I’ve found myself up to my ears in Jazz Age lady literature these days. I’ve written about two novels recently: Treading Air, for the July issue of Good Reading (a big article on glossy paper and everything! Woo!) and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald for my uni news site. Both land the reader in the middle of the changing landscape of the 1920s, following a Modern Woman as she falls desperately in love, struggles with her marriage, seeks her own independence and is generally swept up in this weird, liberated new world of the Jazz Age. The fact that one is in glitzy, rich America (and the world beyond; Mrs Fitzgerald traveled an awful lot) and one is in humid, sticky, working-class Queensland gives the two novels different flavours but the core of their stories–and many other recent releases, like A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald — is the same, leading me to wonder if the Sad Sexy Flapper Story is a budding genre in and of itself.
Z is, as its title suggests, a novel about Zelda Fitzgerald—a ‘fictionalised autobiography’ to be exact, the story of her life and marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald told in the first person. We can get into the ethics of this in another post, because hoo boy does that raise some issues—though if you push the question of bias and accuracy from your mind and enjoy it as a novel, you’re likely to really get into it. Z follows Zelda as her identity shifts from Southern Belle debutante with a rebellious streak to the quintessential “flapper” as the famous, stylish writer’s wife… and the gradual slippery slope she finds herself scrabbling down as her husband gets alcoholic, petty, and increasingly unattractive, and Zelda feels increasingly trapped in her role as a wife, mother, and socialite, seeking artistic and emotional independence all the while, and eventually slipping deep into mental illness.
Again, though the setting and premise are very different, Treading Air plays a lot of the same notes (as well as also being inspired by a real woman’s life): it follows Brisbane-born Lizzie, who falls hard for the mysterious hunk of soldier named Joe she meets at the racetrack. Half out of passion, half out of rebellion and desire to escape from her family and past, Lizzie marries him in a whirlwind and ends up falling flat on her face in humid, unforgiving Townsville. Joe, who has some continuously unexplained but forever shady “I Saw Some Things in War” stuff going on, loses his job and gets badly injured in a revenge fight, leaving Lizzie to pay the bills… thus, she ends up working as a prostitute, hired by the gorgeous and magnetic Modern Woman owner of a local gambling parlour. It quickly becomes a story about lust, money, crime, and Lizzie trying to pave her own way in the world, constantly torn between her dependence on Joe and her desire for her own freedom.
The beating heart of both these novels is their heroines, and their emotional and physical struggle to make their own way in a world where they’ve been granted just enough freedom to feel frustrated with being held back by traditional female roles. Zelda wants to be an artist and writer in her own right, the heroine of A Kiss From Mr. Fitzgerald wants to be a doctor, and Lizzie just wants to get by without relying on men. They all deal with female independence, the discovery and claiming of their own sexuality, and generally the internal and external conflict they face as they come of age. They’re very different, but at their core have so much in common that I have to wonder what exactly has drawn so many different authors to this topic with this particular timely setting.
Perhaps the setting is everything—after all, the 1920s was a tumultuous time of development for society, both in technology and moral idealism, so it forms a neat allegory for the tumultuous development of your main character if you use it as the backdrop. Especially for women—one of the reasons the flapper was such a big deal was that she was, as an archetype, everything that horrified her Edwardian and Victorian predecessors. The ‘20s saw the end of bustles and corsets, the rising of hemlines and the changing of the most desirable and fashionable body shape, the coming into fashion of more androgynous and outright boyish trends like bobbed hair and, gasp, women in trousers.
The change in fashion signified a rebellion against and a rejection of the norms and assumptions of the previous generation, whose ideals no longer felt like they fit in this weird, scary new world. A World War had happened, and torn holes in the western world. Technology was improving and industry was booming faster than anyone could measure. This was a new age of machine guns and automobiles and moving pictures, and the youth who were growing up to inhabit it created a culture to reflect that.
A big part of this, obviously, was the change of idealism around sex—the idea that the Victorians were all prudish is an outdated and disproved one (among other things, they invented the vibrator, and wrote smut novels that would make any modern fanfic reader blush), but still, the pervasive mode of thought in polite society in general was that sexy shenanigans were for the bedroom of a man and wife. The 1920s were significantly more freewheeling in that respect, possibly also as an act of rebellion against their forebears, helped along by the fact that sex-ed for women and contraceptives for both sexes were gradually becoming more and more freely avaliable. People would hold ‘petting parties’ where guests would just make out the entire time, and sleeping with someone before you married them was still scandalous, but in the right social circles the scandal was part of the fun. It was a jazz-fueled, sequin-draped sexual revolution.
So it suits perfectly well as the backdrop to a story about a young woman embracing her sexuality. The ‘20s saw popular society entering a brave, saucy new world, so the sexual awakenings of both Lizzie and Zelda almost parallel what was going on in their cultures. Zelda demonstrates the divide between the old generation and the new by nodding politely, and internally laughing her ass off, through her older sister’s ridiculously modest ‘warnings about what may happen on a wedding night’. Lizzie’s story is especially casual and positive about the whole business (and for her it is a business), avoiding being a sob story about a virtuous woman forced to sell her body to get by… on the contrary, despite her initial reservations Lizzie ends up getting a lot of confidence and power from her sexual exploits, much moreso than she gets from her emotional relationship with Joe.
Both novels are about girls growing into women in this new cultural landscape that fuels their natural rebellious spirits, beaten into the dirt by society and misfortune and their complicated relationships with the men in their lives, facing the contradiction that they’ve been afforded new freedoms but are still very much trapped. It was a time of contradictions, a shifting terrain between the pre-War world and the post-War one, where everyone had new fears and ideas.
The tumultuous personal changes and challenges of these two heroines forms an allegory for the tumult of the ‘20s, and the other way around too. That’s my hypothesis anyway—there are so many Sad Sexy Flapper Stories because, invariably, there were a lot of sad and sexy flappers, each caught up in the weird new world with a wealth of story material to be told.
Treading Air comes to bookstores this month!