One of the most anticipated novels of the summer, Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone is a delight. Steeped in the atmosphere of the 1920s, it stars two fascinating, complex heroines—future movie star Louise Brooks and the Kansas matron sent to chaperone her on a trip to New York City—who carve very different paths out of the choices alloted to women of the time. We talked to Moriarty about the origins of her third novel, the real Louise Brooks and the challenges of historical fiction.
Your earlier novels are set in the present or recent past. What made you choose the 1920s as a time period and a real person—Louise Brooks—as your subject?
I was reading a nonfiction book about Louise Brooks, and she was so interesting, so intelligent and confident and difficult, even at a young age. But I was particularly intrigued when I read that when she was 15—and already a handful—she left Wichita for New York City accompanied by a 36-year-old chaperone she didn’t know very well. Right away, I thought, “That poor woman.” Then I thought, “Anyone who tried to chaperone Louise Brooks would have a story to tell.”
How closely does your story cleave to Brooks’ actual story? What kind of research did you do about her early life and that life-changing summer she spent with the Denishawn dance company in New York?
I stuck to Louise Brooks’ life story closely. There is an excellent biography on her by Barry Paris, and my copy of that is pretty well used: every other page is dog-eared and marked up. Obviously, I had to invent scenes and conversations, but when I wrote about Louise, I considered what people who knew her had said about her, and I watched her old films to try to get her mannerisms right. I also read Louise Brooks’ autobiography, Lulu in Hollywood. My goal was to give a true account of her tumultuous life and personality while imagining everything else, including the details of that first summer.
Right away, I thought, “That poor woman.” Then I thought, “Anyone who tried to chaperone Louise Brooks would have a story to tell.”
You’ve mentioned that Cora is based on a real person as well. What do you know about this nonfictional woman, and what were the freedoms of creating most of her biography from scratch?
I know very little about the real chaperone. She’s sort of lost to history, but that was a gift to me as a storyteller. I liked the combination of sticking to facts of Louise’s life and having the freedom to imagine anything for Cora. I made up her name and everything else about her, though I did quite a bit of research to give her a plausible background and to make her a woman of her time.
Life at the Home for Friendless Girls is particularly shocking for modern readers. Did places like that really exist?
Yes. And there were a lot of them. I read many accounts from children who lived in similar institutions. But really, it seemed like the people who were running them were doing the best they could, trying to feed and house and clothe as many children as possible. New York City was full of children who had to fend for themselves, either because their parents were dead or too sick or too poor to care for them. The children who found a spot in an orphanage were actually lucky. The orphan trains that brought these children out of the city and to the Midwest seem cruel and strange now, but taken in the context of a time when there were so many homeless children starving and sick in the streets of New York, you can see why it was a viable solution.
Clearly Cora has been sheltered by her Midwestern upbringing. But Louise is also not as sophisticated as she would like to pretend. Which character do you think is more naïve and which is more changed by her five weeks away from Kansas?
Each character is naïve in a different way, but I think Cora changes more that summer. When she goes to New York, she’s bringing years of disappointments and bottled-up emotions, and she’s thoughtful enough to be open to a new experience. Louise’s road is longer and much harder. I think her real maturity comes later.
The Chaperone addresses many subjects that were extremely taboo in the 1920s—sex, contraception, integration, homosexuality, abuse. Was it difficult writing about such things from the perspective of a woman who has no vocabulary for them?
I love how you phrased this question—while I was writing this novel, I was thinking about how so much of the way we see the world relies on our language, our names for things and ideas. It’s hard to conceive of an idea for which you don’t have a name. I really wanted Cora to be a woman of her time, not a woman with modern-day sensibilities and ideas plopped down in 1922. She sees the world the way it was taught to her, and the concepts that are familiar to a modern reader wouldn’t be familiar to her. I wanted to narrate the experience of someone struggling to come up with her own code of ethics in a way that would be true for her time. So yes, that was difficult sometimes, but that was what was so interesting about writing historical fiction—it’s the same pleasure as reading historical fiction, truly immersing myself in another world. But I’d say with writing, the experience is more intense.
Louise and Cora both break from convention, but while the former does this audibly and intentionally, the latter is more quietly irreverent. Which method do you think is more effective?
Louise’s openly defiant behavior gets a lot of attention, and she was (and is) a role model for many women. But then there are women like Cora. She lives with compassion and she thinks for herself. She also works to instigate real change—though without any of Louise’s fame or glamour. Really, she’s just as defiant. It seems to me that the Coras of the world, once they’re roused, are the more formidable force.
Throughout the novel, Cora is reading (and not always enjoying) The Age of Innocence. Were you influenced by Wharton’s work?
I chose it because it won the Pulitzer in 1921, so it seemed likely that it would be something Cora—wanting to impress her smart young charge—might bring along for the trip. Also, it was set decades before the ’20s, so Cora is reading historical fiction, which, for me, is a good way to consider the present anew. The Age of Innocence is very much about someone who simply can’t break through the constraints of his culture and time, and I liked the idea of Cora reading this story and thinking about it as she’s grappling with the confines of her own world.
Do any other time periods or historical figures particularly interest you? What’s up next?
Oh yes! So many time periods and historical figures interest me. I love a good biography. It’s looking like my next novel will also be historical, but I don’t want to say too much yet!
Related content: read a review of The Chaperone.
A clip of Louise Brooks in the 1929 film Pandora's Box: