No Wealth To Leave Us - Women Writers and the Jazz Age

It was 1929. Just four years after F Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, the book which would come to epitomise the Jazz Age, the era of cocktails and parties and relentless consumerism. The time of the carefree 'flapper' who rebelled against her mother's mores and did as she pleased, dancing, snorting coke, having affairs with women, as Judith Mackrell's excellent new history, Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation (Macmillan), shows. Hedonistic, brave, shocking.

Yes, it was just four years after all this that a young Virginia Woolf asked, "What had our mothers been doing then that they had no wealth to leave us? Powdering their noses? Looking in at shop windows? Flaunting in the sun at Monte Carlo?" The freedom of the flapper hadn't extended to allowing her to walk on the grass of an Oxford college, but like the rest of her generation of young women, Woolf had the tragedy of the First World War at her back and she demanded better.

I think what appeals most about the 'flapper' figure, and the 'Jazz Age'as a whole is its focus on the glamour of youth. But for lots of women writing whilst Fitzgerald was making a fortune and spending it just as fast, youth brought real difficulty. The war had opened the doors for lots of young women to get out of the family home, to live on their own for the first time, to work in a paid job, as nurses or munitions workers or drivers. When the war came to an end, and the 'Roaring Twenties' exploded, they didn't, unlike Fitzgerald's heroines, get to party all night long. On the contrary, if they hadn't married,  they were expected meekly to go back home and resume their old lives. Their youth became something their mothers needed.

That pull of the daughters back home sparked off a whole series of sometimes angry, sometimes despairing, novels between the wars. The 1920s and 1930s saw a flurry of tales where daughters rebelled against the mothers who were hauling them back indoors, depriving them of their new found freedom. The year before Gatsby appeared, Radclyffe Hall published her second novel, The Unlit Lamp, a very different kind of affair. She would cause such a huge furore in 1928 when she published her autobiographical novel about a lesbian relationship, The Well of Loneliness, that this book is often overlooked. But it's a remarkable tale of a young woman, Joan Ogden, who struggles to get out from her mother's tyrannical clutches and make her own way in the world, living with her close friend in their tiny flat.

That publication came the very same year as Edith Wharton's collection of four novellas, Old New York, which included The Old Maid, the tale of a women who gives birth to an illegitimate daughter which she gives to her sister-in-law. Her daughter is forever rebelling against the strictures of the 'aunt' who is in fact her own mother. It's a heart-breaking tale of mother-daughter rebellion, as well as a critique of a society that insists women behave in a particular way. Although Wharton set her novella in the 1850s, it still had resonance for many women in the 1920s, when illegitimacy was still a stigma.

Three years later, Molly Keane would start publishing with Young Entry, but for all her appearance as precisely the kind of 'flapper' figure the age adored, as the daughter of wealthy Irish landowners who began writing "as a means of supplementing my dress allowance" and who listed "hunting and horses and having a good time" as her main interests, she too would portray commanding, controlling mothers that powerless daughters would try to evade. Full House and The Rising Tide had the kind of matriarchs that pulled their daughters back into the parental home (I wrote about this here for the Independent a few years ago:

You could say, though, that it all began just before the Jazz Age even came into being. In the final year of the war, May Sinclair had published her second novel, Mary Olivier: A Life, another tale of a daughter trying to escape her mother. Sinclair had nursed four brothers through heart disease, and her books reflect the self-sacrifice of a daughter never allowed to leave the parental home. She did herself, of course, after her mother died, and forged a celebrated career as a serious writer, but Mary Olivier is a testament to the struggle she had, and the fear that she would never be free to be independent and autonomous.

In the 1930s, more women writers took up the theme, with Antonia White's superb Frost in May projecting the all-controlling mother onto a professional mother, the Mother Superior of Nanda Gray's convent education. The chilling Mother Radcliffe tells Nanda, who has constantly rebelled and written a racy novel of her own, the very kind a 'flapper' might want to read, at the end of the book, "I told you once before that every will must be broken completely and re-set before it can be at one with God's will..." Mother Radcliffe is the great imprisoning mother, keeping her daughters forever within the convent walls.

By the time the Second World War had begun, Olive Higgins Prouty's Now, Voyager was portraying a mother and her spinster daughter, "the child of my old age", who has a mental breakdown as a result of her mother's oppressive ways. Escape comes through psychiatric help and a love affair with a married man - more rule-breaking. Mothers represented for these daughters the old ways, the old patriarchal system that insisted they stay at home until another man rescued them in marriage. They became the site of the daughters' rebellion, a legacy that these young women refused to inherit. They had no 'wealth' to leave their daughters, they had no freedom to grant them. It meant that these young women had to take it for themselves. And as all these writers show, that was no easy task.      


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