In honor of Mothers Day, here are rich stories about mothers and the theme of letters sent. In both “Désirée’s Baby” and “Roman Fever,” a mother (or soon-to-be mother) sends an epistle which will change the course of events of the characters’ lives.
“Désirée’s Baby” by Kate Chopin
The author Kate Chopin, often compared to Guy De Maupassant,
set her short stories in in the bayous and backwaters of New Orleans—a lush Creole world surrounded by Louisiana plantations prior to the American Civil War when slavery was still “lawful,”
Chopin boldly and intentionally inventories the differences among the mixed inhabitants:
negro, dark, yellow, quadroon, fair, La Blanche, white . . .
. . .what effect does color have when a mother gives birth in old NOLA?
Here is “Désirée’s Baby,” a slight and deceptively simple story by Kate Chopin, published in 1893. Let us know your thoughts.
You can read it here.
La Blanche –“the white one”
quadroon –a person of ¼ African-American descent
creole –a descendent of original French settlers in Louisiana; the term comes from the Spanish word criollo, meaning “a child of the colony
high yellow– a term for very light-skinned persons of African-American descent. It is a reference to the golden yellow skin tone of some mixed-race people. The term was in common use in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.
miscegenation: Interbreeding between members of different races; marriage or cohabitation between members of different races, especially in the U.S., between a black person and a white person.
A bit about Kate Chopin . . .
Kate Chopin’s biography:
Chopin was born Katherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis into a prosperous Irish-American family and her upbringing, with its convent schools and debutante balls, was conventional for a young woman growing up in the post-civil war period. At nineteen she married Oscar Chopin, a cotton broker from New Orleans. After her husband experienced setbacks in business, she lived with him on a plantation near Natchitoches (pronounced “Nackatish”) , an area that provides the setting of the stories later collected in Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). From her experiences there she absorbed a rich mixture of stories and dialects from the intermingled French and black cultures.
After her husband’s death in 1883, Chopin returned to St. Louis with her six children and began her literary career, soon placing stories and regional sketches in popular magazines such as Vogue. Much of her later work is remarkable for its frank depiction of woman’s sexuality, a subject rarely broached in the literature of the era, and Chopin became the subject of controversy after the appearance of The Awakening. The negative reception of that work caused Chopin to suffer both professional and social ostracism; her work was removed from libraries and Chopin was obliged to drop her membership in several St. Louis clubs. The scandal surrounding The Awakening effectively ended her active career as a writer, and she published little until her death five years later.
For more on Racial Distinctions:
The Strange History of the American Quadroon by Emily Clark pertains more to the Revolutionary War era but the information on Quadroon culture is worthwhile.
For more on Kate Chopin:
Works Available Online
“The Story of an Hour” (1894)
“A Pair of Silk Stockings “
“Desiree’s Baby (in collection with other stories)
Desiree’s Baby (this story only)
“Regret,” Century 50 (n.s. 28) (May 1895): 147-49. (Page images at MOA)
“Ozeme’s Holiday,” Century 52 (n.s.30) (Aug. 1896): 629-31 (Page images at MOA)
“I Opened All the Portals Wide” (poem; Century 58 (July 1899): 361-362 (Page images at MOA)
“Tante Cat’rinette” Atlantic 74 (September 1894): 368-373. (Page images at MOA)
- Illustrated HTML at Virginia
- The Awakening, and Selected Short Stories (plain text from Project Gutenberg)
Bayou Folk (1894) at the University of North Carolina includes the following stories:
A Night in Acadie (1897) at the University of North Carolina contains the following stories:
- A NIGHT IN ACADIE
- AFTER THE WINTER
- A MATTER OF PREJUDICE
- A DRESDEN LADY IN DIXIE
- NÉG CRÉOL
- (Atlantic, July 1897; page images at MOA)
- THE LILIES
- (Century 49 [Dec. 1894]; page images at MOA)
- A SENTIMENTAL SOUL
- DEAD MEN’S SHOES
- AT CHENIÈRE CAMINADA
- ODALIE MISSES MASS
- TANTE CAT’RINETTE
- “Tante Cat’rinette” Atlantic 74 (September 1894): 368-373. (Page images at MOA)
- RIPE FIGS
- OZÈME’S HOLIDAY
“Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton
The author Edith Wharton adeptly depicts the seething emotions under the starched and corseted members of her society which inevitably surface.
Wharton portrays families such as the Astors and the Vanderbilts at the height of the social ladder; there are also the ‘arrivistes’ who come from old names and old money, earning their fortunes more recently; often richer than the aristocrats.
They entertained themselves by going to the theater and opera, by attending lunches and house parties, and by traveling abroad . . .
Sometimes it’s when travelling abroad that the true passions of the aristocracy are finally exposed.
And it’s while traveling abroad that we are first introduced to two mothers: Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley:
The two women simply dine together on the terrace of a restaurant in Rome. What could possibly be revealed on such a lovely day?
Here is “Roman Fever” by Edith Wharton.
A bit about Edith Wharton . . .
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born into a tightly controlled society at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage. Wharton broke through these strictures to become one of America’s greatest writers. Author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. She was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University, and a full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.¹
For information on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home:
Edith Wharton at Home: Life at The Mount by Richard Guy Wilson (2012)
My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann edited by Irene Goldman-Price (2012)
- The Valley of Decision, 1902
- The House of Mirth, 1905
- The Fruit of the Tree, 1907
- The Reef, 1912
- The Custom of the Country, 1913
- Summer, 1917
- The Marne, 1918
- The Age of Innocence, 1920 (Pulitzer Prize winner)
- The Glimpses of the Moon, 1922
- A Son at the Front, 1923
- The Mother’s Recompense, 1925
- Twilight Sleep, 1927
- The Children, 1928
- Hudson River Bracketed, 1929
- The Gods Arrive, 1932
- The Buccaneers, 1938 (unfinished)
Novellas and novelette
- The Touchstone, 1900
- Sanctuary, 1903
- Madame de Treymes, 1907
- Ethan Frome, 1911
- Bunner Sisters, 1916
- Old New York, 1924
1. False Dawn; 2. The Old Maid; 3. The Spark; 4. New Year’s Day
- Fast and Loose: A Novelette, 1938 (written in 1876–1877)
- The Greater Inclination, 1899, includes Souls Belated.
- Crucial Instances, 1901
- The Descent of Man and Other Stories, 1904
- The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories, 1908
- Tales of Men and Ghosts, 1910
- Xingu and Other Stories, 1916
- Old New York, 1924
- Here and Beyond, 1926
- Certain People, 1930
- Human Nature, 1933
- The World Over, 1936
- Ghosts, 1937
- Roman Fever and Other Stories, 1964
- Madame de Treymes and Others: Four Novelettes, 1970
- The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton, 1973
- The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, 2007
- The Decoration of Houses, 1897
- Italian Villas and Their Gardens, 1904
- Italian Backgrounds, 1905
- A Motor-Flight Through France, 1908 (travel)
- Fighting France, from Dunkerque to Belfort, 1915 (war)
- French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919
- In Morocco, 1920 (travel)
- The Writing of Fiction, 1925 (essays on writing)
- A Backward Glance, 1934 (autobiography)
- Edith Wharton: The Uncollected Critical Writings, Edited by Frederick Wegener, 1996
- Edith Wharton Abroad: Selected Travel Writings, 1888–1920, 1995, Edited by Sarah Bird Wright
- The Book of the Homeless, 1916
Bonus material: A letter from Bette Davis to her daughter:
To round out our week on the theme of mothers, letters written, and regrets, here’s one from Hollywood icon Bette Davis to her daughter.
The actress Bette Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1983. After surgery she experienced a number of strokes which left her partially paralyzed. Then, in 1985, her daughter, Barbara, published a controversial book, titled My Mother’s Keeper, that exposed their rumored troubled relationship and painted Davis in a terrible light. Two years later, Bette Davis published her own memoirs—at the very end was this letter to her daughter:
You ended your book with a letter to me. I have decided to do the same.
There is no doubt you have a great potential as a writer of fiction. You have always been a great storyteller. I have often, lo these many years, said to you, “B.D., that is not the way it was. You are imagining things.”
Many of the scenes in your book I have played on the screen. It could be you have confused the “me” on the screen with “me” who is your mother.
I have violent objections to your quotes of mine regarding actors I have worked with. For the most part, you have cruelly misquoted me. Ustinov I was thrilled to work with and I have great admiration of him as a person and as an actor. You have stated correctly my reactions to working with Faye Dunaway. She was a most exasperating co-star. But to quote me as having said Sir Laurence Olivier was not a good actor is most certainly one of the figments of your imagination. Few actors have ever reached the towering heights of his performances.
You constantly inform people that you wrote this book to help me understand you and your way of life better. Your goal was not reached. I am now utterly confused as to who you are or what your way of life is.
The sum total of your having written this book is a glaring lack of loyalty and thanks for the very privileged life I feel you have been given.
In one of your many interviews while publicizing your book, you said if you sell your book to TV you feel Glenda Jackson should play me. I would hope you would be courteous enough to ask me to play myself.
I have much to quarrel about in your book. I choose to ignore most of it. But not the pathetic creature you claim I have been because of the fact that I did not play Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind.” I could have, but turned it down. Mr. Selznick attempted to get permission from my boss, Jack Warner, to borrow Errol Flynn and Bette Davis to play Rhett Butler and Scarlett. I refused because I felt Errol was not good casting for Rhett. At that time only Clark Gable was right. Therefore, dear Hyman, send me not back to Tara, rather send me back to Witch Way, our home on the beautiful coast of Maine where once lived a beautiful human being by the name of B.D., not Hyman.
As you ended your letter in “My Mother’s Keeper” — it’s up to you now, Ruth Elizabeth — I am ending my letter to you the same way: It’s up to you now, Hyman.
P.S. I hope someday I will understand the title “My Mother’s Keeper.” If it refers to money, if my memory serves me right, I’ve been your keeper all these many years. I am continuing to do so, as my name has made your book about me a success.²
¹Information from the official website for The Mount, Wharton’s home.
²Letter seen in Letters of Note by Shawn Usher (Public Library)Chronicle Books (May 6, 2014).