Charlie Laborde, Tomboy-Poet of Kate Chopin’s “Charlie”(1900)
By Francis Booth | On January 17, 2021 | Updated March 1, 2021 | Comments (0)
One of Kate Chopin’s most interesting heroines is the tomboyish teen Charlie Laborde of the eponymous short story “Charlie” (1900). This fascinating musing on this little-known character is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in mid-20th Century Women’s Fiction by Francis Booth, reprinted with permission:
Girls in coming of age novels often keep diaries: it is a very good device for an author to let us in on the girl’s feelings, and in this case for the author to enjoy herself playing with ideas of fiction, style and truth.
The authors themselves had in many cases kept diaries as a teenager: as a fourteen-year-old, Louisa May Alcott wrote in hers: ‘I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens, and no more a child. I have not told anyone about my plan; but I’m going to be good.’
New Orleans-based novelist and short-story writer Kate Chopin (1859-1904) also kept a diary throughout her childhood and adolescence. ‘You are the only one, my book, with whom I take the liberty of talking about myself.’
Something of a tomboy herself when she was younger, Chopin resented the social life of the debutante that she was forced into. At the age of eighteen she wrote in her diary:
‘What a nuisance all this is – I wish it were over. I write in my book for the first time in months; parties, operas, concerts, skating and amusements ad infinitum have so taken up my time that my dear reading and writing that I love so well have suffered much neglect.’
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Chopin’s work was in its day considered immoral and dangerous: she was almost a proto-feminist and anti-racist; something of a literary godmother to later Southern women writers, especially Catholics like Flannery O’Connor.
Chopin’s late novella The Awakening, 1899, is indeed about the awakening – sexual and emotional – of its married protagonist, Edna Pontellier, who, dissatisfied with her marriage, finds freedom and falls in love with another man, Robert. They do everything together except sleep with each other, including going swimming, which Edna regards as the height of freedom.
To avoid consummating their relationship, he moves away and Edna leaves her husband and sets herself up in her own house, a free woman. She has an affair with the town Lothario, though it is purely physical for her. Robert refuses to live with her and, free but alone she swims off into the sea, perhaps never to be seen again.
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Read “Charlie” in full
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Introducing Charlie Laborde
With her gender-neutral name, her masculine interests and her many sisters, Chopin’s Charlie Laborde is in many respects Jo March’s immediate successor (Charlie was written in 1900 but remained unpublished until 1969; it is still only available in print in Chopin’s collected works). And in her fondness for and friendliness with the black servants on her father’s estate in New Orleans, she is a precursor to Carson McCullers’ Frankie Addams of A Member of the Wedding.
And, like many of her successors, she loves her father above anyone else in the world. In turn, her father is proud of her, in her role as his only – substitute – son. ‘Charlie could ride and shoot and fish; she was untiring and fearless. In many ways she filled the place of that ideal son he had always hoped for and that had never come.’
In the space of this short story/novella, Charlie, who is seventeen at the beginning, does come of age, moving from tomboy to lady to mistress of her father’s estate. We first see her, late for the school lesson at which all her sisters are already present, ‘galloping along the green levee summit on a big black horse, as if pursued by demons.’
She is ‘robust and pretty well grown for her age,’ with short hair and wearing ‘a costume of her own devising, something between bloomers and a divided skirt which she called her “trouserlets.”
Canvas leggings, dusty boots and a single spur completed her costume.’ Charlie does not do well at her lessons and does not even understand the need for them; like many tomboys she does not want her free thinking and creativity to be squashed into the metaphorical corsets of academic study any more than she wants her body squashed into the actual corsets of a fine lady.
‘What was the use of learning tasks one week only to forget them the next? What was the use of hammering a lot of dates and figures into her head beclouding her intelligence and imagination?’
A rough and tumble poet
Unusually for a tomboy, though quite normally for the heroine of a coming of age novel, Charlie writes poetry.
‘She was greatly celebrated for two notable achievements in her life. One was the writing of a lengthy ode upon the occasion of her Grandmother’s seventieth birthday; but she was perhaps more distinguished for having once saved the levee during a time of perilous overflow when her father was away.’
Nevertheless, Charlie is considered to have many shortcomings and ‘never seemed to do anything that anyone except her father approved of. Yet she was popularly described as not having a mean bone in her body.’
Charlie seems more at ease in the shacks of the black plantation workers and their families than in her own home. ‘Charlie seemed not to have many ideas above corn bread and molasses herself when she sat down to dine with the Bichous. She shared the children’s couche couché in the homely little yellow bowl like the rest of them.’
Charlie likes to tell the children tall tales of how she goes into the woods killing tigers and bears and a story about a magic ring which, when she turns it three times and repeats a Latin verse enables her to disappear.
She takes one of the children out shooting with her, although her father does not approve of her taking out the gun. She accidentally shoots a stranger coming to the estate, though he is not seriously wounded and takes it in good part. Nevertheless, it is decided that Charlie has gone too far this time and has to be sent away to school.
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Literary Tomboys in Classic Coming-of-Age Novels by Women Authors
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Time to act like a young lady
Surprisingly, Charlie very quickly begins to act and dress like a young lady; the diamond ring that had belonged to her late mother becomes not just a memento but ‘an adornment,’ and other items of family jewelry which previously only had sentimental associations become objects to help ‘proclaim the gentle quality of sex.’
Charlie grows her hair and wants ‘lace and embroideries upon her garments; and she longed to be deck herself with ribbons and passementeries which the shops displayed in such tempting array.’ When she enters the Seminary, ‘no fault could have been found with her appearance which was in every way consistent with that of a well-mannered girl of seventeen.’ She is determined to ‘transform herself from a hoyden to a fascinating young lady, if persistence and hard work could do it.’
Charlie takes up poetry again, with great success. ‘Equipped with a very fine pen point and the filmiest sheet filmy writing paper, Charlie wrote some lines of poetry in the smallest possible cramped hand.’ Soon afterwards she wins a competition to write an address to the founder of the Seminary.
Coming of age
All goes well until her father nearly dies in an accident back at their estate, Les Palmiers, and Charlie goes home. While there she and her other sisters gets a letter from their eldest sister saying she is to marry the man whom Charlie shot, and for whom Charlie herself had had feelings and aspirations.
Charlie is appalled, and briefly reverts to her hoydenish ways, riding wildly off on her horse like did when she was younger; it is as if the devil had taken hold of her, according to one of the black estate workers. But this ride is cathartic.
In her mad ride Charlie had thrown off the savage impulse which had betrayed itself in such bitter denunciation of her sister. Shame and regret had followed and now she was steeped in humiliation such as she had never felt before. She did not feel worthy to approach a her father or her sisters. The girlish infatuation which had blinded her was swept away in the torrents of a deeper emotion, and left her a woman.
Charlie literally comes of age. In the end, she seems to resign herself to the attentions of Mr Gus, a very shy family friend and neighbor who helps out on the estate while the father is ill and who has always had feelings for Charlie.
There is no telling what would have become of Les Palmiers that summer if it had not been for Charlie and Mister Gus. It was precisely a year since Charlie had been hustled away to the boarding school in a state of semi-disgrace. Now, with all the dignity and grace which the term implied, she was mistress of Les Palmiers.
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Note: Though “Charlie” is in the public domain, as are all of Chopin’s works, it’s generally not available online. Though it was written April, 1900, it was only first published only in 1969, in The Complete Works of Kate Chopin, edited by Per Seyersted (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press). For some reason, Chopin didn’t persist in placing the story after an initial rejection by a magazine editor. Lots more about “Charlie” by Kate Chopin at KateChopin.org.
More literary tomboys to explore in Girls in Bloom
- Peggy Vaughan (A Terrible Tomboy by Angela Brazil, 1904)
- Irene Ashleigh (A Modern Tomboy: A Story for Girls by LT Meade, 1913)
- Petrova Fossil (Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, 1932)
- George Fayne (The Secret of Red Gate Farm by ‘Caroline Keene’, 1931)
- George Kirrin (Five On a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton, 1942)
- Mick Kelly (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, 1940)
- Frankie Addams (The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, 1946)
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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