Louise Brooks was an icon of the silent film era. But only a few years before she became a celluloid heroine, she was a 15-year-old girl from Wichita, Kan. trying to make it as a dancer in New York. A 36-year-old housewife accompanied her on this trip, acting as her chaperone.
In her novel, The Chaperone, Lori Moriarty imagines the generational tension that likely existed between the teenage Louise and her middle aged chaperone. The two women came of age in entirely different eras and saw the world differently. It is easy to speculate, as Moriarty does, that there was friction.
Cora, the chaperone, is a product of the Victorian era. She's bundled in, wearing a corset and skirts that descend to her feet. In her world, sex is never mentioned and only hinted at in hushed, vague terms if it is even referred to at all.
Louise is already wearing her hair in the straight black classic bob style she will make famous a few years later. She wears skirts raised above the knees and at times goes without a bra. She is coming to bloom in the frivolous Jazz Age with its bathtub gin and relaxed morals.
Although Louise went on to be a film star, she's a supporting character in the novel. This story belongs to Cora. As the chaperone, she tries to keep Louise within the limits of propriety. But it’s Cora who breaks with convention and gains liberated new sensibilities. Cora finds her own unique voice and works through her vulnerabilities to emerge as a strong, independent-minded woman.
Moriarty cleverly uses the corset as a symbol in Cora’s evolving character. She treats the constricting undergarment as a metaphor for the restrictions society placed on women's lives. The moment Cora frees her body from the corset's grip, she frees her mind as well.
But don't discard The Chaperone as a "chick book." I would classify it as historical fiction with an element of mystery. There is enough going on in this book to make it enjoyable to readers of either gender.
Moriarty uses characters and situations to touch on historical events: the Victorian era, Suffragettes, World War I, the Spanish Influenza, the Orphan trains, Klu Klux Klan, the Jazz Age, prohibition, Civil Rights...
She did scrupulous research, which enabled her to get her facts straight and make her story believable. The historical precision gives her writing authenticity and authority. Moriarty’s research shows in the way she weaves in facts about Louise's personal and professional life. Her parents were neglectful. She was molested as a child in Cherryvale, Kan. She did dance with Denishawn in New York, under Ruth St. Dennis. She did have a drinking problem. She did return to Wichita for awhile after her movie career flamed out.
Moriarty is true to Louise's character, having her say and do things like the actual Louise would have done. She is depicted as selfish, self-absorbed and manipulative, just as the real Louise was. Yet it's still easy to like her. Moriarty draws on Louise's life in ways that evoke admiration, as well as sympathy. Her acerbic lines are some of the best in the book.
The relationship between Louise and Cora is the most interesting in a book that contains several interesting and unique relationships. Their dialogue is enlivened by tension and competing interests, creating the most crisp character interplay of the book. Significantly, Cora does find commonalities with Louise, and the two women do develop a cautious respect for each other.
Change is a constant of life, and the two women’s lives are altered forever during that summer when their paths intersect. Their transformations take shape at a time when the rules of society were changing and never going back. But don’t be surprised, when reading this book, if the puritanism, prejudices and “slut shaming” in its pages don’t sound strangely contemporary.
After all, we know what happens the more things change.
Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, which Cora is reading on the trip. Also read the German philosopher Schopenhauer, whom Louise was reading on the same trip. Moriarty did extensive research to make her book historically authentic, and anything from her bibliography would be worth reading. If I had to recommend one, though, it would be Louise Brooks: A Biography by Barry Paris. It's been called the "bible on Brooks."
Anything with Louise Brooks in her prime, of course, especially her greatest artistic achievements, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Here is a video montage of Brooks.