Earlier this year, in and out of lockdown, I wrote a long-form essay on the iconic New Zealand writer Robin Hyde. The resulting book, Shining Land, was a collaboration with the photographer Haru Sameshima – commissioned by Lloyd Jones for his Kōrero series –exploring the small towns and confined spaces of Hyde’s life in the 20s and 30s,
While I was reading and writing about Robin Hyde, I thought of the American writer Kate Chopin and the novel that ended her writing career, The Awakening. I first read that novel in the 1980s, not long after it was rediscovered and dubbed a feminist classic, like Hyde’s roman à clef, The Godwits Fly. (Chopin, along with Ellen Glasgow, Lillian Hellman and Eudora Welty, had a dedicated chapter in my doctoral thesis.)
In those days I read much more American literature than anything else – possibly still true – and knew much more about Kate Chopin than Robin Hyde. Or perhaps what I knew about Hyde all related to the tragedies of her life – surgeries and drug addiction, stints at mental hospital, a stillborn child, suicide – rather than her accomplishments in journalism, her books, her bravery. Hyde died at 33, the author of ten books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Of course, they were not contemporaries. Kate Chopin died in 1904, two years before Iris Wilkinson – Hyde’s real name – was born. Chopin was 54: she collapsed after a long, hot day at the St Louis World Fair. My husband is from St Louis, and we’ve visited Chopin’s grave in Calvary Cemetery there. Tennessee Williams, another St Louis native, is buried in the same cemetery. TS Eliot grew up near Chopin’s last home in St Louis; his mother attended her literary salons at a time when Kate Chopin was the most famous and successful writer in the city.
The links between Hyde and Chopin, I think, are work and sex. Both wrote to make money. Hyde was a single woman living in boarding houses and baches, often at the edge of penury, and needed to make a living as a journalist and author. Chopin was a young widow and canny businesswoman, who wrote for profit as well as pleasure. She was entrepreneurial, and quietly ambitious, presenting a public face of respectability – writing in an armchair, never revising, never neglecting her domestic duties – to mask what would be considered unfeminine ambition, and a desire for commercial and critical success.
Hyde did not have a home of her own, as Chopin did, and her financial situation was more precarious. Although all but her first book were published in the 1930s rather than the 1890s, she had her own disguises to adopt and manage. She was Iris Wilkinson to her family and old friends. As editor of “ladies’ pages” in newspapers, she had various monikers, like Aunt Mary or Margot. Her writer’s persona, for books and poems, was Robin Hyde. In the attic of what Hyde called “Grey Lodge” on the mental hospital grounds, her on-off refuge for four years, she typed like a fiend, working on freelance journalism as well as books.
Kate Chopin’s adult life and writing career are situated within the Gilded Age of late nineteenth-century America. Unlike the work of her near-contemporary Edith Wharton, the rich and powerful of New York and Boston were not Chopin’s subject. The short stories she wrote and published in the 1890s were mainly “local colour”, set in rural Louisiana or “exotic” New Orleans, peopled with Cajuns and Creoles. A regional setting distant from New York or Boston, peopled with French speakers, meant certain topics – miscegenation, domestic violence, infidelity – were more palatable. These she could publish in magazines and newspapers, and make decent money, though some of her racier stories were only welcome in the pages of a new magazine aimed at smart women, Vogue.
Some editors found her stories too impressionistic or lacking in a clear moral. The influence of Guy de Maupassant – born, like Chopin, in 1850 – was often noted. Fluent in French, she tried to get a collection of her own Maupassant translations published. Her preference for European models rather than the stomping American realism of the period was evident in much of her work.
Edith Wharton, another Francophile, lived in France for many years. Chopin was only able to visit Paris briefly, on honeymoon at the age of 20, when the Prussians were about to invade and everything was closed or barricaded. But Chopin was French Creole on her mother’s side, raised more French than American. Her husband, Oscar, had grown up between France and rural French Louisiana. During their marriage they lived in New Orleans, until financial disaster drove them inland to the Cane River country where Oscar’s family farmed.
In New Orleans it’s likely Kate Chopin met the painter Edgar Degas: he was there on a long visit to family, who were members of the same Cotton Exchange as Oscar Chopin. (In 1873 Degas, the only French Impressionist to travel in the US, painted his uncle’s cotton office). Chopin scholars contend Degas family gossip provided some raw material for The Awakening, written more than 20 years later but set in the New Orleans Kate Chopin knew well.
The novel’s protagonist is Edna Pontellier, a young wife bored with her older husband Léonce, their over-stuffed mansion in the French part of the city, and stolid Creole society. She starts drawing and painting again, and selling her work. While her husband is out of town on a long business trip, Edna rents a smaller house and starts mixing with a faster set. She begins an affair with a handsome cad-about-town, and seems to have no intention to return to marriage-as-usual.
Chopin wrote the novel in the late 1890s. The beginning of the novel is set in the summer resort of Grand Isle, and on neighbouring island Chénière Caminada. Both were devastated by a hurricane in 1893, so it’s clear that the novel is set earlier, probably in the 1870s when Chopin’s own family summered there with other well-off Creoles from New Orleans. There she would have heard the major Degas family gossip: in 1878 his brother René left his wife and children, and absconded to France with the (also married) woman next door. Her husband’s name was Léonce Olivier.
Reviewers – and readers – were not ready for a book by a woman, and about a woman, that was so explicit about sex and death
Another connection: Degas was friends with fellow painter Berthe Morisot, whose older sister was also a talented artist. The two women studied with Gustav Corot, and both were admitted to the Salon in Paris. Their parents encouraged them to become professional artists; her father even built them a studio in the garden. But Morisot’s sister married in 1869, a few years before Degas’ trip to New Orleans. She moved away from Paris, giving up her art career just as Berthe’s began to flourish. Her name was Edma, and her married name was Pontillon.
Léonce Olivier, Edma Pontillon; Edna and Léonce Pontellier. No wonder Chopin scholars get excited. But when the novel was published in 1899, no one cared about New Orleans gossip or the lives of French Impressionists or the influence of Maupassant. Most reviewers could see nothing in Edna Pontellier but a selfish woman who neglects her children and makes immoral choices. Even the young Willa Cather, reviewing the novel for the Pittsburgh Leader, called the novel’s theme “trite and sordid” and saw it as a slighter, inferior Madame Bovary.
Chopin had published a successful collection of stories and had high hopes for the novel’s reception, but American reviewers – and readers – were not ready for a book by a woman, and about a woman, that was so explicit about sex and death. Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth was published six years later to some outrage from reviewers about its bad-girl heroine, Lily Bart, even though Lily dies a virgin, and by accidental, rather than intentional, overdose.
Robin Hyde, I think, resembles Lily Bart more than Edna Pontellier. Edna has a small inheritance of her own, enough to be financially independent. What she seeks is autonomy, the freedom to be selfish, to be an artist – or a dilettante. Both Hyde and the fictional Lily Bart needed to pay the bills. They were both without the thing Hyde always sought, “a home in this world”. (Berthe Morisot married Edouard Manet’s brother, who was happy to pay the bills.)
Critical carping about The House of Mirth was not enough to derail the novel’s sales or Wharton’s reputation. But after the negative reception for The Awakening, the contract for Kate Chopin’s second collection was cancelled. In the five remaining years of her life, Chopin published just one more story. By 1906 the novel was out of print, and would stay that way for almost 50 years.
Robin Hyde was 20 when she had her first son, the stillborn Christopher Robin Hyde, and 24 when she had Derek Challis. (It was 1930: Derek is now 90.) Both children had to be born in secret, one in Sydney, one in Picton. Hyde’s employers could not be told, because she would have been sacked. Her father was never told about either child. In the 1960s her sisters did all they could to stop work on a biography, because – as her sister Ruth wrote to Derek – they didn’t want “all the pitiful and tragic incidents and secrets of Iris” made public.
“Was she promiscuous?” one interviewer recently asked me. Fertile and unlucky, I think, but the word “promiscuous” is a startling word to hear in 2020. It means indiscriminate behaviour, or having more than one sexual partner. The fathers of Hyde’s children had more than one sexual partner: Frederick Hyde married another woman within months of the stillbirth; Derek’s father, Harry Lawson Smith, was already married. In Christchurch, Hyde’s colleague and lover, Mac Vincent, was married. Were those men promiscuous?
Like Hyde, Chopin had her first child young: she was 21. By the age of 29, she’d given birth to six children. She was not considered “promiscuous” because she married Oscar Chopin when she was 20, and the children were all his. Chopin too was fertile and unlucky, because her only form of birth control was extended separations from her husband. After the birth of the Chopin’s sixth child, Oscar spent time in the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas – their nearest Rotorua – and when he returned Chopin travelled north to her home town, St Louis, to spend months with her mother.
They had no more children. Oscar died in 1882, probably of malaria. Kate Chopin was 32 years old. Louisiana law meant Oscar’s brother inherited custody of her children, and her petition to be considered their legal guardian took months. She was left with huge debts, living in the tiny rural town of Cloutierville where she was considered a Yankee outsider. Much of the family’s property was sold at auction, but it wasn’t enough. In 1884 she rented the house out and moved the children to St Louis, where they could all live with her mother.
The perception of Kate Chopin as scandalous in some way – rolling her own cigarettes, playing cards, walking and riding alone, flirting with other women’s husbands – has persisted for over a century
Those last two years in Cloutierville remain hazy with gossip. Kate Chopin may or may not have joined the ranks of “promiscuous” women via a relationship with handsome local rogue Albert Sampite, a married man. He was a gambler and a drinker who beat his wife; later he left her for her own sister – though this was a legal separation, not a divorce, and Louisiana law did not permit adulterers to marry their lovers.
My husband and I visited the Chopin house in Cloutierville in 2005, when we were drifting through the second month of our Hurricane Katrina evacuation. There’s still almost nothing to the town, just broken lines of houses and the Cane river, the place torpid in the swampy heat of late summer. The gossip about Kate Chopin was part of the house tour. The perception of her as scandalous in some way – rolling her own cigarettes, playing cards, walking and riding alone, flirting with other women’s husbands – had persisted for over a century. (She was resented, too, for including in her stories so many locals in thin disguise.) Three years after our visit, the house burned to the ground. The remains of Chopin’s presence in Cloutierville is confined to a brown historical marker.
One of Chopin’s biographers, Emily Toth, speculates that the dark, dangerous libertines in two of her greatest stories – “At the ‘Cadian Ball” and “The Storm” – as well as in The Awakening – are named Alcée as a nod to Albert Sampite. The Alcée characters are men to sleep with, not to marry – sexually exciting but without integrity. They are promiscuous.
In “The Storm”, Alcée Laballière and Calixta, the female protagonist, commit adultery in an explicit sex scene. Chopin did not try to publish it, and it didn’t appear in print until 1969. She’d learned her lesson, perhaps, with the reception of The Awakening.
The problem with The Awakening for turn-of-the-century readers and reviewers was its heroine. Edna chooses to die not because of a grand passion, but because she realises that, for her, such a thing is romantic nonsense. What she really seeks, a life of personal (and sexual) freedom, is impossible for a woman. Robin Hyde would sympathise. She was not in love with either of the fathers of her children. “I have always been punished for loving too little,” she wrote, “never for loving too much.”
At the beginning of The Awakening, on Grand Isle, Edna falls in love with Robert Lebrun, the young man who flirts with her and teaches her to swim. But back in New Orleans it’s another man, Alcée Arobin, with whom Edna has a sexual relationship. Robert has done the honourable thing and moved to Mexico, ostensibly to make his fortune but also to remove himself from temptation. He returns to New Orleans, wringing his hands and declaring love. “I was demented,” he tells Edna, “dreaming of wild, impossible things, recalling men who had set their wives free”. She says she loves him – “only you, no one but you” – but scoffs at the notion “of Mr. Pontellier setting me free! I am no longer one of Mr. Pontellier’s possessions to dispose of or not. I give myself where I choose.”
In the final chapters of The Awakening, Edna realises that love isn’t necessary for sexual pleasure…[and that] she is a woman who likes and wants sex
This doesn’t go down well with Robert, who leaves a melodramatic break-up note and disappears again. His vision is of a marriage, not Edna’s notion of society-defying cohabitation. “We shall be everything to each other,” she tells him. “Nothing else in the world is of any consequence.” But consequences are important to Robert, who is part of the same well-heeled Creole society as Léonce Pontellier. Eloping to France, in the manner of Degas’ brother, means giving up everything. Robert loves Edna, but not enough to be estranged from everyone he knows.
In the final chapters of The Awakening, Edna realises two important things. The first is that love isn’t necessary for sexual pleasure. Of her relationship with Alcée Arobin, she feels “neither shame nor remorse”, just a “dull pang of regret because it was not the kiss of love which had inflamed her”. Arobin’s kiss is a “narcotic” to her; when he touches her “he could feel the response of her flesh”. He “was absolutely nothing to her”, Edna knows, but she feels desire whenever he’s near.
This forces her second realisation. Edna returns to an out-of-season Grand Isle alone, despondent because Robert has run away again. Edna knows she is a woman who likes and wants sex. “Today it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be someone else,” she thinks. And her love for Robert, she thinks, will also pass. The “day would come when he, too, and the thought of him would melt out of her existence, leaving her alone”. Edna strips naked and swims out to sea until her strength fails. Her last conscious thoughts are of a romantic infatuation from her youth, another idealised love that didn’t last.
Really, Edna is like Alcée Arobin– someone who values sensual pleasure and doesn’t care about her “reputation”. But he is a man, and single, and she is a married woman with children. However little she minds her husband’s feelings, she’s aware of the implications for her two sons. (“Think of the children,” her friend Adele begs her.) Arobin is permitted to be a rogue and a libertine. Edna will be promiscuous, at best, a source of shame for her children, a blight on their futures. But to return to a life as a respectable wife and mother would be her “soul’s slavery”. There is only one way Edna believes she can “elude” this life, and that’s to swim into oblivion. Officially her death will be an accident, and the Pontelliers, father and sons, will save face.
The Awakening takes a wry view of Edna’s renewed enthusiasm for art, and perhaps she too realises it’s a pastime, not a vocation – another delusion, like her love for Robert. One of her final thoughts, while swimming out to sea, is of another friend, the pianist Mlle Reisz, mocking her “pretensions”. Mlle Reisz has warned Edna more than once that an “artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.” This is one of the novel’s most quoted lines, as readers debate whether Edna’s death means defiance or capitulation.
When the artist Joseph Guichard served as teacher to the Morisot sisters, he gave a different sort of warning to their parents. The entire family seemed ready to dare and defy their bourgeois milieu, permitting their daughters to become professional artists. Guichard asked the Morisots if they understood what that meant. Socially it would be revolutionary, he said, perhaps even catastrophic.
Could a woman artist in the nineteenth – and well into the twentieth – century be “respectable” and a serious artist at the same time? Guichard didn’t think so. Edma Morisot gave up painting to become a respectable middle-class mother. Kate Chopin pretended not to be serious, so she would be seen as a respectable middle-class mother who happened to write.
Robin Hyde belongs to a different place and time than these women, but in 1930s New Zealand she was confronted with similar expectations and hypocrisies. She had to pretend not to be a mother at all. A public career as an author and journalist was incompatible with single motherhood. (When her mother learned of Hyde’s first pregnancy, she called her daughter a “harlot”.)
The last and greatest journey of her life was to China and then England in 1938, to earn more money from her writing than was possible in New Zealand. In a frank letter to John A Lee, she wrote “here I can’t make a living, because of my reputation.” Her reputation was that of a single mother who had spent time in mental hospitals. One of her former editors at a newspaper advised her to seek another profession.
In 1937 Lee had tried to get Hyde some kind of government pension, a “small pittance that would at least give her a measure of security”. In a letter to the Minister of Internal Affairs, he said he was concerned that the “very eccentric” Hyde, “in the course of a few years, is likely to end up in a mental institution or to be found dead sometime through neglect and suicide.” No pension was given. Hyde died of an overdose in London, in August 1939.
One of the letters she sent from China to her seven-year-old son Derek exhorted him to “be always brave and kind, dear — anyhow as brave as you can. Sometimes I’m not any too brave myself.” She also urged him not to “let anything stop you from working towards the profession you really love.” Hyde was “never contented,” she told him, “until I started to write my books.”
Shining Land: Looking for Robin Hyde by Paula Morris and Haru Sameshima (Massey University Press, $45) was named in ReadingRoom as one of the best 10 illustrated books published in 2020.