I seem to be continually provoked by the restrictions of women lately. From Evelina (late 1700s), to Lark Rise to Candleford (late 1800s) to The Chaperone (1920s)—in just over a century a lot changed, but women’s freedom was still limited. Actually, everybody seemed restricted.
After reading about writers in the between war period (1920-30s, influenced by Romanticism in Modern Romantics) and reading the fiction produced about the time, I had imagined a far more glamorous world than was probably the reality for many. Even in The Great Gatsby and The Beautiful and the Damned there were illusions, it appeared glamorous, but the women were still controlled by their restrictions.
The Chaperone’s protagonist is a conservative housewife (Cora) who thinks that dresses showing women’s knees are provocative. The main journey of the plot is her expanding worldview thanks to a summer spent in New York chaperoning a young ingénue, Louise (inspired by silent-film star, Louise Brooke).
Her reading of The Age of Innocence started me thinking about how contexts influence understanding. In one of Cora’s earliest conversations with Louise, we see their differing interpretations of The Age of Innocence. In response to Louise’s distain at the fact that the hero didn’t end up with the woman he loved because of convention, Cora reflects: “In love with the Countess Olenska? A divorced woman? Cora hadn’t expected that. In lust with, yes. Perhaps the girl misunderstood. Perhaps she didn’t yet know the difference.” p38. Perhaps Cora didn’t understand. (I must read the book to find out!)
In just three chapters, the contrast between Cora and Louise (a smart, provocative young woman with a distain for the conventional) is firmly set. Creating expectations for a radical widening of the horizons of both.
Cora only bought The Age of Innocence to avoid the snobbery of Louise and her mother. However she says, “Although it was written by a woman, [it] had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and therefore seemed beyond reproach from even the worst kind of snob.” p37. Every character so far has expressed disdain for the other’s ideas or actions. Despite trying to allay Louise and her mother’s snobbery, she is actually a snob herself.
The emancipation of Cora was delightful. By the time she leaves New York, she has sat in a theatre next to African-Americans (I will not use the word the book uses), found and accepted her unconventional love, and considered that there is a middle ground between prudishness and forwardness.
This book was like respite after The Storyteller. It was beautifully written, although the third part was more for giving us an account of the rest of Cora’s life than outworking the plot. I am looking forward to reading more of Moriarty’s work.