When the news was announced last month that Masterpiece would be adapting The Chaperone by Lawrence author Laura Moriarty and that it would be scripted by Julian Fellowes and starring Elizabeth McGovern (both of Downton Abbey fame, left), I was so emotionally overcome, I nearly got the vapors.
The news was announced smack-dab in the middle of my Moriarty Read Fest. I had recently plowed through The Rest of her Life and The Center of Everything and had become an instant fan. The Chaperone was already next on my to-read list… and, of course, I’ve been building and sculpting my obsession with Downton Abbey for years now. I mean, what isn’t there to love? The drama! The fashion! The villains! And the fact that every over-the-top scenario takes place before a beautiful background (in Downton’s case the rolling, English countryside) just makes the show all that more enjoyable.
Although The Chaperone doesn’t take place in England (Moriarty often sets her books at least partially in Kansas, and this one follows suit), the time frame overlaps with many of the years that Downton Abbey is set. And if we’ve learned anything about McGovern and Fellowes, it is that they absolutely thrive in their portrayal of this era. In The Chaperone, the year is 1922 and 15 year old Wichita native, Louise Brooks, has been accepted to a prestigious dance school in New York City. Accompanying her as a chaperone (because a beautiful, young, Kansas girl can absolutely not travel to a place like New York City alone) is her neighbor, 36 year old Cora Carlisle.
Cora and Louise are about as different as two people can be. Louise embraces and revels in a changing world- hemlines are rising and necklines are dropping. Prohibition is still going strong, but speakeasies are a dime a dozen in NYC. And although women have just barely acquired the right to vote and the list of what is “improper” for a “lady” to do seems to have no end, there is an obvious sea-change happening and Louise is ready for it. Cora, however, is not. Moriarty brilliantly uses Louise Brooks as a foil to Cora’s conservative views.
Louise’s style (including her famous jet-black bob hairstyle) and and attitude are often too much for Cora to handle. Cora worries about everything, but what concerns her the most are Louise’s flirtations with men. She even says to Louise a one point, “Men don’t want a candy that’s been unwrapped… It may still be perfectly clean, but if it’s unwrapped, they don’t know where it’s been.” In today’s world, a quote like this could only be followed by a shock-faced emoji and a laugh at the “old” woman with her out-dated notions of right and wrong. But, this seemed to be the norm back in the day, and Louise wasn’t having it.
Louise Brooks may have been the center of attention in real life (and she certainly thinks she is in every scenario in which she is depicted), but this book belongs to Cora and her (dare I say) journey. When we first meet Cora, she is so nervous about everything, not even stripping out of her corset at the end of the day loosens her up.
She’s opposed to everything fun. She doesn’t want Louise to wear makeup (“paint”), she won’t let Louise cross the street alone, and she nearly passes out when she finds herself sitting next to a black family at the theater. Frankly, she’s annoying. But, as she spends time with Louise, and uncovers secrets about her own life, the more she begins to wake up and embrace the changing world around her.
Moriarty writes complicated women and she writes complicated relationships between women. When I read The Center of Everything, I stayed up half the night reading to the end because, in many ways, it reminded me of my own childhood and my relationship with my own mother (it also in many ways did not, but I’ll save those stories for another time). But, the point, and what any daughter (or any mother of a daughter) will tell you, is that these relationships can be really hard.
And although Cora and Louise are not related- and don’t even particularly like one another- their relationship is that of a guardian and a child. And it is complicated. This, layered on top of the relationship Louise has with her mom, and Cora’s relationship with hers, allows Moriarty to hit her stride in her storytelling. She is a master at weaving these relationships so realistically and showing how relationships shift and change over the years.
The book covers a huge span of time, and there are myriad historical turning points that are mentioned but not delved into too deeply. Many of these I cannot discuss in detail because they will give away too much of the plot, but in a book that’s a little over 300 pages long, the reader catches glimpses of orphan trains, NYC slums, the dust bowl, the stock market crash (and subsequent great depression), homophobia, racism, and a world war.
Since the book’s focus is on Cora and her own internal struggles, many of these events play as a backdrop instead of their own story, which can occasionally leave the reader wanting more. But, the feeling that Moriarty conveys, even if she does not always go into detail about the characters’ surroundings, is that this was an exciting time to be alive. It wasn’t always good, but it was thrilling.
This is also what Julian Fellowes so successfully brings to the vibe of Downton Abbey. People may die; people may abandon you; people may trip you with their cane and hope that you suffer a miserable injury… but don’t squander this life. As Moriarty writes of Cora, “She was grateful that life could be long.” Indeed. And in this life, I am grateful that Fellowes, McGovern, and Moriarty will be working together to bring their combined artistry to the screen.
-Sarah Mathews is an Accounts Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.