Fiction Friday: Madame Celestin’s Divorce
Welcome to Fiction Friday. Mardi Gras may be over, but we aren’t yet finished with Louisiana. I thought you might enjoy this short story, written by author Kate Chopin in 1894 in a work entitled Bayou Folk. I’ll post it in two parts with the conclusion next Friday.
Kate Chopin, born Kate O’Flaherty, grew up in St. Louis during the Civil War and in 1870, she married Oscar Chopin, son of a wealthy cotton-growing family. By all accounts the marriage was happy, and resulted in five sons and two daughters before Kate turned 28. They lived in New Orleans, but later returned to rural Louisiana where her husband succumbed to swamp fever.
After a move back to St. Louis, Kate began to write to support her family, choosing stories of people like she had known in Louisiana. Her most famous novel, The Awakening, was based on an infamous woman from the New Orleans French Quarter. Sadly the novel created such a furor that she wrote only a few works after it. She was an independent woman with independent ideas, and she lived in a time when that was unacceptable. She died at the age of 54, but Kate Chopin’s wonderful works live on.
Enjoy this excerpt of Madame Celestin’s Divorce from Bayou Folk and watch for the conclusion next week.
MADAME CÉLESTIN always wore a neat and snugly fitting calico wrapper when she went out in the morning to sweep her small gallery. Lawyer Paxton thought she looked very pretty in the gray one that was made with a graceful Watteau fold at the back: and with which she invariably wore a bow of pink ribbon at the throat. She was always sweeping her gallery when lawyer Paxton passed by in the morning on his way to his office in St. Denis Street.
Sometimes he stopped and leaned over the fence to say good-morning at his ease; to criticise or admire her rosebushes; or, when he had time enough, to hear what she had to say. Madame Célestin usually had a good deal to say. She would gather up the train of her calico wrapper in one hand, and balancing the broom gracefully in the other, would go tripping down to where the lawyer leaned, as comfortably as he could, over her picket fence.
Of course she had talked to him of her troubles. Every one knew Madame Célestin’s troubles.
“Really, madame,” he told her once, in his deliberate, calculating, lawyer-tone, “it ‘s more than human nature – woman’s nature – should be called upon to endure. Here you are, working your fingers off” – she glanced down at two rosy finger-tips that showed through the rents in her baggy doeskin gloves – “taking in sewing; giving music lessons; doing God knows what in the way of manual labor to support yourself and those two little ones” – Madame Célestin’s pretty face beamed with satisfaction at this enumeration of her trials.
“You right, Judge. Not a picayune, not one, not one, have I lay my eyes on in the pas’ fo’ months that I can say Célestin give it to me or sen’ it to me.”
“The scoundrel!” muttered lawyer Paxton in his beard.
“An’ pourtant,” she resumed, “they say he ‘s making money down roun’ Alexandria w’en he wants to work.”
“I dare say you have n’t seen him for months?” suggested the lawyer.
“It ‘s good six month’ since I see a sight of Célestin,” she admitted.
“That ‘s it, that ‘s what I say; he has practically deserted you; fails to support you. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that he has ill treated you.”
“Well, you know, Judge,” with an evasive cough, “a man that drinks – w’at can you expec’? An’ if you would know the promises he has made me! Ah, if I had as many dolla’ as I had promise from Célestin, I would n’ have to work, je vous garantis.”
“And in my opinion, madame, you would be a foolish woman to endure it longer, when the divorce court is there to offer you redress.”
“You spoke about that befo’, Judge; I ‘m goin’ think about that divo’ce. I believe you right.”
Madame Célestin thought about the divorce and talked about it, too; and lawyer Paxton grew deeply interested in the theme.
“You know, about that divo’ce, Judge,” Madame Célestin was waiting for him that morning, “I been talking to my family an’ my frien’s, an’ it ‘s me that tells you, they all plumb agains’ that divo’ce.”
“Certainly to be sure; that ‘s to be expected, madame, in this community of Creoles. I warned you that you would meet with opposition, and would have to face it and brave it.”
“Oh, don’t fear, I ‘m going to face it! Maman says it ‘s a disgrace like it ‘s neva been in the family. But it ‘s good for Maman to talk, her. W’at trouble she ever had? She says I mus’ go by all means consult with Père Duchéron – it ‘s my confessor, you undastan’ – Well, I ‘ll go, Judge, to please Maman. But all the confessor’ in the worl’ ent goin’ make me put up with that conduc’ of Célestin any longa.”
A day or two later, she was there waiting for him again. “You know, Judge, about that divo’ce.”
“Yes, yes,” responded the lawyer, well pleased to trace a new determination in her brown eyes and in the curves of her pretty mouth. “I suppose you saw Père Duchéron and had to brave it out with him, too.”
“Oh, fo’ that, a perfec’ sermon, I assho you. A talk of giving scandal an’ bad example that I thought would neva en’! He says, fo’ him, he wash’ his hands; I mus’ go see the bishop.”
“You won’t let the bishop dissuade you, I trust,” stammered the lawyer more anxiously than he could well understand
“You don’t know me yet, Judge,” laughed Madame Célestin with a turn of the head and a flirt of the broom which indicated that the interview was at an end.
***While this story is now in public domain I found it here, at the Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hil
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