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Novelist explores social issues of Roaring Twenties, Jazz Age

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

LAWRENCE — Popular television dramas "Downton Abbey" and "Boardwalk Empire" explore the cultural changes centered around the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties

Novelist Laura Moriarty said the era was marked by social upheaval in American and European life, especially regarding women's issues and race, which has likely made it stand out as a popular cultural topic today. She researched different settings  — mostly 1922 Kansas and New York — when writing her best-selling novel "The Chaperone."

"It's historical fiction that very much resonates with today's issues," said Moriarty, an associate professor of English who teaches fiction writing.

Moriarty has gained international attention for "The Chaperone" and its fictional portrayal of silent film star Louise Brooks and Cora Carlisle, the woman who chaperoned the irreverent Brooks on a trip from Wichita to New York so she could study at a prestigious dance institute.

For Moriarty, research for the novel required that she cover much more than just aspects of Brooks' life. Characters in the novel have ties to the Orphan Train Movement, the Ku Klux Klan in Kansas, flappers in New York and Prohibition.

"Yes, you have to get all the research for the details, but the biggest thing was to get into the mindset," she said.

Moriarty was drawn to the intergenerational tension between Brooks and the older Carlisle, whose generation of women had fought for women's rights by campaigning for suffrage and supported Prohibition. The younger Brooks, as a flapper, personified new generation that rebelled from corsets, high collars and long skirts.

"I see how so many young women dress now, and I feel like an old fuddy-duddy. Why are you dressed like that? But it's the same thing," Moriarty said. "It's always going to be that way. There's going to be that tension between the young and the old. I feel like that's timeless."

In addition to exploring the dynamic between two generations of women in the novel, Moriarty said she also tried to highlight cultural practices that were more widely accepted during that time period than they are today. Like most of the South, the Ku Klux Klan had strong membership in Wichita in 1922 of the novel, and she portrays how some characters accepted that.

"I like historical fiction not because I'm nostalgic for the past at all. I like it because of the way it makes me reconsider today," Moriarty said. "We see these values as temporary. That what way we live now, and what we think is good and true and moral now might not be good and true and moral in 100 years. So I think looking back on it and seeing what people believed as obvious, you see that those values are replaceable."

Portraying those major social changes in historical fiction is a way to draw those conversations back into popular culture today, she said. Moriarty hopes it sparks readers to critique cultural and social issues of today, much like attitudes of the 1920s that later changed.

The success of "The Chaperone" — translation rights have been sold in  in Russia, Spain, Portugal, China, France, Italy, Norway and Germany — has drawn the attention of two well-known artists who have an interest in portraying this same time period.

Fox Searchlight has acquired rights to Moriarty's novel, and a film project with a production date not yet set will include "Downton Abbey" star Elizabeth McGovern playing Cora Carlisle in a script written by Downton's creator Julian Fellowes.

Moriarty — whose first novel, "The Center of Everything," is the 2014-15 KU Common Book — said the international attention for "The Chaperone" has thrilled her, attributing its success partly to the attention on that pivotal period of American history.

"It's just not 1922," she said. "It goes forward in America and shows how much America changed."