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This is the true, unvarnished life story of the girl who grew up to write The Awakening, a masterpiece published 100 years ago. With its portrayal of a woman whose sexual desires take her outside marriage, it rocked American literature's cozy conception of womanhood.
In Unveiling Kate Chopin Emily Toth, the foremost authority on Chopin's life and works, creates a sharply revealing portrait of a modern woman in a Victorian world. Born in St. Louis in 1850, Kate O'Flaherty was raised by wealthy, feisty widows and educated by brilliant nuns. She endured a mysterious "outrage" committed against her by Union soldiers in her teens and suffered what moderns now call a "loss of voice." But she survived to become a lively, dangerously clever social observer.
She had the talent and then the life experiences to become a writer. Her Louisiana-born husband, Oscar Chopin, had grown up in France and did not restrict her. In New Orleans (where she gossiped with the painter Edgar Degas) and then in rural Louisiana (where the neighbors hated her), Kate produced six children in nine years. Yet she retained her individuality and her wicked sense of humor. After her husband's sudden death, Kate's affair with another woman's husband was a village scandal—but following the lessons of the French women who raised her, she knew when to leave.
After the death of her mother, Kate reinvented herself as the author of engaging short stories set in Louisiana. Many had unusual social messages. "In Sabine" opposed domestic violence. "At the 'Cadian Ball" supported sexual expression for women. "Odalie Misses Mass" suggested that interracial friendships between African American and white women were possible. She condemned the idle rich and celebrated single mothers. To promote her own career, she created the first salon in St. Louis and became the first woman in the city to become a professional fiction writer. Although she claimed to be un-serious about her craft, newly discovered manuscripts, which Toth mines for the insights they offer, reveal her as a dedicated artist who wanted to reach her readers' hearts.
Toth portrays Chopin as a bright, ambitious woman who ruffled staid souls, and when she published The Awakening, her foes pounced. Many reviews of the novel were uncomprehending; many were vicious and her next book was canceled. Her family suffered; her health declined; and Chopin died in 1904, silenced ahead of her time. Now, a century later, Toth sees Chopin as a woman of unique wit and astonishing talent and as the daring author who wrote the most radical, notorious American novel of the late nineteenth century.
Emily Toth, a professor of English and Women's Studies at Louisiana State University, is the author or editor of ten books, including Kate Chopin's Private Papers, "A Vocation and a Voice": Stories by Kate Chopin, and Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia.
Girls and Women
WHEN KATE O'FLAHERTY was five years and seven months old, her parents packed her off to boarding school.
In 1855 the Sacred Heart nuns did admit tots as young as five to their academy on Fifth Street, a clean, bright building tucked behind brick walls, with its own garden and quiet ways, in the heart of St. Louis. Sacred Heart nuns were famous for their brisk efficiency and keen intellect, and theirs was by far the best education available for girls. But girls who were comfortably supported, and whose parents were alive, were not normally sent away when they were barely beyond the toddler stage. Loneliness is a positive thing in Kate Chopin's The Awakening—but little children rarely enjoy it.
There are no obvious explanations. Kate O'Flaherty was born, according to her baptismal certificate, on February 8, 1850, and her first portrait shows a round little girl clutching a bouquet of posies and smiling vaguely. Her gauzy, off-the-shoulder evening gown seems incongruous and coy for a three-year-old, but the picture was made by a traveling artist who carted around prepainted bodies as a sales gimmick. Customers got to choose the body they most preferred for their child.
Already, young Katie was being pushed into a preconceived female role.
Her other surviving childhood picture tells us more about Kate O'Flaherty as an individual—a dark-eyed young rebel sporting disheveled ringlets and glowering at the camera. Fidgety youngsters were often put into neck clamps forphotographs, and Miss Katie O'Flaherty looks like one very put-upon little girl.
She had her own agenda, and she wanted to know everything. Where, for instance, did her father go every day? Evidently she whined and nagged so much that one day her papa agreed to take his daughter to work. First they went to early mass (dull on weekdays), but then they rode down to the levee—a thrilling place for a little girl, with monstrous steamships, real Indians, ribald sailors, and disreputable women. Young Katie got to gawk at a raffish world that respectable young girls were not supposed to know anything about.
According to family tradition, the outing created a special bond between father and daughter—but for Kate, it also sparked a lifelong revolt against keeping young ladies ignorant about the rest of the world. For a writer, that was a fine and angry beginning, but it may have made her into a difficult daughter.
The levee adventure is also the only humanizing story that survives about Thomas O'Flaherty. Everything else suggests a humorless, driven, rather sad man who became a stern master, a patriarch who might very well ship an impertinent five-year-old off to boarding school. Especially if she kept asking rude questions and disturbing the peace of the household.
Thomas O'Flaherty was already fifty when his daughter was five, and in the mid-nineteenth century, fifty was elderly: half of Americans died before they reached that age. Thomas was a bootstrap success, having been born in Galway (in 1805) when the British occupiers worked ruthlessly to keep the native Catholics poor, hungry, and illiterate. Still, Thomas contrived to get himself an education, including mathematics and French—and that may have spurred him to leave home, a full two decades before the potato famine unleashed a mass exodus from the Emerald Isle. In 1823 Thomas O'Flaherty set out on his own, because he wanted to. He, and his brother Edmund, wanted wings, not roots.
First they settled in New York, where there were jobs for Irishmen building roads and canals, but two years later, they were restless again. Joined by another Irishman, Roger McAllister, the O'Flahertys headed West—Edmund to Kansas City, and Thomas and Roger to St. Louis, where the gateway to the West was an enterprising businessman's paradise. With a boat and supply store, Thomas soon made a fortune equipping westward trekkers. He invested wisely, and the land he bought 1842, on Seventh Street between Franklin Avenue and Washington, would be supporting his daughter into the next century.
St. Louis was new enough that even the French-speaking clique the amounted to "old money" did not look down on an immigrant Irishman—especially if he conveniently spoke French. Rather later than most men, Thomas O'Flaherty went courting, and when he was thirty-four, he married nineteen-year-old Catherine de Reilhe, distantly related lated to a former American governor. Soon the first Madame O'Flaherty was expecting a child.
Meanwhile, eleven-year-old Eliza Faris was growing up in the Charleville family homestead, in the country outside St. Louis. She was a genuine "Creole," as St. Louisans used the word, for her New World heritage went back two centuries, to an intrepid Frenchwoman who had been a frontier bride in Montreal. The Charlevilles, her descendants, had lived in the large Louisiana colony since the 1700s, and had some money and social standing. But then Marie Athénaïse Charleville, the girl with the fanciful name who would grow up to be Eliza mother, made a romantic and disastrous marriage to a Kentuckian named Wilson Faris.
Young Faris was both foolish and fertile: while their finances withered, he and Athénaïse kept producing children, every other year. At one point her disgusted father even took over all of Wilson's property. And then in 1843, when their eldest child Eliza was only fifteen, Wilson Faris ran out on the family, leaving them destitute. Like Depression era children, Eliza saw her secure family's future unravel, suddenly and hopelessly. She learned about fear.
Elsewhere in St. Louis, Catherine O'Flaherty, the wife of the Irish businessman Thomas O'Flaherty, had given birth to a lively, healthy son, George, in 1840. But four years later, she and another infant died in childbirth. Thomas O'Flaherty suddenly needed a wife, preferably one with a social position at least as strong as his. Eliza Faris, with her mother and six younger sisters and brothers, desperately needed money—and marriage was the only respectable way for a young woman to acquire it.
Somehow they met, and an arrangement was made, with French practicality. In July 1844, just six months after the death of his first wife, Thomas O'Flaherty and Eliza Faris were married in St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Thomas was thirty-nine; Eliza was barely sixteen.
Marriages between middle-aged men and teenagers were not common in Eliza's immediate family, and Eliza was a sheltered adolescent, not very well educated, whose English always had a French tinge. In later years she was considered charming and serene; as a bride, her portrait shows, she was lovely. But her early marriage cut short any individual development she might have had. Or, as Kate Chopin wrote in The Awakening about Edna's marriage to an older, very settled man with whom she has little in common: she gave up on youthful infatuations, finding a "certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams" (VII).
If Eliza Faris wanted more from her marriage—if she hoped for a close, romantic relationship, or a companionable union with friendship as well as love—she almost certainly found none of that with Thomas O'Flaherty. In their one surviving portrait he looks prosperous, grumpy, and rigid, while she looks warm, lively, and bright-eyed. He was, after all, older than her father, and he was in control.
Possibly he also insisted that their first daughter be named Catherine—the name of his dead first wife.
The mature Kate O'Flaherty Chopin left behind no writings about her parents' marriage; she hardly remembered it. Nor did she explain why she was sent to boarding school when she was only five. It wasn't just that she had a little sister, for Eliza had grown up in a houseful of children. More likely, a dark family drama triggered sending Kate away.
By the early 1850s, Thomas and Eliza Faris O'Flaherty were living in a comfortable three-story brick mansion in the heart of St. Louis, on Eighth Street between Chouteau and Gratiot (now the site of the Ralston Purina pet food plant). By 1855, the family included four children, three of them Eliza and Thomas's: Tom, seven; Kate, five; and Jane ("Jennie"), two. George, the fifteen-year-old son from Thomas's first marriage, was off at boarding school at St. Louis University, where he wrote adoring letters to his little sister Katie. Another daughter, Marie Thérèse, born between Kate and Jane, had died young.
But the O'Flahertys were not the only ones in the large Southern-style house. Two of Eliza's sisters had married, but Thomas O'Flaherty was still supporting her mother and four of her younger sisters and brothers: three teenagers (Charles, Zuma, and Wilson, who died in an accident), and little Josephine, a twelve-year-old Sacred Heart schoolgirl.
And there were slaves in the O'Flaherty mansion. Although many St. Louisans had qualms about owning other human beings, Thomas O'Flaherty evidently did not. At the time of his daughter Kate's birth, he owned four slaves, about whom we know almost nothing: as property, they were recorded in the Census Book by age and gender, but not by name. The fifty-year-old woman listed in 1850 was almost certainly Kate's mammy.
Five years later, though, a slave family appears in the records for the O'Flaherty household: a twenty-three-year-old slave woman with two little girls, aged four (a year younger than Kate) and one (a year younger than Jane). Both girls are listed in the Census Book as "mulattoes," or light-skinned—and we do not know who was their father. He may have been a white neighbor, or another light-skinned slave. But even in the waning days of slavery in the 1850s, and in the freer atmosphere of the cities, breeding was still something masters liked to control, if they could.
The two little slave girls may very well have been Thomas O'Flaherty's children, living under the same roof with his wife and his white children. (Such living arrangements were not unknown, even without slavery: across the ocean, Karl Marx had a son by the family maid, who lived and worked in the Marx household before, during, and after the birth.)
But for the O'Flahertys in St. Louis, the slave girls would have been a daily reminder to Eliza about male power and female vulnerability. Her church and her French training would both counsel wives to bear up and accept the double standard. Perhaps Eliza's mother, abandoned by her own husband and terrified of poverty, urged Eliza to close her eyes to what could not be changed. After all, Eliza's great-great-uncles had also fathered mixed-race children: one by an Osage woman, another by a black woman. Her mother might have reminded Eliza that no matter how humiliated or betrayed she might feel, Thomas O'Flaherty was an excellent provider. Women had very few respectable ways to earn a living, and wives had few legal rights at all. (The Seneca Falls women's rights conference had taken place just eight years earlier, and it would be another sixty-five years before U.S. women won the right to vote.)
If Thomas O'Flaherty fathered the slave children in his household, he was legally within his rights. But five-year-old Kate, the outspoken child who demanded to know where her father went, would certainly also wonder where the slave children came from. The four-year-old girl may even have resembled Kate. Maybe Kate asked insistent, rude questions that infuriated her father (or horrified her mother). Maybe there were scenes of anger, or terrifying silences.
And all that may be the best explanation as to why, on September 3, 1855, Katie O'Flaherty was sent to boarding school with the Sacred Heart nuns.
There she learned about quiet times, curtseying, and making the sign of the cross. The quiet may have been a comfort after the stress and noise of her crowded childhood home. And yet—there was loneliness. Years later, when Kate Chopin wrote sympathetically about a mixed-race girl who is shunned by both whites and blacks, she may have been thinking about the slave girls in her household ("A Little Free-Mulatto"). When she wrote about a sulky white girl who puts a curse on the circus, she may have been remembering her own impudence ("A Little Country Girl"). But both girls are lonely and sad. Exile, Kate O'Flaherty Chopin knew, is not good for children, and her sentence would be at least four months long. Her tuition was fully paid for the fall semester.
But her first Sacred Heart term ended early, with a sudden crash that echoed through the rest of her life.
All Saints' Day, November 1, is a holy day of obligation in the Catholic calendar, but Thomas O'Flaherty was dedicating the day in 1855 to another kind of obligation. Because of his wealth and carefully chosen civic activities (Irish charities, Catholic lodges, the fire department, and the Mercantile Library), he was among the dignitaries riding the first train across the new Gasconade Bridge to Jefferson City, heralding a new opening to the West. It was a gala, flag-fluttering occasion when the men boarded the trains, cheered by a huge crowd and serenaded by brass bands. For the immigrant Thomas O'Flaherty, who had come to the New World with nothing but his own drive, it was the culmination of his American dream.
But as the first car chugged over the Gasconade in a driving rainstorm, the new bridge, the symbol of Missouri's pride and progress, shuddered, wavered—and collapsed. Cars tumbled helplessly over each other, with shattering glass, grinding metal, and shouts of pain and horror. Mangled tracks and bloody remains rained down below, followed by a deadly silence. Thirty men were killed, and one of them was Thomas O'Flaherty.
At the funeral, he was eulogized by his friend, the slave-owning Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick. The Catholic Institute praised Thomas O'Flaherty's leaving behind, to his family, "the priceless heritage of an unsullied name." But he also left behind no will and no provision for his wife, his children, his other relatives, and the slaves. It was nine agonizing days before Eliza could get herself and her children named, through an affidavit, as Thomas's official heirs.
And then, at twenty-seven, she suddenly found herself a wealthy widow, in charge of a very large estate (valued at $24,160 in 1861). Widows controlled their property, as wives did not; widows also had legal control of their own children, as wives did not. And so Eliza's first act as a young widow was to bring her daughter Katie home. From then on, Eliza would be the one making decisions about her daughter—and for the rest of her life, Kate would brood about her father's sudden death, and what it meant for her mother.
Her most obvious musing takes place in "The Story of an Hour," written nearly forty years after the Gasconade. In Chopin's story, a Mrs. Louise Mallard, who has a heart condition, is told her husband has died in a train accident. At first she is consumed with grief, but soon other thoughts creep and slink into her mind. She will not have to live her life for anyone else; she will not have to submit to anyone's wishes but her own. She begins to feel a "monstrous joy" at the thought of her own freedom ... whereupon the door opens and her husband walks in, having been nowhere near the crash. The wife's weak heart fails, and the doctors conclude that Louise Mallard died of "heart disease—of joy that kills."
Kate Chopin often used the original names of people who inspired her stories, and she does so in "The Story of an Hour." "Louise" sounds like "Eleeza," the French pronunciation of Eliza's name; both Louise and Eliza have sisters named Josephine. Even Louise's last name, Mallard, resembles Bullard, the name of a man who died at the Gasconade. "The Story of an Hour" can be read as the story of Eliza O'Flaherty's marriage, the submission of a young woman to someone else's will. It can also be read as a criticism of marriage itself, as an institution that traps women.
And yet, to make her story publishable, Kate Chopin had to disguise reality. She had to have her heroine die. A story in which an unhappy wife is suddenly widowed, becomes rich, and lives happily ever—Eliza O'Flaherty's story—would have been much too radical, and far too threatening, in the 1890s. There were limits to what editors would publish, and what audiences would accept.
But if young Kate's father, irritated by her chatter or her defiant curiosity, was the one who sent her to boarding school at age five—then "The Story of an Hour" is also the tale of her own liberation. Louise Mallard's freedom is an illusion—but in real life, the crash that killed Thomas O'Flaherty liberated his daughter to come home, to be raised among the powerful women of her family. Her father's death kept Kate O'Flaherty from growing up in the typical nineteenth-century patriarchal household, in which a powerful husband ruled the roost—a Léonce Pontellier tries to do, strutting and fuming, in The Awakening.
Katie O'Flaherty's roost was ruled entirely by women.
These strong women also had an unusual talent for outliving the husbands. At a time when women often died in childbirth, Kate's female ancestors enjoyed exceptional longevity. Her great-grandmother died at eighty-three, and her grandmother at eighty-eight. By middle age, or sometimes even before, they had left or lost or buried the fathers of their children, and then gotten on with their lives. They were a demographic oddity, and they raised a young girl with a notably independent and quirky vision.
As a girl, Kate was surrounded by the voices of women—from her mammy to her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother to the Sacred Heart nuns, to her best friend Kitty Garesché. Many of the voices spoke French, some of them exclusively. The deep, blustering voices that dominated most nineteenth-century households were absent from the O'Flaherty/Faris/Charleville home. It was a world of women.
Eliza was not Katie's only mother, for middle-class white babies were routinely nursed by black women. Kate O'Flaherty was also born into a special historical moment, for hers was the last generation of white babies raised by slaves. As a child, Kate knew "the faithful love of her negro `mammy'" and grew up in a house "full of negro servants, and the soft creole French patois and the quaint darkey dialed were more familiar to the growing child than any other form of speech of her friend William Schuyler wrote in the 1890s. The first soothing motherly voice Katie O'Flaherty heard was her mammy, who may have been Louise, the slave woman named in Eliza O'Flaherty's harried letter to her uncle during the Civil War: "My negroes are leaving me old Louise ran off a few days ago, I suppose the rest will follow soon. God will be done."
But long before that, Kate and her mammy were separated. One young Kate survived the first year, the most dangerous time for infants, greater care would have been needed for the delicate new babies, Marie Thérèse and then Jane. Being separated from her mammy was Kate's first loss—one that was universal for white children, but rarely spoken about. "Old Louise" may have been Eliza O'Flaherty's mammy as well: she may be the unrecorded woman who nurtured them all, and had the earliest role in shaping their characters.
Years later, Kate Chopin did write, as many white authors did, about black women's devotion to the white children they raised ("Beyond the Bayou"; "Tante Cat'rinette"). But Chopin also tried to see a black woman's point of view in such stories as "La Belle Zoraïde," in which a slave woman deprived of her own child goes mad. And in the story "Odalie Misses Mass," Chopin created a unique picture of an old black woman and a young white girl who are best friends, separated only by death.
Still, the mature Kate Chopin knew that white people could not truly "know" black people: too much suffering and oppression had separated them. And so her most honest portrayal of a mammy may be the quadroon nurse who cares for the children in The Awakening. The nurse is silent—perhaps brooding, perhaps sullen—and seems not to react at all when Edna, moodily, scolds her for negligence. The nurse has no voice at all, and that may be Chopin's clearest admission that white people could not know what a black woman might be thinking.
After her father's death, five-year-old Katie went home again with her mammy and her mother. But during the year of mourning for Thomas O'Flaherty, the baby Jane also died. That made Kate the youngest child, and also the only daughter.
Meanwhile, just four years earlier, Kate's great-grandmother, Victoria (or Victoire) Charleville, had decided she was dying. Having reached age seventy with nothing in particular to live for, she was staying with her daughter Henriette Hunt and Henriette's wily husband, Daniel, a lawyer who urged the older woman to make financial decisions while she could. And so Madame Charleville divided her estate among her heirs, the five of her fifteen children who were still alive. But before she got around to actually dying, she suddenly found a new reason for living: her bright little great-granddaughter.
Katie O'Flaherty's last name always struck Madame Charleville as an unpronounceable Irish barbarism—but the child did need to be educated properly as a young Frenchwoman. Eliza O'Flaherty was not competent to do so: she did not spell very well, and at twenty-seven, she had none of the life experience of her strong, colorful grandmother. Madame Charleville moved to the Eighth Street house, and began.
Over the next two years, Victoire Charleville made sure that Katie learned perfect French. (It was New World French, more Missourian than Parisian, but grammatically correct.) Kate learned French well enough that she was at ease with it all her life, in France and in Louisiana, and she wrote it with no more misspellings and slips of the pen than she did English. In many a short story she uses French expressions easily for local color, and in The Awakening even the parrot speaks French.
As a youngster, Katie O'Flaherty seemed naturally gifted in music, another subject in Madame Charleville's homemade curriculum. Kate had daily piano lessons, and by the time she was an adolescent, she could repeat "by ear" any piece of music she heard. In high school she took extra music lessons, and as a mature writer she described the trembling emotional impact of music on such sensitive souls as Edna in The Awakening.
But Madame Charleville's best subject for tutoring was one Kate's father could never have taught her. No man could have. Madame Charleville gave her young charge a subject for intense, lifelong fascination, contemplation, and delight: the lives of women. Madame Charleville loved gossip.
She was a colorful, picturesque storyteller whose idea of history was the classic conflict of French drama (and later daytime drama): women torn between duty and desire. In pioneer St. Louis, for instance, the founder's mother, Madame Chouteau, had left her brutal husband to live with her son's partner. They had four children together, but she never married him, not even after her husband's death. Not only did Madame Chouteau make herself one of the wealthiest fur traders in St. Louis history, but—and this would surely be pointed out—she also outlived her lover by thirty-six years.
Madame Charleville had plenty of other stories from her own family. There was, for instance, the uncle whose mixed-blood descendants grew up to be part of "The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis." But the best stories were about women. Victoire, Madame Charleville's own mother, had emigrated to the Louisiana colony from an island off the coast of France, married a carpenter named Verdon, and given birth to four children—but husband and wife "kept matters pretty lively at home with continual bickering and quarrels," according to one historian. Eventually, in 1785, "for the salvation of their souls," they got a legal separation—the first one ever granted in St. Louis.
Then, nearly five years later, Victoire Verdon gave birth to another son, whose father's name is lost to history. (Out of mischief, she listed her estranged husband as the father.) Although she could neither read nor write, the canny Victoire created her own market niche, with products appealing to women: she traded buttons, pins, and utensils in short trips downriver. She learned to sign her name with a flourish: "La Verdon" (the Verdon), and eventually ran a very profitable line of trading vessels between St. Louis and New Orleans. By listening to women's voices and needs, the formerly battered wife had become a tycoon.
The women in Katie O'Flaherty's family loved their mothers and mourned their passing. Just a year after the death of "La Verdon," her daughter—evidently looking for love, and already four months pregnant --married Joseph Charleville. Half a century later, that same Madame Charleville was encouraging young Katie not to judge people rashly, but to face truths fearlessly. Madame Charleville, in short, was very French. Like the French in Louisiana, where she had many relatives and where prenuptial agreements were the norm in bourgeois marriages, Madame Charleville understood that marriage was a practical arrangement, undertaken for social standing and security. Romantic love might come later.
Madame Charleville knew all about the strongest motives of human existence: greed, power, lust, and maternal love. But the greatest lesson, one her great-granddaughter repeated so tellingly in her later stories, was that a woman had to be independent.
In the fall of 1857, when she was seven, Katie O'Flaherty was registered again at the Sacred Heart Academy on Fifth Street, this time as a "day scholar." Through the late 1850s and early 1860s, she was enrolled erratically, either as a boarder or a day scholar, and usually she left school by the end of February. (The school year ended in June, but there were no school attendance requirements.) Until she was ten, Kate never spent an entire year in school—even though her mother paid extra each term for her piano lessons and music books.
As a boarder, she shared one large dormitory room with twenty or thirty girls, and learned routines for privacy, hygiene, modesty, and religious devotion. Since nonessential speech was forbidden, the girls created their own systems of communication with gestures and facial expressions. They also made friendships that lasted for the rest of their lives.
Formally, the Sacred Heart academic program suited what Kate had learned from Madame Charleville at home. It mixed women's wisdom, rigorous intellectual challenges, homely chores, and the celebration of women. The Sacred Heart order, founded in France after the Revolution, stressed high academic standards, while the nuns dedicated themselves to teaching young Catholic girls "of good family" to be pious wives and mothers. But the students were also to be knowledgeable, clear, and independent thinkers, to "meet with adequacy the demands of time and eternity."
The girls were usually taught in English, but the values they learned were in the tradition of French intellectual women. Kate O'Flaherty and her best friend Kitty Garesché were taught fine needlework, plain sewing, and embroidery, but also spelling, penmanship, literature, history, oral reading, "formation of the reasoning power and judgment," "fieldwork in botany as well as gardening," and knowledge of current events and scientific discoveries, "that they may take part intelligently in conversation when at home or in social gatherings." The girls wrote two themes a week—one a letter, and one an essay or literary analysis.
But throughout their schooling, while they might be rebelling or twitching or passing notes during mass, the Sacred Heart girls were hearing over and over, "Hail Mary, full of grace, Blessed art thou among women." They were learning to revere women. Guardian angels were like imaginary friends, and saints aided girls in distress. Our Lady of Good Success helped exam-takers; Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, got young girls into the choir. Above all, of course, there was the Virgin Mary, who might intercede to help troubled girls. Her serene presence was also a comfort to lonely children. Sometimes girls who were close friends exchanged pious pictures of the Virgin, small French prints ornamented with lace paper. (One of Kate O'Flaherty's is now in the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis.)
Meanwhile, at home, Madame Charleville's teachings had given young Katie O'Flaherty a lifelong respect and affection for old women. Kate Chopin's later stories show very little generational conflict: she does not write, for instance, about daughters who defy their mothers or grandmothers to run off and marry unwisely. Her mother characters do not repress or police their daughters; her daughter characters do not break their mothers' hearts. Chopin also shows genuine love and friendship between women across the generations and races. In stories like "Odalie Misses Mass" and "Old Aunt Peggy," for instance, white youngsters revere old African American women as storytellers and vessels of information about the past.
The unwritten story in most women's lives is the story of friendship. Kate O'Flaherty and Kitty Garesché were friends for nearly half a century—but all we have are a few scattered reminiscences, many of them filtered through Kate Chopin's shifty and unreliable first biographer, Daniel Rankin.
"Kate and I first knew each other when, as wee tots, we went as Day Scholars to our old Convent on 5th Street, founded by our Venerable Mother Duchesne," Kitty Garesché wrote to Rankin in 1930. Kitty lived on Ninth Street and Chouteau Avenue, and "As our homes were very near one another, we were constantly together, sharing all our pleasures." But their pleasures were not the traditional ones American mothers encouraged their daughters to pursue, at least in the popular novels the two girls read together, such as Susan Warner's The Wide Wide World. In 1850s popular fiction, young girls immerse themselves in housewifely service arts. They learn to pour tea and serve small refreshments; to sew; to care for the sick; to pray; and, if they are wealthy and somewhat worldly, to dance and sing and play the piano as womanly accomplishments. Young girls avoid vanity and stifle any ambitions that are not pious, pure, submissive, and domestic.
But Kate O'Flaherty and Kitty Garesché were not being raised as "American" girls. They were French, from a family background with rules that were more literary and less sanctimonious. And so Kitty's list of their "pleasures" contains nary a word about any domestic arts. In fact, neither girl was being trained to be a wife.
Long before sports were considered appropriate for women, the two girls' pursuits were tomboyish and competitive. They liked climbing the large trees in the O'Flaherty garden, "going recklessly high perhaps— each trying to out-top the other." They enjoyed ice skating and riding Kate's pony, "but principally, and certainly first in our affection, music and reading—veritable passions." The two girls shared what friends give one another: food, activity, intellectual pleasure, tears—and warm and wicked gossip. As Kate recalled, they "divided our `picayune's' worth of candy—climbed together the highest cherry trees; wept in company over the `Days of Bruce,' and later, exchanged our heart secrets."
As best friends often do, Katie and Kitty, six months younger, mirrored each other. They had both been christened Catherine; both were from well-respected, wealthy families. Both had some Huguenots in the family tree, and each girl had one parent who was an outsider in St. Louis: Kitty's mother was the Protestant daughter of a former American ambassador to London. There was a worldliness about both households that was unusual among the inbred older families of the city.
But the two girls also had deep differences. Kate was the baby of her family, while Kitty was the oldest: her portrait shows a neat, earnest, dark-haired and dark-eyed young girl. Kitty never had a wild or rebellious streak—perhaps because her family life, with two parents, was more traditional and staid. Her father, like Thomas O'Flaherty, belonged to various lodges and civic groups; her uncle was a judge; and her family was enmeshed in male St. Louis in ways the Charlevilles and Farises never had been.
Yet the crowded Garesché household had more youngsters, and Kate liked going there to play charades and games. She could also watch, and study, a traditional nuclear family. Kate was one of very few fatherless girls at the Sacred Heart school, and Kitty's family may have made her feel as if she "fit in" somewhat better. Kate was also the only friend allowed to stay overnight at Kitty's, where she would sometimes "help bury and write an epitaph for a pet bird." Their families took both Catherines to museums, lectures, and circuses, and indulged their curiosities—while the two girls shared opinions only with each other.
Kate also shared family secrets with Kitty—about her father's death, her mother's life, and the slaves. Yet another part of growing up for young girls is thinking about their own possibilities, about what they will be allowed to do or be, and their mothers were one guide, although their pasts were very different. Juliette Garesché had had a glamorous London girlhood, while Eliza O'Flaherty had been sheltered on the family farm outside St. Louis—but neither one could ever expect to have a profession. St. Louis had few women's clubs or opportunities; there were no abolitionist or suffrage activities like those that occupied women in the East; and women were not allowed to attend law or medical school or St. Louis University. Kate and Kitty knew intellectual and well-educated and capable teachers and administrators among the Sacred Heart nuns—but those women were cloistered. They had taken the veil, and given up the world.
As far as the two girls could see, they would grow up to be housewives, and probably restless ones. Kitty's aunt Mariquitta, for instance, spent most of her time shopping, which her handsome husband Julius preferred her to do. Otherwise, he said, she'd fill her head with impossible ideas from romantic novels and expect him to spend all his time loving her.
Kate and Kitty were still schoolgirls when the tall, handsome Julius Garesché became one of the first West Point graduates killed in the Civil War, his horse shot out from under him at the battle of Murfreesboro. His widow, Mariquitta, outlived him by only a few years, but Kate Chopin immortalized them both in The Awakening. In Chopin's novel, Edna's first schoolgirl crush is on a handsome, nameless cavalry officer, much like Julius Garesché—while the earthy "shrimp girl," a saucy realist who talks calmly about extramarital romances, is named Mariequita.
As schoolgirls, though, Kate and Kitty were interested in information as well as romance. Kate liked to snoop in bureau drawers for forbidden books, which the two friends would read together, "often `mid laughter and tears," Kitty recalled. When they read Cecilia Mary Caddell's Blind Agnese; or The Little Spouse of the Blessed Sacrament, a novel about a pious beggar girl, the girls were inspired to learn Italian. "Ollendorf's Method was bought unknown to anyone," Kitty recalled, "and we began the study all by ourselves, as a great secret. I must confess that we soon reached a point which seemed to say to our puzzled brains, `Thus far shall you go and no farther.'"
Before the summer of 1863, when they were thirteen, the two girls had read, according to Kitty: "Grimm's Fairy Tales, Blind Agnes, Paul and Virginia, Orphans of Moscow, Dickens for Little Folks, a series: Little Nell, Little Dorrit, etc., Queechy, The Wide Wide World, Scottish Chiefs, Days of Bruce, Pilgrims Progress. We particularly loved Zaidee, a beautiful old-fashioned romance; and John Halifax, Gentleman. Of poetry we read the metrical romances of Scott, with his Talisman and Ivanhoe, with some of the chosen poems of Pope, Collins, and Gray."
Some books had special meanings in their families. Paul and Virginia, the romantic French story of two children of nature by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, had been a sensational novel in frontier St. Louis in 1797, the year Madame Charleville was married. She eventually named one of her daughters Virginia; that daughter also named her daughter Virginia; and even Kitty Garesché, born half a century later, had a sister named Virginia. A century after its original publication, Kate Chopin used a sensual tropical atmosphere like Paul and Virginia's in her portrayal of Grand Isle in The Awakening.
Most of the other books on Kate and Kitty's reading list, though, were popular novels by English and American women: Christian, dainty, obedient—not much like Kate's world. But traces of those books—bits of language, character names and descriptions, even some words about passion and dreams—turn up years later in Kate Chopin's stories. Her Zaïda in "A Night in Acadie," for instance, resembles the bold title character in Margaret Oliphant's Zaidee. In Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Grace Aguilar's Days of Bruce, young Katie and Kitty encountered heroines who were pure and golden-haired, or dark-haired and passionate—and both types appear in Chopin's fiction. In Days of Bruce, the heroine Isabella is, like Edna in The Awakening, an unhappily married woman tempted by another man—whose name is Robert.
Christmas 1860 was the last peaceful one Kate O'Flaherty and Kitty Garesché would have together. They were ten years old, and looking forward to their first communions the following spring in their massive, beautiful new parish church, with its Corinthian columns, Italian marble altars, rich frescoes, and costly paintings. That Christmas, Kate's great-aunt Pélagie Charleville Boyer gave her one of her most cherished gifts: a copybook with LEAVES OF AFFECTION stamped in gold on the cover. It was inscribed "To Katie, from her affectionate aunt Boyer, December the 25th, 1860."
At first Kate pasted in magazine pictures, including two sweethearts like the lovers in The Awakening, who lean toward each other, with hardly any space in between, as if treading "upon blue ether" (VIII). She copied one favorite poem into her notebook (and much later, wrote underneath it in pencil, "very pretty, but where's the point?")
Before the end of December, Kitty also copied a poem into Kate's notebook: "We Have Been Friends Together," by the English poet Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton. Kitty dedicated it "To Katie," and Kate wrote above it, "My sweet friend Kitty."
That was Kitty's last appearance in Kate's notebook, for there were ominous things going on in the outside world. In late December, just four days after the new Church of the Annunciation was dedicated, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union.
With the women at home, and the Sacred Heart nuns, and her best friend Kitty, Kate O'Flaherty was coming of age in a mostly female world—one that nurtured her creative spirit, and encouraged her generosity and her dreams. But it would all change, the year she turned thirteen.
|Chronology of Kate Chopin's Life|
|Ch. 1||Girls and Women||3|
|Ch. 2||The Spoils of War||22|
|Ch. 3||The Voice of a Young Woman||34|
|Ch. 4||Belle and Bride||45|
|Ch. 5||Walking in New Orleans, Swimming at Grand Isle||62|
|Ch. 6||Cloutierville: The Talk of the Town||82|
|Ch. 7||St. Louis and At Fault||101|
|Ch. 8||A Professional Writer||121|
|Ch. 9||A Writer, Her Reviewers, and Her Markets||148|
|Ch. 10||A World of Writing and Friends||174|
|Ch. 11||Night, Love, War||191|
|Ch. 12||The Awakening||209|
|Complete Works of Kate Chopin||245|