Murder on her Mind: Did Edith Wharton write about Lizzie Borden? (part 2 of 3)

wharton1930s

An older Edith Wharton, writing–could it be about Lizzie Borden?

Wharton obviously felt a connection to writing about the Lizzie Borden case.

At the time she wrote to Minnie Jones about her story “Confession” in March 1935, it had not yet been published. As mentioned in the previous post, it appeared in Storyteller 58 (March 1936): 64-85 under the title “Unconfessed Crime.”

But  Wharton was already “contemplating a play on the same subject, but I felt that it was more than likely that it had already been used” (Letters 584). In fact, she “became so absorbed in writing the first act of the Lizzie Borden play that I am not sorry to have done it.”

Wharton called the play “Kate Spain,” and it was never completed or published during her lifetime. It exists in the archives of the Beinecke Library’s YCAL MSS 42 Edith Wharton Collection, Box 20.

For those who can’t travel to New Haven, it fortunately also appears in a more accessible spot, Laura Rattray’s valuable collection Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton, Vol. 1: Plays (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009), pp. 137-158.

You can find a copy in a library near you in WorldCat by putting in your zip code at the link.

The play version takes place partly in “Cayuga (or some big town in the north part of the state of N.Y.)”–upstate, in other words. Wharton had no use for upstate New York; in “The Other Two,” Alice Varick Waythorn is “unearthed” from “somewhere  . . .  Pittsburg or Utica” (Lewis, Collected Stories 1: 381)Wharton, or her character Waythorn, obviously had only the haziest conception of upstate New York, a common affliction, and if she meant “Pittsburgh,” even less of a conception of  western Pennsylvania.

It’s as though she waved a graceful hand in a mildly northwestern direction from Manhattan and figured “close enough.” The only place she ridicules more thoroughly is  the Midwest. Undine Spragg’s hometown of  “Apex City” in The Custom of the Country doesn’t even exist in a particular state. But as a substitute for Fall River, Massachusetts, the site of the Borden murders, “Cayuga” is perfect: large enough (“big town”) for gossip, wealth, and an entrenched social structure, but alien enough to Wharton’s readers that they wouldn’t be looking for the nuanced social analysis she brought to “Old New York.”

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Lizzie Borden. See Wharton’s description of “Kate Spain” at left. 

Both versions feature a Lizzie Borden-type character and a menacing female companion; both have a mystery at the center. One features overt blackmail. Again, no spoilers, but in the story “Confession,” you never learn what happened. In the play version, you learn whether Lizzie Borden “took an axe” or not.

Here’s a description of the two women, from Rattray’s edition:

“Kate Spain is about thirty-two,” [note: Lizzie’s age at the time of the murders] “rather tall, very thin, with black hair and wide very pale gray eyes. Her mouth is beautiful, but the lips are white, and drawn into lines of misery. When she takes her hat off a grayish lock shows above her temples.”

“Cassie is stout, with a red mottled complexion, thin brown hair, rather prominent bold eyes, and a thick white throat with a crease in it. She carries a basket of provisions on one arm, a cheap vanity-bag on the other<,> and stands looking about her from the threshold.”

The character “Cassie” (though not necessarily her appearance or actions) is based on the Bordens’ housekeeper, Bridget Sullivan, whom the Bordens apparently called “Maggie.” She lived until 1948 (picture at the link). Her trial testimony is here. 

Why didn’t Wharton finish the play?

[To be continued tomorrow.]

 

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