Saturday, February 8, 2020

My wedding day!

‘My wedding day! How simple it is to say and how hard to realize that I am married, no longer a young lady with nothing to think of but myself and nothing to do.’ This is a diary entry by Kate Chopin, an American short story writer of the late 19th century who was born 170 years ago today. Though some of her literary themes were controversial in their day, she is now considered a forerunner of 20th-century feminist authors. Only two of her diaries survive - one from her youth through to the end of her honeymoon, and one from the year 1894.

Catherine (Kate) O’Flaherty was born on 8 February 1850 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Thomas, had immigrated from Ireland, and her mother, Eliza Faris (Thomas’s second wife) was of French heritage. Kate was schooled at the Academy of the Sacred Hearts, graduating in 1868. In 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, settling with him in his home town of New Orleans, and having six children. Oscar Chopin’s business failed in 1879, and the family went to live in Cloutierville, some 200 miles northwest of New Orleans, where he managed several small plantations and a general store. He died three years later, leaving Kate with huge debts. She tried to sustain the business, and eventually sold it before returning with her children to St Louis. Two years later, her mother died, and she was left struggling with depression.

A family doctor and friend suggested writing as a therapy for Kate, and by the early 1890s, she was contributing a variety of articles and stories for local periodicals. Many of these were about the Creole and Cajun people she observed around her. In 1899, she published a novel, The Awakening, which achieved a few favourable reviews but which was also vilified for its treatment of female sexuality and interracial marriage. Chopin, discouraged by this response, returned to short story writing, for example Désirée’s Baby and Madame Celestin’s Divorce. She died in 1904. Although The Awakening remained out of print for many years, it was rediscovered in the 1970s, and is now considered an ‘important early work of the South’ (see Wikipedia). She, herself, has become widely recognised as a forerunner of American feminist literature. Further information is also available from the Kate Chopin International Society, American Literature, Missouri Encyclopedia, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Some of her Chopin’s diary material was first published in Per Seyersted’s A Kate Chopin Miscellany (Northwestern State University, 1979), but a much more comprehensive collection of her previously unpublished writings were put together in 1998 by both Seyersted and Emily Toth as Kate Chopin’s Private Papers (Indiana University Press). Some pages of the latter are available to view on Googlebooks. According to this, only one diary - for 1894 - has survived from her adult years (discovered by her grandson, Robert Hattersley, in the 1960s), but there is also her Commonplace Book which is said to have much in common with the 1894 diary. The Commonplace Book was started when she was just 16, and used for copying out passages of literature that she admired, and for her own early attempts at literature. However, increasingly, it became a depository for her thoughts, serving as a diary through her honeymoon in Europe. Here are several extracts from the Commonplace Book, and one longer one from the 1894 diary.

9 June 1870
‘My wedding day! How simple it is to say and how hard to realize that I am married, no longer a young lady with nothing to think of but myself and nothing to do. We went to holy Communion this morning, my mother with us, and it gave me a double happiness to see so many of my friends at mass for I knew they prayed for me on this happiest day of my life. The whole day seems now like a dream to me; how I awoke early in the morning before the household was stirring and looked out of the window to see whether the sun would shine or not; how I went to mass and could not read the prayers in my book; afterwards how I dressed for my marriage - went to church and found myself married before I could think what I was doing. What kissing of old and young! I never expect to receive as many embraces during the remainder of my life. Oscar has since confessed that he did not know it was customary to kiss and that he conferred that favor on only a very few - I will have to make a most sacred apology for him when I get home. It was very painful to leave my mother and all at home; and it was only at starting that I discovered how much I would miss them and how much I would be missed. We meet several acquaintances on the cars who congratulated us very extensively, and who could not be brought to realize that they must call me Mrs Chopin and not Miss Katy. They joined us however in consuming a few champagne bottles that had escaped the dire destruction of their companions to meet with a more honorable consummation by the bride and groom.’

27 July 1870
‘Left Stuttgart this morning - arriving at Ulm in two hours time; having barely time to dine & visit the handsome Cathedral and fine fortifications, and left for Friedrickshafen which we reached late at night. Took lodgings for a nights rest, and started early in the morning for Constanz. We are anxious to get into Switzerland.’

28 July 1870
‘Took the boat at 10 this morning - day cloudy - but I was glad we had no sun. The “blue lake of Constanz” looked bluer than ever through the mist. Just as we were starting out, a child playing near the boat, fell in the water: we had not time to wait & see if he was rescued, but I fear not as he must have been caught in some of the numerous net work of wooden piles. The scenery was exquisite along the shore, and the hour glided away only too fast.

At Constanz
We set out immediately to “see the town;” taking in the beautiful church of St. Stephens, which belongs to the severe gothic order; saw some beautiful paintings not the less lovely for being new, and then went to the Cathedral - ascending some 5000000 steps (more or less) to reach the tower, but were repaid for our fatigue by the view. I should fancy such scenery - such a beautiful side of nature, would influence these people only for good deeds. Left Constaz at 4 1/2, reaching Schaufhausen at a 7.

The Blue bien Hotel; where we have taken quarters seems to be entirely at our disposal: the war having frightened off all visitors. I trust the landlord will not attempt to make his accounts balance at our expense. We command a charming view of the Rhein falls (the largest in Europe) and will remain here some time, if only our impatient spirits permit.’

29 July 1870
‘Rain! All the day rain. So we could not venture out, and have amused ourselves all day, making mental photographes of the falls.’

22 May 1894
‘I have finished a story of 4800 words and called it “Lilacs." I cannot recall what suggested it. If the story had been written after my visit of last Sunday to the convent, I would not have to seek the impulse far. Those nuns seem to retain or gain a certain beauty with their advancing years which we women in the world are strangers to. The unchanging form of their garments through years and years seems to impart a distinct character to their bodily movements. Liza’s face held a peculiar fascination for me as I sat looking into it enframed in its white rushing. It is more than twenty years since I last saw her; but in less than twenty minutes those twenty years had vanished and she was the Liza of our school days. The same narrow, happy grey eyes with their swollen upper lids; the same delicious upward curves to the corners of her pretty mouth. No little vexatious wrinkles anywhere. Only a few good strong lines giving a touch of character that the younger Liza lacked perhaps. The conditions under which these women live are such as keep them young and fresh in heart and in visage. One day - usually one hey-day of youth they kneel before the altar of a God whom they have learned to worship, and they give themselves wholly - body and spirit into his keeping. They have only to remain faithful through the years, these modern Psyches, to the lover who lavishes all his precious gifts upon them in the darkness - the most precious of which is perpetual youth. I wonder what Liza thought as she looked into my face. I know she was remembering my pink cheeks of more than twenty years ago and my brown hair and innocent young face. I do not know whether she could see that I had loved - lovers who were not divine - and hated and suffered and been glad. She could see, no doubt the stamp which a thousand things had left upon my face, but she could not read it. She, with her lover in the dark. He has not anointed her eyes for perfect vision. She does not need it - in the dark. When we came away, my friend who had gone with me said: “Would you not give anything to have her vocation and happy life!” There was a long beaten path spreading before us; the grass grew along its edges and the branches of trees in their thick rich May garb hung over the path like an arbor, making a long vista that ended in a green blur. An old man - a plain old man leaning on a cane was walking down the path holding a small child by the hand and a little dog was trotting beside them. “I would rather be that dog” I answered her. I know she was disgusted and took it for irreverence and I did not take the trouble to explain that this was a little picture of life and that what we had left was a phantasmagoria.

This is Jean’s birthday - twenty-three years old today! How curiously the past effaces itself for me! I sometimes regret that it is so; for there must be a certain pleasure in retrospection. I cannot live through yesterday or tomorrow. It is why the dead in their character of dead and association with the grave have no hold on me. I cannot connect my mother or husband or any of those I have lots with those mounds of earth out at Calvary Cemetery. I cannot visit graves and stand contemplating them as some people do, and seem to love to do. If it were possible for my husband and my mother to come back to earth, I feel that I would unhesitatingly give up every thing that has come into my life since they left it and join my existence again with theirs. To do that, I would have to forget the past ten years of my growth - my real growth. But I would take back a little wisdom with me; it would the spirit of a perfect acquiescence. This is a long way from Jean, 23 years ago. I can remember yet that hot southern day on Magazine street in New Orleans. The noises of the street coming through the open windows; that heaviness with which I dragged myself about; my husband’s and mother’s solicitude; old Alexandrine the quadroon nurse with her high bandana lignin, her hoop-earrings and placid smile; old Doctor Faget; the smell of chloroform, and then waking at 6 in the evening from out of a stupor to see in my mothers arms a little piece of humanity all dressed in white which told me was my little son!. The sensation with which I touched my lips and finger tips to his soft flesh only comes once to a mother. It must be the pure animal sensation; nothing spiritual could be so real - so poignant.’

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