At Fault

Life

Chopin was born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father, Thomas O’Flaherty, was a successful businessman who had immigrated to the United States from Galway, Ireland. Her mother, Eliza Faris, was his second wife, and a well-connected member of the ethnic French community in St. Louis as the daughter of Athénaïse Charleville, a Louisiana creole of French Canadian descent. Some of Chopin's ancestors were among the first European (French) inhabitants of Dauphin Island, Alabama.[9]

Kate was the third of five children, but her sisters died in infancy and her half-brothers (from her father's first marriage) died in their early twenties. They were reared Roman Catholic, in the French and Irish traditions. She also became an avid reader of fairy tales, poetry, and religious allegories, as well as classic and contemporary novels. She graduated from Sacred Heart Convent in St. Louis in 1868.[9]

At the age of five, she was sent to Sacred Heart Academy where she learned how to handle her own money and make her own decisions, as the nuns intended. Upon her father's death, she was brought back home to live with her grandmother and great-grandmother, comprising three generations of women who were widowed young and never remarried. For two years she was tutored at home by her great-grandmother, Victoria (or Victoire) Charleville, who taught French, music, history, gossip and the need to look on life without fear.[10] After those two years, Kate went back to Sacred Heart Academy, which her best friend and neighbor, Kitty Garesche, also attended, and where her mentor, Mary O’Meara, taught. A gifted writer of both verse and prose, O'Meara guided her student to write regularly, to judge herself critically, and to conduct herself valiantly. Nine days after Kate and Kitty's first communions in May 1861, the Civil War came to St. Louis. During the war, Kate's half-brother died of fever, and her great-grandmother died as well. After the war ended, Kitty and her family were banished from St. Louis for supporting the Confederacy.[11]

In St. Louis, Missouri, on June 8, 1870,[12] she married Oscar Chopin and settled with him in his home town of New Orleans, an important port. The Chopins had six children between 1871 and 1879: in order of birth, Jean Baptiste, Oscar Charles, George Francis, Frederick, Felix Andrew, and Lélia (baptized Marie Laïza).[13] In 1879, Oscar Chopin's cotton brokerage failed.

The family left the city and moved to Cloutierville, in south Natchitoches Parish, to manage several small plantations and a general store. They became active in the community, where Chopin found, in the local creole culture, much material for her future writing.

When Oscar Chopin died in 1882, he left Kate $42,000 in debt (approximately 1.2 million dollars in 2021). According to Emily Toth, "for a while the widow Kate ran his [Oscar's] business and flirted outrageously with local men; (she even engaged in a relationship with a married farmer)."[14] Although Chopin worked to make her late husband's plantation and general store succeed, two years later she sold her Louisiana business.[14][15]

Her mother had implored her to move back to St. Louis, which Chopin did, with her mother's financial support. Her children gradually settled into life in the bustling city, but Chopin's mother died the following year.[15]

Chopin struggled with depression after the successive loss of her husband, her business, and her mother. Chopin's obstetrician and family friend, Dr. Frederick Kolbenheyer, suggested that she start writing, believing that it could be therapeutic for her. He understood also that writing could be a focus for her extraordinary energy, as well as a source of income.[16]

By the early 1890s, Chopin's short stories, articles, and translations were appearing in periodicals, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, and in various literary magazines. During a period of considerable publishing of folk tales, works in dialect, and other elements of Southern folk life, she was considered a regional writer who provided local color. Her strong literary qualities were overlooked.[17]

In 1899, her second novel, The Awakening, was published. Some newspaper critics reviewed the novel favorably.[18] However, the critical reception was largely negative. The critics considered the behavior of the novel's characters, especially the women - and Chopin's general treatment of female sexuality, motherhood, and marital infidelity - to be in conflict with prevailing standards of moral conduct and therefore offensive[19]

This novel, her best-known work, is the story of a woman trapped within the confines of an oppressive society. Out of print for several decades, it was rediscovered in the 1970s, when there was a wave of new studies and appreciation of women's writings. The novel has since been reprinted and is widely available. It has been critically acclaimed for its writing quality and importance as an early feminist work of the South.[17]

Critics suggest that such works as The Awakening were scandalous and therefore not socially embraced. Chopin herself was deeply discouraged by the lack of acceptance, but she continued to write, turning to the short story.[17] In 1900, she wrote "The Gentleman from New Orleans." That same year she was listed in the first edition of Marquis Who's Who. However, she never made much money from her writing, getting by on the investments she made locally in Louisiana and St. Louis of the inheritance from her mother's estate.[17]

While visiting the St. Louis World's Fair on August 20, 1904, Chopin suffered a brain hemorrhage. She died two days later, at the age of 54. She was interred in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.[17]


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