Shakespeare’s Sister

Elaine Showalter

  • Kate Chopin: A Life of the Author of ‘The Awakening’ by Emily Toth
    Century, 528 pp, £20.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 7126 4621 3

If Kate Chopin’s The Awakening had not existed, feminist criticism must have invented it. Here was a lost and indeed fallen 19th-century novel, an orphan of the critical storm, whose rescue in the 1960s captured all the themes of the emerging women’s liberation movement. Chopin’s heroine, Edna Pontellier, awakens from the New Orleans marriage in which she is a pampered chattel, first to her own sexuality, and ultimately to the claims of a selfhood beyond romance, family, even maternity, which impels her to defy ‘the soul’s slavery’ by walking naked into the sea: ‘She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known ... The water was deep, but she lifted her white body and reached out with a long, sweeping stroke. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.’

Edna’s eroticism, and her choice of suicide rather than the bondage of domestic roles, raised feminist issues that seemed starkly modern. So, too, did the history of The Awakening and its author. On its initial publication in 1899, The Awakening was condemned for indecency in a barrage of hostile and scandalised reviews. ‘A Daring Writer Banned’ was the title of the chapter in Per Seyersted’s influential biography of Chopin in 1969, and other scholars accepted and repeated the story that the novel had been removed from library circulation, and that Chopin had been blackballed at the St Louis Fine Arts Club. Finally, according to Chopin’s children, the novelist had been so wounded by the treatment she received that she had been unable to write again. Her health and confidence shattered, Chopin died five years later, a silenced victim of the book’s misogynist reception.

Chopin was thus re-introduced to the American public as a martyred female genius, the ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ of Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, who tries to write about the body as freely as her brother, but is reduced to obscurity, shame, even death. Recalled to life by Seyersted, a Norwegian scholar who had chosen her as the subject of his Harvard PhD, Chopin was quickly taken up by feminists and Americanists who recognised in The Awakening a missing literary link: the great American women’s novel of the 19th century.

Probably the most significant aspect of Emily Toth’s exhaustive new biography of Chopin is that it debunks this legend. As she documents in an appendix on ‘The Alleged Banning of The Awakening’, contemporary criticism of the novel, although it was prudish and severe, did not crush Chopin’s career or her spirit. There is absolutely no evidence that the book was ever banned or taken from library shelves; the St Louis Fine Arts Club did not even exist; and Chopin continued to write and publish stories up until the stroke that killed her in 1904.

Yet these revelations are oddly anti-climactic, because in the twenty years since its rediscovery, The Awakening has earned its status as an American classic. Chopin no longer needs sob stories and righteous indignation to win her a place in the American literary canon. By now the novel has been tested by scores of critical readings that have gone far beyond the controversies of the Sixties; The Awakening has been seen as fin-de-siècle fiction, a ‘Creole Bovary’, a novel of adultery, and a political romance. Literary criticism, especially feminist literary criticism, has made an honest woman of Kate Chopin.

Emily Toth’s professional involvement with Chopin follows the full trajectory of her literary rise. In 1970, Toth recalls in her preface, she first read The Awakening when ‘a friend at an anti-war march’ gave her a copy, and she was ‘astonished that a woman in 1899 had asked the same questions that we, in the newly revived women’s movement, were asking seventy years later’. She wrote her doctoral dissertation at Johns Hopkins on Chopin, organised the first Kate Chopin session at the 1974 convention of the MLA, and in 1975 mailed out the first mimeographed copies of the 18-page Kate Chopin Newsletter. Readers were invited to submit contributions, and to subscribe $2.50 a year if employed, ‘whatever-you-can-pay’ if impoverished. Toth’s mammoth biography is a weighty testimonial to Chopin’s progress.’

The biography is probably definitive; Toth, a resident of Baton Rouge, has interviewed Chopin’s descendants and Louisiana connections, and examined manuscripts, diaries and archives; Chopin’s uneventful life seems unlikely to yield up further secrets. She was born Kate O’Flaherty in St Louis in 1850, and was educated in French and music by her great-grandmother, Victoire Charleville. At the Convent of the Sacred Heart, she studied writing and embroidery, and discovered French and English novels: Ivanhoe, Paul et Virginie, Corinne. In 1870, she married a Louisiana cotton factor, Oscar Chopin, and set out for a grand honeymoon tour of Europe. But the Franco-Prussian War cramped the Chopins’ style; they left Paris as the city was about to be besieged and sailed back to New Orleans. Kate was already pregnant with her first child.

By 1882, when Oscar died of yellow fever, there were six children. The young widow took over his business; Toth argues that she may also have had an affair with a married roué, Albert Sampite, possibly the model for the seducers in her fiction. If so, it did not last long. In 1884, she returned to St Louis, and began to write. Her early magazine fiction was genteel and uplifting, but her journals reveal her sharp dissatisfaction with the life of the amateur artist and her growing contempt for the pretensions and self-deceptions of those who practised it.

St Louis was crawling with would-be lady writers. There was Mrs Stone, the director of the Modern Novel Club, who had written a pamphlet on ‘The Problem of Domestic Service’: ‘Intentions pile up before her like a mountain, and the sum of her energies is Zero!’ Mrs Hull, the wife of a coal merchant, was sure that if she tried she could ‘write as good stories as she reads in the magazines’. When a guest at a dinner party expressed his hope that there would be more attempts at acting by St Louis ‘ladies and gentlemen’, Chopin was disgusted. ‘God A’mighty!’ she exploded in her diary. ‘Aren’t there enough ladies and gentlemen sapping the vitality from our everyday existence! are we going to have them casting their blight upon art?’ Her contacts with her peers were not much more inspiring. After attending a literary conference in Warsaw, Indiana, she mocked her colleagues’ provincialism in an essay for the Critic: ‘There is a very, very big world lying not wholly in Northwestern Indiana.’

Chopin had always been a voracious reader, but her own literary awakening seems to have begun with her discovery of Maupassant. ‘I read his stories,’ she noted, ‘and marvelled at them. Here was life, not fiction; for where were the plots, the old-fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story-making.’ Chopin’s first collection of stories, Bayou Folk, was published in 1894. Dealing with Louisiana Creoles and Cajuns, the stories experimented with dialect and with romantic themes, and were enthusiastically received by local critics. But while she continued to have success with ‘local colour’ tales, and became a minor literary celebrity, her work was also evolving beyond the bounds of acceptable style and taste. The Atlantic Monthly stolidly rejected one impressionistic and daring story after another, while her remarkable translation of Maupassant’s ‘Un Cas de Divorce’ never found a publisher. Lines like: the orchids ‘spread their flanks, odorant and transparent, open for love and more tempting than all women’s flesh’, were far too ripe for respectable American journals to consider. After several presses had turned it down, her second collection of stories, A Night in Acadie (1897), was published by a firm in Chicago.

Chopin’s stories could not, however, have prepared readers for the sexual frankness and lyrical prose of The Awakening, let alone its heroine’s determination ‘to realise her position in the universe as a human being’. Despite Chopin’s ironic comments on Edna’s awakening (‘the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic and exceedingly disturbing’), reviewers were shocked by her refusal to judge and condemn what the Los Angeles Sunday Times called a ‘selfish, capricious woman’. Chopin’s satirical portraits of Southern society – the seductive Mrs Highcamp, the fatuous Merrimans, the bluestocking Miss Mayblunt – did not help her cause with local critics. Not altogether surprisingly, the aspects of the novel that shocked and bewildered Chopin’s contemporaries have made it popular with professors today. In fact, according to Bernard Koloski, the editor of Approaches to Teaching Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’ (MLA, 1988), it is ‘something of a teacher’s dream – a classic though topical novel that students respond well to after a first reading, yet an exceptionally rich literary work that rewards close literary analysis’.

Chopin would be amazed to know that her novel has grown so strong that it is now blamed by neo-conservatives for what they see as the relative neglect of Moby-Dick. In a recent story in the New York Times Magazine, a graduate student named Richard Abowitz lamented that while he had been forced in the process of his education to read The Awakening three times, Moby-Dick had languished on the shelf. ‘Melville is profoundly suspect,’ Abowitz explained: ‘There’s not a woman in his book, the plot hinges on unkindness to animals, and the black characters mostly drown by Chapter 29.’ Melville himself advised women friends against reading Moby-Dick on the grounds that it was not for ‘gentle, fastidious people’. But reports of the white whale’s literary death at the hands of Edna Pontellier are greatly exaggerated. indeed, feminist critics like the Melville scholar Wai-chee Dimock are more likely to see stylistic and historical parallels between Melville and Chopin. As Dimock observes in Modern American Women Writers (1991), Chopin, like Melville, has been granted a second life, a rebirth which ‘dramatises the extent to which literature is an institution ... shaped not only by authorial creativity but also by readerly receptivity’. It’s ironic that as the myth of the banning of The Awakening is exposed, another myth, that it is no more than a feminist harpoon against Dead White Male Whales, should spring up in its place. Surely Toth’s solid biography should mark the moment when Chopin can at last be judged on her own.