Category Archives: Wharton in the News

NY Times: Unknown Edith Wharton Play Surfaces

Unknown Edith Wharton Play Surfaces

In 2009, a cache of letters from the young Edith Wharton to her governess caused a stir when they turned up at auction. Now, an archive in Texas has yielded another startling Wharton discovery: an entirely unknown play.

“The Shadow of a Doubt,” Wharton’s only known finished play and the first full work by her to surface in 25 years, was set to be staged in New York in early 1901, before the production was abandoned for unknown reasons and forgotten. It survived in two typescripts held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, where it was discovered by Laura Rattray of the University of Glasgow and Mary Chinery of Georgian Court University in New Jersey. Ms. Rattray and Ms. Chinery unveiled their discovery in the recent issue of The Edith Wharton Review.

The three-act play, about a nurse who marries a wealthy man, went unmentioned in Wharton’s 1934 memoir, “A Backward Glance,” as well as in the major biographies of her. The two researchers tracked it down after noticing a cryptic reference to its title in a 1901 letter.

“Well before the publication of her first novel, we can now ascertain that Wharton was establishing herself as a playwright, deeply engaged in both the creative and business aspects of the theater,” Ms. Rattray said in a news release.

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Smithsonian: Scholars Rediscover Forgotten Edith Wharton Play

“The Shadow of a Doubt” had been overshadowed by over 100 years of history


Before Edith Wharton was a novelist, she tried her hand at playwriting. But whatever happened to her little-known play, “The Shadow of a Doubt”? It almost disappeared without leaving a shadow at all—the play spent over a century hiding in plain sight. Now, The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead reports, it’s finally been published thanks to two Wharton scholars.

“The Shadow of a Doubt” has a sad history. The play, which was produced in 1901 (before Wharton had even published her first novel), was never given a theatrical run.

Perhaps understandably, Wharton didn’t even mention it in her own autobiography.​ But she didn’t toss the play, either—it remained in her personal papers, Mead reports. After her death, those documents ended up at multiple research libraries around the United States. One of those libraries is the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin—which saved two typescripts of the play in a larger collection of scripts and promptbooks of authors like Lillian Hellman and Jean Cocteau.

Now, the first typescript has been published by Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery in the Edith Wharton Review. The scholars tracked it down after finding an obscure reference the play in a newspaper. The play, write Rattray and Chinery, is the only original, full-length Wharton play that exists.

The story follows a nurse named Kate Derwent whose marriage runs into trouble when her husband learns that she helped his injured first wife die. The consequences of Derwent’s actions not only threaten her social standing—they threaten a once loving relationship when her husband refused to believe that she acted out of pity instead of malice. The play’s dramatic ending is pure Wharton, whose heroine chooses defiant loneliness rather than the love of an unworthy man.

Wharton wrote about euthanasia again in her 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree, in which a similar ethical dilemma serves as a major plot point. As Mead notes, the play shows that Wharton grappled with questions of assisted suicide and romantic autonomy long before her first novels were written.

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The Guardian: Unseen Edith Wharton play found hidden in Texas archive

Unseen Edith Wharton play found hidden in Texas archive

Two scholars unearth 1901 work called The Shadow of a Doubt, written before author found fame with The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton was establishing herself as a playwright before becoming a novelist. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Long before achieving literary fame with The Age of Innocence, the novelist Edith Wharton wrote a number of plays that never made it to the stage.

Two scholars have discovered one of them, a previously unknown work dating back to 1901, among a bunch of papers in an archive in Austin, Texas.

About 80 years after Wharton’s death, researchers have found a play titled The Shadow of a Doubt in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Dr Laura Rattray and Prof Mary Chinery, from Glasgow University and Georgian Court University respectively, found two typescript copies of the play and have also established that it was in production by early 1901 with theatre producer Charles Frohman and Elsie de Wolfe in the leading role.

“The archives in the United States and Europe with huge holdings on this most transatlantic of authors have been extensively researched,” Rattray said. “After all this time, nobody thought there were long, full scale, completed, original, professional works by Wharton still out there that we didn’t know about. But evidently there are. In 2017, Edith Wharton continues to surprise.”

Title page of Edith Wharton’s typescript draft of The Shadow of a Doubt, 1901.
Title page of Edith Wharton’s typescript draft of The Shadow of a Doubt, 1901. Photograph: Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

Set in England, The Shadow of a Doubt centres on the character Kate Derwent, a former nurse married to a gentleman.

Opening on a scene of social privilege and affluence studded with sharp one-liners, the play takes a dark and controversial turn into a world of extortion, mistrust, deception and assisted dying.

Glasgow University said the discovery had generated excitement among scholars. Before Chinery came across an old news item about the 1901 production and its eventual postponement, Wharton scholars past and present had no knowledge of the play.

Character list for Edith Wharton’s typescript draft
Character list for Edith Wharton’s typescript draft

It is not referenced in major Wharton biographies, and other plays are all unfinished manuscripts and typescripts held in the archives at Yale University.

Rattray said: “The late 19th and early years of the 20th century cover a pivotal, formative period of Wharton’s career, about which scholars still have less information than they would like.

“Well before the publication of her first novel, we can now ascertain that Wharton was establishing herself as a playwright, deeply engaged in both the creative and business aspects of the theatre – playwriting more important to her at this time than establishing herself as a novelist.

“Yet the discovery of The Shadow of a Doubt also develops new thinking and proves of profound influence on our understanding of Wharton’s work as a novelist.”

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New Edith Wharton play discovered by Laura Rattray and Mary Chinery


In February of 1901, Walter Berry, a lawyer and member of élite society in New York, expressed a regret in a letter written to his close friend Edith Wharton. “How I do wish I could run on to see the first rehearsal of the Shadow,” he wrote.

At the time, Wharton, who was thirty-nine years old, was not yet a novelist, having only published shorter fiction and poetry, as well as co-authoring, with Ogden Codman, “The Decoration of Houses,” an 1897 book about interior design. But she was a budding playwright, and, as two scholars have just deduced in an important bit of detective work, Berry’s glancing reference was to one of her works: “The Shadow of a Doubt,” a three-act play that was in production in 1901. It was to star Elsie de Wolfe as Wharton’s heroine, Kate Derwent, a former nurse married to John Derwent, a gentleman above her social station. Kate’s role in assisting the suicide of her husband’s former wife, Agnes, whom she tended to after an injury, is revealed in the course of the drama.

The production was cancelled, however, and the work slipped into obscurity. It is not mentioned by any of Wharton’s biographers, nor does Wharton mention it in her own memoir, “A Backward Glance,” in which, perhaps understandably, she skates over her brief and not especially successful career as a writer for the stage. (In the first years of the century, she had written a handful of plays, but “The Shadow of a Doubt” would have been her first professional production, had it materialized. Later, she collaborated on an adaptation of “The House of Mirth,” which proved less successful than hoped.)

Wharton in the News: Edith Wharton, Ruth Draper, and Henry James

john-singer-sargent-portrait-of-ruth-draperFrom The New Yorker, on the well-known performer and monologuist Ruth Draper. 

Over lunch, a little later, Mulcahy took out her phone and played one of her favorite discoveries so far: a brief interview with Draper on a BBC program about Henry James, whom she had known. (James’s father was a friend of Draper’s grandfather, and James once wrote a stilted, highly Jamesian monologue for her, which she never performed.) Draper recounts a walk she took with James at a house party, also attended by Edith Wharton, shortly before he died. She describes his “rather ponderous manner of speaking” and various odd motions he made with his right hand as he spoke—exactly the sort of close observations, Mulcahy said, that underlay all her performances. Draper, in the interview, then says that she had once asked James whether he thought she ought to pursue a career as a conventional actress, perhaps by attending drama school. “He took a long while to answer,” she recalls. Then she lowers her voice: “ ‘No—my dear child. You—you have woven—you have woven your own—you have woven your own beautiful—beautiful little—Persian carpet. Stand on it.’ ” 

Does this remind you of James’s advice to Wharton to “Do New York”?

Edith Wharton in the News: Week of December 2, 2016

From Antiques and the Arts,

William Merritt Chase


In 1891, Chase established a studio in Shinnecock, Long Island, N.Y., and founded a summer art school there. This scene of his family poring over a portfolio of Japanese prints shows how work and play intertwined for the artist. “Hall at Shinnecock,” 1892. Pastel on canvas. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

By Jessica Skwire Routhier

BOSTON, MASS. — William Merritt Chase is remembered today not only as one of the great artists of his generation, but also as a gifted and engaging teacher, inspiring a generation of artists who would go on to establish America as an epicenter of Modernism in the Twentieth Century. As such, he is an essential bridge between that Modern era and the time when American art was still in its infancy. His career also encompasses a time of great change in American culture, best seen in his elegantly rendered, intellectually challenging and attention-getting portraits of women. Such portraits are a highlight of “William Merritt Chase,” organized by the Phillips Collection, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia and the Terra Foundation for American Art, and on view at the MFA through January 16.

In Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth, published while Chase was in the autumn of his career, a pivotal scene has the heroine, Lily Bart, participating in a tableau vivant. The term refers to a popular pastime of the turn of the century, in which participants posed in elaborate costumes and settings as living recreations of famous works of art. Lily, whose social standing is in jeopardy but whose beauty remains unrivaled, recreates a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, and Wharton’s elegant prose draws the reader into unguarded admiration. The scene is swathed in poetry and romance until its denouement, when Wharton’s omniscient narrator reveals the ugly way in which certain men in the audience have chosen to view her performance.

William Merritt Chase was also fond of tableaux vivants. In “Old Masters Meet New Women,” her insightful essay for the exhibition catalog, MFA curator Erica E. Hirshler writes that Chase used his studios in New York City and Long Island, N.Y., to stage recreations of paintings by the Old Masters he revered. As a rule, he did not literally depict such entertainments in his paintings and pastels, but a sense of theatricality is nevertheless strong throughout his body of work. His famed 10th Street Studio in New York City was a particularly theatrical place, a frequent setting for his painted portraits and interiors. Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theater, who provides commentary for the MFA’s mobile guide, notes that Chase’s interiors are arranged like stage sets in order to highlight particular passages or moments of action.

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From the New York Times Book Review:

Consider, for example, the Dows clan of OUR TIME AT FOXHOLLOW FARM: A Hudson Valley Family Remembered (Excelsior/State University of New York, $50) and the 800-acre Rhinebeck estate they intended to be “a sort of Mount Vernon on the Hudson.” The patriarch, Tracy Dows, was an avid amateur photographer, and David Byars’s book is based on the 26 private albums, dating from 1903 to the 1930s, that Dows’s daughter donated to Hudson River Heritage. There are plenty of views of the pillared mansion and its outbuildings (including the guesthouse where Thomas Wolfe wrote “Look Homeward, Angel”) as well as the elaborate spreads of pals like the Astors, who had a vaulted, Corinthian-columned indoor swimming pool, and the Dinsmores, whose guests could play golf on their nine-hole course. The text is filled with the era’s boldface names — Edith Wharton, Charles Dana Gibson, the Olmsted brothers, Alice Roosevelt Longworth — and the family’s travels took them to the era’s favorite high-end locales: the “cottages” of Newport; the exclusive resorts of Hot Springs, Va., and Jekyll Island, Ga.; the Beatrix-Farrand-designed gardens of Seal Harbor, Me. But in between the lines of the captions are stories waiting to be told.

Wyndcliffe, home of EW’s aunt Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones (of “keeping up with the Joneses”), for sale


From Atlas Obscura:

Wyndclyffe, a mansion in Rhinebeck, New York, which is about 100 miles north of New York City, has been in bad shape for decades, ever since it was abandoned in the 1950s after a series of owners couldn’t afford to maintain it.

Owing to its size, it’s not hard to see why: 24 rooms on 80 acres, a pre-Civil War manor house that preceded the Gilded Age, when many such mansions were routinely built, that later fell into disrepair.

But Wyndclyffe (also spelled Wyndcliffe) has a more colorful history than most. The American novelist Edith Wharton spent time there as a child, for one thing, and it’s also is believed to have inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” after its original owner, Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, a New York socialite.

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Image below and another article available at the Wall Street Journal: