Reconsidering the Awakening: The Literary Sisterhood of Kate Chopin and George Egerton

Article excerpt

A REVIEW OF KATE CHOPIN'S The Awakening in the Los Angeles Sunday Times in June 1899 found the book "unhealthily introspective and morbid," though it included a highly qualified compliment: "As the biography of one individual out of that large section of femininity which may be classified as 'fool women,' the book is a strong and graceful piece of work" (Culley 152). The reviewer also noted that Chopin's novel "is like one of Aubrey Beardsley's hideous but haunting pictures with their disfiguring leer of sensuality, but yet carrying a distinguishing strength of grace and individuality." Scholars have since briefly mentioned connections between Chopin's novel and the young British illustrator of the 1890s, art editor of the controversial, decadent literary quarterly The Yellow Book (1894-97),1 but further inquiry into Beardsley leads to another woman author with whose fiction Chopin's work shares profound thematic and stylistic similarities. In 1893 Beardsley designed the cover of Keynotes, a controversial volume of stories by "George Egerton,"2 the pen name of Anglo-Irish author Mary Chavelita Dunne, who also published in The Yellow Book.

Egerton's Keynotes became enormously popular, creating a sensation in England and the United States with its fin-de-siecle sensibility, its echoes of Scandinavian realism, and its treatment of the New Woman, a figure who challenged Victorian notions of the angelic, domestic True Woman and was a subject of great debate in both countries in the 1890s. Indeed, the phrase "New Woman" originally appeared in an essay that British novelist Sarah Grand published in the North American Review in 1894.3 This term was rapidly incorporated into ongoing discussions of the Woman Question on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was applied to several works of fiction published in England in the last decade of the nineteenth century by authors such as Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird, Mary Cholmondeley, and Sarah Grand, along with Egerton.1

It is likely that Kate Chopin, who read the work of her American and British contemporaries, subscribed to The Yellow Book, and even attempted to publish one of her stories in that periodical, was aware of and influenced, if unconsciously, by Egerton's work.5 Chopin dryly notes in an 1894 diary entry "the present craze for the hysterical morbid and false pictures of life which certain English women have brought into vogue" in fiction (Seyersted and Toth 91), apparently referring to the New Woman novelists, whose fiction was often described in such terms,6 and ironically anticipating the very criticisms The Awakening would receive five years later. However, Chopin does not identify the authors to whom she refers in this diary entry, and Egerton's pen name ostensibly hid her sex from the reading public. Another diary entry by Chopin, commenting on Sarah Grand's Social Purity-themed novel The Heavenly Twins (1894), further suggests her familiarity with British New Woman fiction in the early and mid-1890s. Though Chopin's description of the "hysterical morbid and false pictures of life" presented by New Woman authors suggests that she did not especially admire their work, her own fiction nonetheless powerfully echoes theirs in subject and theme, the stories of Egerton in particular.

Even if Egerton's work cannot be definitively proven as a direct influence on Chopin's, their striking thematic and stylistic consonances can be theorized though similarities in their personal lives, the intellectual and aesthetic influences upon them, and the historical and cultural contexts in which they wrote. These congruities between Chopin and Egerton contribute to remarkable similarities in their fiction and suggest that The Awakening should be read in the broader context of the contemporaneous New Woman fiction movement in England. Indeed, Chopin's fiction has previously been discussed in relation to the New Woman only in the context of other American writers, and while her interest in or thematic link with some European authors has been noted,7 critics have not yet explored affinities between her work and the British New Woman fiction movement of the 1890s, with whom Egerton is often associated. …