Friday, February 3, 2017

Fedora

Kate Chopin (1850–1904)
From Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories

The Coming Train, 1880, oil on canvas by American artist Edward Lamson Henry (1841–1919).
When Kate Chopin was “rediscovered” in the early 1970s, readers were led to believe that her masterpiece, The Awakening, had been “banned” soon after publication and that its censorship was a primary reason both she and it had fallen into oblivion. Yet later scholars—particularly her biographer Emily Toth—have not found any proof that was the case. As Toth summarized her findings in 2009, “We’d been suckered into reading a banned book that hadn’t been banned after all, at least in St. Louis. . . . But any adult who’d wanted to read The Awakening in 1899 could easily have done so, just as we did from 1970 onward.”

The legend of The Awakening as a banned book was given life by a series of conflicting memories and misreadings of sources. One example is instructive: Early scholars suggested that, soon after publication, The Awakening had been banned in St. Louis, Chopin’s hometown. There were four copies in the St. Louis Mercantile Library in 1899, and all four copies were marked as “condemned” in the records. But the term “condemned” does not mean that the book was “banned” but that it was removed because of wear-and-tear; “more than 75 percent of the books acquired by the library in 1899–1900 are now marked ‘condemned,’” reveals Toth. Similarly, the St. Louis Public Library purchased three copies and, when one was lost in 1906 (two years after Chopin’s death), it was immediately replaced with a new copy—hardly an act for a book that was banned. The Awakening was in fact reprinted that same year, and only later went out of print for six decades. Of the rest of Chopin’s writings, just a handful of stories (particularly “Désirée's Baby”) were kept in print by appearances in anthologies.

Still, The Awakening unquestionably met with controversy on its publication, and it was greeted with numerous shocked and disapproving notices: “morbid,” “sex fiction,” “poison,” were some of the terms scattered in the more hostile reviews. A young reviewer named Willa Cather huffed, “I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme.”

Similarly, some of Chopin’s pieces of short fiction were considered too hot for publication in national magazines, and “Fedora” might have been one of them. When she finished the story in the 1896, she was at the peak of her fame: her writing regularly appeared in many major national magazines. We’ll never know for sure the reason this particular work was rejected by editors, but (says Toth) “Chopin gave ‘Fedora’ a twist—and one that made it hard to publish.” We’ll leave it to readers to discover that “twist” for themselves.

In 1897 “Fedora,” along with another story Chopin had been unable to sell, did appear in The Criterion, a local weekly that also published six of her essays on literature that same year. Unlike the essays, the stories appeared under the pseudonym “La Tour” (French for the tower). It’s unknown why Chopin chose “La Tour” as a pen name. One of Chopin’s childhood favorites was the novel Paul and Virginia, published in 1788 by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Could the alias have been inspired by the lead character, Virginia de la Tour? Or, although the pronunciation is not quite the same, might “La Tour” be Chopin’s clever pun for l’auteur (the author)?

Regardless, the pseudonym was probably not meant to mask her identity, which seems to have been an open secret in St. Louis. Indeed, she apparently planned to include “Fedora” under her own name in her next story collection—which, alas, remained unpublished at the time of her death.

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the entire text of Chopin’s short story below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs, and this selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Fedora had determined upon driving over to the station herself for Miss Malthers.

Though one or two of them looked disappointed—notably her brother—no one opposed her. She said the brute was restive, and shouldn’t be trusted to the handling of the young people.

To be sure Fedora was old enough, from the standpoint of her sister Camilla and the rest of them. Yet no one would ever have thought of it but for her own persistent affectation and idiotic assumption of superior years and wisdom. She was thirty.

Fedora had too early in life formed an ideal and treasured it. By this ideal she had measured such male beings as had hitherto challenged her attention, and needless to say she had found them wanting. The young people—her brothers’ and sisters’ guests, who were constantly coming and going that summer—occupied her to a great extent, but failed to interest her. She concerned herself with their comforts—in the absence of her mother—looked after their health and well-being; contrived for their amusements, in which she never joined. And, as Fedora was tall and slim, and carried her head loftily, and wore eye-glasses and a severe expression, some of them—the silliest—felt as if she were a hundred years old. Young Malthers thought she was about forty.

One day when he stopped before her out in the gravel walk to ask her some question pertaining to the afternoon’s sport, Fedora, who was tall, had to look up into his face to answer him. She had known him eight years, since he was a lad fifteen, and to her he had never been other than the lad of fifteen.

But that afternoon, looking up into his face, the sudden realization came home to her that he was a man—in voice, in attitude, in bearing, in every sense—a man.

In an absorbing glance, and with unaccountable intention, she gathered in every detail of his countenance as though it were a strange, new thing to her, presenting itself to her vision for the first time. The eyes were blue, earnest, and at the moment a little troubled over some trivial affair that he was relating to her. The face was brown from the sun, smooth, with no suggestion of ruddiness, except in the lips, that were strong, firm and clean. She kept thinking of his face, and every trick of it after he passed on.

From that moment he began to exist for her. She looked at him when he was near by, she listened for his voice, and took notice and account of what he said. She sought him out; she selected him when occasion permitted. She wanted him by her, though his nearness troubled her. There was uneasiness, restlessness, expectation when he was not there within sight or sound. There was redoubled uneasiness when he was by—there was inward revolt, astonishment, rapture, self-contumely; a swift, fierce encounter betwixt thought and feeling.

Fedora could hardly explain to her own satisfaction why she wanted to go herself to the station for young Malthers’ sister. She felt a desire to see the girl, to be near her; as unaccountable, when she tried to analyze it, as the impulse which drove her, and to which she often yielded, to touch his hat, hanging with others upon the hall pegs, when she passed it by. Once a coat which he had discarded hung there too. She handled it under pretense of putting it in order. There was no one near, and, obeying a sudden impulse, she buried her face for an instant in the rough folds of the coat.

Fedora reached the station a little before train time. It was in a pretty nook, green and fragrant, set down at the foot of a wooded hill. Off in a clearing there was a field of yellow grain, upon which the sinking sunlight fell in slanting, broken beams. Far down the track there were some men at work, and the even ring of their hammers was the only sound that broke upon the stillness. Fedora loved it all—sky and woods and sunlight; sounds and smells. But her bearing—elegant, composed, reserved—betrayed nothing emotional as she tramped the narrow platform, whip in hand, and occasionally offered a condescending word to the mail man or the sleepy agent.

Malthers’ sister was the only soul to disembark from the train. Fedora had never seen her before; but if there had been a hundred, she would have known the girl. She was a small thing; but aside from that, there was the coloring; there were the blue, earnest eyes; there, above all, was the firm, full curve of the lips; the same setting of the white, even teeth. There was the subtle play of feature, the elusive trick of expression, which she had thought peculiar and individual in the one, presenting themselves as family traits.

The suggestive resemblance of the girl to her brother was vivid, poignant even to Fedora, realizing, as she did with a pang, that familiarity and custom would soon blur the image.

Miss Malthers was a quiet, reserved creature, with little to say. She had been to college with Camilla, and spoke somewhat of their friendship and former intimacy. She sat lower in the cart than Fedora, who drove, handling whip and rein with accomplished skill.

“You know, dear child,” said Fedora, in her usual elderly fashion, “I want you to feel completely at home with us.” They were driving through a long, quiet, leafy road, into which the twilight was just beginning to creep. “Come to me freely and without reserve—with all your wants; with any complaints. I feel that I shall be quite fond of you.”

She had gathered the reins into one hand, and with the other free arm she encircled Miss Malthers’ shoulders.

When the girl looked up into her face, with murmured thanks, Fedora bent down and pressed a long, penetrating kiss upon her mouth.

Malthers’ sister appeared astonished, and not too well pleased. Fedora, with seemingly unruffled composure, gathered the reins, and for the rest of the way stared steadily ahead of her between the horses’ ears.

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