the six women and their lifestyle to celebrities of today.  Comparisons ranged from Kerry Katona, to Katie Price to Courtney Love.  There were also the parallels to the 1960s and also to some extent the 1980s, with the money, the drugs and the complete hedonism of that decade.  Another comparison that would apply to the 1980s is the fact that the behaviours peaked before a Depression or Recession.  We wondered just how far women would have moved forward without the disruption of financial collapse.

We all agreed that we would recommend Flappers to reading groups, even if groups do not traditionally read non-fiction this is written in such a style that it could almost be fictional.  It most certainly isn't a dull list of times and dates, it's an entertaining and educating read.   Groups that have enjoyed books such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or The Suspicions of Mr Whicher would certainly enjoy this.
Our advance proof copies did not have any illustrations, but the Pan Macmillan assure us that the finished edition will include photos - all of us agreed that this is essential.  We all admitted to Googling pictures of the women whilst we were reading as Judith Mackrell's descriptions are so well written that as a reader you find yourself dying to look at real photos.

Diana Cooper                        Nancy Cunard                 Tallulah Bankhead

Zelda Fitzgerald                      Josephine Baker                   Tamara de Lempicka

Flappers is published in hardback by Pan Macmillan on 23 May 2013.

I'd like to say a huge thanks to Jodie Mullish who co-ordinates our Panel Group meetings so well, to Philippa McEwan, Publicity Director at Pan Macmillan for telling us more about how the book came to be. We were so lucky that Judith Mackrell came along to our meeting and discussed the book with us, it was fascinating to compare what we thought to what she had wanted to achieve - huge thanks to Judith.
As always, Sandy Mahal from The Reading Agency led our debate with some fascinating questions.


  1. Wish I could have come. I actually didn't google the pics so these are the first I've seen! Diana looks so gorgeous. I agree that the style of this book was really engaging, much more so than some traditional biographies.

  2. I wish you were there too, really missed you. It was a great discussion. Diana is my favourite too. Have you read The Secret Rooms by Catherine Baily? Great insight into Diana's background. Really hope we can catch up soon!

  3. I love the sound of this! Zelda is one of my heroines ( I have two biographies on my keepers shelf..) plus I really enjoyed The Secret Rooms. I think Paris Hilton would love to think of herself as a modern Flapper but she fails miserably...IMHO! ;-)

  4. It sounds like the usual great discussion! Disappointed I couldn't make it either. I love this era, so much exciting art came out of it. I've got a soft spot for Nancy myself! Hope to see you next time but thanks for sharing the story of yesterday, much appreciated.

  5. You were missed Michael, it would have been interesting to get your perspective on the book. Hope to catch up with you at the next meeting