Bookish Birthdays: Kate Chopin

8th Feb 2011

At the turn of the 20th century, a widow from the American South wrote a scandalous novel that was quickly banned. Devastated, the gentle lady put down her pen, and died a recluse not long after.

Well, that’s how rumour has it. But who was the real Kate Chopin?

Catherine O’Flaherty was born in St Louis, Missouri, on February 8, 1850. Her father, a successful Irish businessman, died in a railroad accident when Kate was five. She was raised by her French-speaking mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

As a child, Kate read fairy tales, poetry, and religious allegories. She attended the St Louis Convent of the Sacred Heart.

On the eve of Kate’s adolescence, the Civil War erupted. Her half-brother joined the Confederate army, but was captured by Union forces and died of typhoid. By the age of 24, Kate had survived all of her siblings.

As a débutante, Kate Chopin was known for her beauty and wit, though she was unimpressed by most of her suitors. In solitary moments, she copied favourite lines of poetry and prose into a Commonplace Book.

Her final entries were made in 1870, declaring that she had found ‘the right man’. She married Oscar Chopin, a plantation owner’s son from Louisiana. The couple settled in New Orleans, where Oscar established a cotton business.

Over the next nine years, Kate Chopin bore five sons and a daughter. In the summer of 1874, while Kate was staying with her mother in St Louis, Oscar joined the notorious White League, and was involved in a race riot that led to 30 deaths.

As a débutante, Kate Chopin was known for her beauty and wit, though she was unimpressed by most of her suitors. Five years later, the Chopins moved to Oscar’s home town of Cloutierville in the rural, French community of Natchitoches Parish. This distinct culture of Creoles and Acadians (‘Cajun’) would inspire much of Kate’s fiction.

In 1882, Oscar died of malaria, leaving Kate Chopin deep in debt. Against the odds, she eventually sold off the business. She also flirted with a married planter before returning to St Louis.

After Kate’s mother died, a doctor suggested that she write to console herself, and she was drawn into the city’s artistic circle. Her short stories were published in many magazines, including Vogue.

Publicly, Kate Chopin acted the part of a doting mother for whom writing was merely a hobby. Though her stories covered taboo subjects, including adultery and mixed-race affairs, she was perceived as a regional writer, specialising in ‘local colour’.

Chopin’s first, self-published novel, At Fault (1890) went largely unnoticed, but her collections of short stories, Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897) were well-received.

Her second novel, The Awakening (1899), told the tale of an unhappy, adulterous wife. Some critics condemned its frank depiction of a rebellious woman and its criticism of marriage. A young Willa Cather deemed it a waste of Chopin’s talents.

Despite this setback, Kate Chopin continued writing and, in 1901, was listed in the first edition of Who’s Who. Three years later, while visiting the St Louis State Fair, Kate collapsed. She died days afterwards, but her bold, sensual prose lives on to this day.

In years following her death, Chopin’s short stories were widely anthologised and her narrative gifts were praised. Although never banned, The Awakening was largely forgotten until the 1960s, when it was rediscovered by a new wave of readers, including Sandra M. Gilbert, who likened Kate’s literary impact to ‘the second coming of Aphrodite.’

Tara Hanks