Edith Wharton and V. L. Parrington

Screen Shot 2019-05-29 at 6.35.44 AMIt’s no secret that literary critics are shaped by their era, no matter how much the New Critics tried to pretend that they existed in a realm of Universal Truths about Aesthetic Judgment, so I’m not here to pile on to Vernon Louis Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1930).

Parrington was a giant in his day, and he synthesized and explained what he saw as, well, the main currents, etc.

Parrington died before completing the last volume of Main Currents, which exists as a sequence of lecture notes and previously published essays.  It’s a kind of critical voice–definitively categorizing, full of sweeping pronouncements, and obsessively worried about ethical actions and judgments–that would never get you past the covers of PMLA today. Who but Parrington could sum up Norris’s unfinished Vandover and the Brute  by calling it “a huge and terrible torso”? (332). And he does talk about now-forgotten naturalist authors like Ernest Poole (The Harbor, 1915) and progressivist Winston Churchill (the novelist, not the politician).

Yet the book is unaware of its own (whiteness) blinders: I saw no references to popular African American writers of the era that he covers so conclusively, such as Frances E.W. Harper, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, or Paul Laurence Dunbar. And how can you treat “main currents in American thought” without the insights of W. E. B. DuBois or at least a mention of The Souls of Black Folk?

As I alluded to in a tweet this morning (the one that made me want to write this post) Parrington’s judgments give a window into thoughts of the era but increasingly diverge from our own.

  • “Theodore Dreiser: Chief of American Naturalists.” Okay, there’s a case for that, which for Parrington relies on “sympathy and mercy” and Dreiser’s “vast and terrifying imagination.” (Just try getting away with language like that today at some of our more theory-oriented journals. Can you imagine what Reviewer #2 would have to say? I can, and it’s not pretty.)
  • “Sinclair Lewis: Our Own Diogenes.” Well, sure, if you really like Sinclair Lewis, and I do.
  • A short paragraph on “F. Scott Fitzgerald”: “A bad boy who loves to smash things to show how naughty he is. . . . Precocious, ignorant–a short candle already burnt out” (386). Obviously written before The Great Gatsby, let alone Tender is the Night. 
  • “The Incomparable Mr. Cabell.” I can hear you saying “who?” Like Joseph Hergesheimer, whom Raymond Chandler paired with Cabell as the “fancy boy” writers in contrast to his plainer style, James Branch Cabell was a well-considered writer whose fantastic novels set in Poictesme (link so that you can look up the pronunciation) were considered high art and whose novel Jurgen led to an obscenity case.  When I was writing the “Fiction: 1900 to the 1930s” chapter for American Literary Scholarship in 2000-2008, I read all the yearly criticism on him, and it’s fair to say that he’s much less popular than he was.  Parrington praises him for the “open door of woman-worship” that allows Cabell to “enter his world of deeper realities” (341)

Now here is the head-scratcher for modern readers: lumped under the heading “Certain Other Writers” with Willa Cather, comprising the front and back of two pages (381-384) for both of them, is “Edith Wharton–The Genteel Tradition and the New Plutocracy.”

In other words, Parrington devotes a chapter each to Dreiser, Lewis, Cabell, and Ole Rolvaag , but the front and back of a page each for Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, which for the time was probably about right.

Calling Wharton a “temperamental aristocrat” who was “isolated in America by her native aristocratic tastes” (I see what you did there, V.L.), Parrington approves of House of Mirth (Selden and Trenor are “the aristocrat and the plutocrat” [381]), Ethan Frome (“a dramatization of the ‘narrow house’ theme” [381]), The Custom of the Country (“a study of the social climber” [381]), The Age of Innocence (“an admirable work” [382]), and Old New York (“A return to her best manner” [382]). The rest of her work is “not important.”

Summing up, Parrington says “Mrs. Wharton a finished artist who grasps her material firmly; an intellectual attitude, delighting in irony” (382).

But she is is “Not a thinker like Cabell, whose irony springs from an imagination that contemplates man in his relation to cosmic forces, but an observer whose irony springs from noting the clash between men and social convention. The last of our literary aristocrats of the genteel tradition” (382).

For those keeping score at home, let me sum this up:

Cabell: a thinker, interested in “cosmic forces,” in touch with “deeper realities” through his contemplation of an abstract conception of “woman.”

Wharton: not a thinker but an observer, an “aristocrat” (x3), and–most damning of all–a relic of the genteel tradition.

I said on Twitter that Wharton must have been laughing in four languages at a judgment like this. Wouldn’t her extensive reading in social and biological evolutionary thought qualify her has a “cosmic” thinker? In fact, wouldn’t her status as an actual woman give her a little insight into what makes Cabell so special?

This little exercise in how literary reputations are made is just of many instances, of course, but if Edith Wharton–pictured in 1923 when she received an honorary degree from Yale University, the first woman to be so honored–is laughing, this may be why.

 

Editing devices for collation (a brief list)

Volume Editors have many methods of comparing texts, some of which are text based (relying on typed text) and some of which are image based (relying on photographs or physical volumes). This is a very limited list. If you have other resources, please feel free to add them in the comments.

Volume Editors have many methods of comparing texts, some of which are text based (relying on typed text) and some of which are image based (relying on photographs or physical volumes). If you have other resources, please feel free to add them here.

Different methods, text-based or image-based, will work better depending on what  you’re comparing.

  1. EDITIONS, which will usually be set from different plates and have different typefaces and page numbers (e.g., Scribner’s first edition, Macmillan [British] first edition, and so on), can’t be compared with image-based technology because of the the differences in typefaces and pagination.  What’s on page 31 of the Scribner’s first edition of The House of Mirth will not be similar enough to what’s on page 31 of the Macmillan edition to make a comparison of individual words and letters possible, for the words will not be on the same lines. EDITIONS will need to be typed so that the text can be compared using Juxta or another text-based method.

The image on the left is from page 31 of the first Scribner’s edition of The House of Mirth; the second image is from page 31 of the Macmillan (British) first edition.

  1. PRINTINGS, which will be printed from the same plate as the first edition with the same typeface and page numbers, will differ little in appearance. The same material will be found on p. 3 of the Scribner’s edition, first printing and the Scribner’s edition, 5th printing, and the words will appear on the same line. PRINTINGS can be compared using image-based comparison methods like the Hinman or other image-based technologies. 

Text-based comparisons

Text-based comparisons let you look at the differences between two typed documents. Most of us are already used to doing this in Word, but Juxta Commons is useful for more complex comparisons.

Juxta Commonshttp://juxtacommons.org/  This easy-to-use and free software can compare two screens of text at once and can identify the differences by highlighting them. Juxta looks like this: juxta

To get typed text to compare, you might try these:

    1. Typing the volume into a text editor (like Notepad or Text Wrangler) or into Word.
    2. Using a typed version or the raw OCR (Optical Character Recognition) version found online that you proofread carefully against the copy-text volume (usually the first American edition).
    3. When raw OCR text comes out of the scanner, you’ll see that it is kind of a mess. There are odd characters, like ! instead of 1, m instead of rr, and even worse. You can see a little of this if you try to convert a .pdf document back into text using Google Docs.  Whenever scanned text is used, it has to be carefully proofread.You may see references to “cleaning” the raw OCR text. “Cleaning” is just a term from data processing; it means to correct the data (in this case the text) according to the scanned material so that it makes sense.
    4.  Adobe Acrobat Pro can turn .pdf files into  text, but the text it creates must be carefully proofread.
    5. Google Docs is supposed to be able to turn .pdf files into text, but the text it creates must be carefully proofread.
    6. Scanning the copy-text volume with a specialty software such as ABBYY Finereader https://www.abbyy.com/en-us/finereader/ This text must also be carefully proofread but is supposed to have fewer errors than other scanning to OCR (Optical Character Recognition) kinds of programs.

 

Image-based comparisons

If you have taken pictures of several printings of the volume you’ll be editing, image-based or digital comparison software will be helpful.

  1. Traherne Digital Collator, a free comparison and collation software. The Traherne Digital Collator compares two page images so that you can see differences between, say, the first and second printing of a volume.

The download links can be found here: https://oxfordtraherne.org/traherne-digital-collator/ and http://www.robots.ox.ac.uk/~vgg/software/traherne/. These methods work for different printings or states of the same edition but not for different editions that have different fonts.

In the screenshots below, the top image compares the first edition of The House of Mirth, from a copy in the Lilly Library, with a copy of the first edition in the Beinecke Library. Note the broken character on the running title (HOUSE), which is illuminated by a red color instead of purple in the second image.

traherne1

traherne2

2. Pocket Hinman. The Pocket Hinman is a free experimental app developed for James Ascher and DeVan Ard. It’s a free iPhone and Android app, available through the App store and here: https://rossharding.me/#/pockethinman/

The Pocket Hinman allows you to compare visually a volume that you’re looking at with a previous picture of a volume. Differences will stand out by flickering slightly.

Mechanical Comparators and Collators

If you live near a research library or are visiting one, you can use these older devices to compare physical volumes of the text: the two major kinds are the Hinman Collator and the Lindstrand Comparator.  Developed by Charlton Hinman from WWII bomb target technologies that compared two images and found slight differences by flickering images and used in creating comparative versions of the First Folio, the Hinman Collator can find small differences that indicate changes from one printing to the next.

Here’s an article that lists the locations of mechanical collators:

“Armadillos of Invention”: A Census of Mechanical Collators

Author(s): Steven Escar Smith Source: Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 55 (2002), pp. 133-170 Published by: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40372237 

What’s the difference between “laid” and “wove” paper? A quick guide.

laidpaper

Figure 1. Here’s a page from The House of Mirth on laid paper. Note the chain lines.

In bibliographies such as Stephen Garrison’s Edith Wharton: A Descriptive Bibliography, you’ll see information like this: “Typography and paper: 5 5/8″ x 3 3/8″; laid paper with vertical chain lines 13/16″ apart; 27 lines per page: Running heads: rectos and versos ‘THE HOUSE OF MIRTH.'” (76)

What is laid paper? There’s a more elegant explanation here, but basically it’s paper that has been created by drying on a form that has vertical and horizontal “chains.” When the paper dries, the parts where the chains were obviously could not absorb the paper pulp and appear lighter when you shine a light through the page.  Figure 1 shows the laid paper marks on page 136 from The House of Mirth.

wove

Figure 2. The same page with wove paper.

 

Wove paper (see discussion here) is paper that has been created in a form with brass (or other) wires woven together, so that no specific pattern is visible, except perhaps a watermark, which is made by putting a piece of wire with a logo or pattern in the form before the paper pulp is added. There aren’t any chain lines or pattern in wove paper. Figure 2 is the same page (p. 136) from a different printing of The House of Mirth, but it’s on wove rather than laid paper.

Why does it matter whether a book is on wove or laid paper?

The type of paper is just one of the many features used in, you guessed it, descriptive bibliographies so that scholars and book collectors will know which edition and printing of a book they have. In the case of The House of Mirth, knowing that Figure 1 has “laid paper” helps to determine that it is the first or second printing of the first edition. Figure 2 is on wove paper, and, since according to Garrison “Starting with the third Scribners printing, wove paper was used instead of laid” (80), I know that Figure 2 is from a third or later printing.

 

Disclaimer: I’m obviously not a rare books historian but thought this brief piece of information might be useful.

So you want to write a letter to Edith Wharton

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 8.12.12 AM

Figure 1. EW was as poised in her letters as she is in this photograph.

After reading so many letters to as well as from Edith Wharton last month at the Beinecke Library, I had a few thoughts, not all of them reverential, on writing letters to Edith Wharton.

First of all, her letters are a joy to read because her command of the language is–can I say perfect? Even if you can’t make out a word at first, you know that the sentence is grammatical and that the defect lies in your ability to read her handwriting, not in the letter itself. This is immensely helpful in deciphering the letter and also an inspiration to the rest of us, who’ll then resolve to write more gracefully.

But suppose that you’re one of her contemporaries, and you want to write a letter to her. What then?

With apologies to Wharton scholars for the hasty generalizations below, here are a few tips:

  1. If you’re a close friend or family member, you’ll know the right tone to take, and the exchange will be friendly, funny, and great to read.
  2. If you’re an editor with whom she has a good professional relationship, such as Edward Burlingame or Rutger Jewett, you can expect friendly and witty letters as well as the immemorial authorial complaints about sales and advertising and the number of periods to use in an ellipsis.  Let’s just say that Mrs. Wharton and common sense do not agree with current recommendations from the Modern Language Association.
  3. orangeine

    Figure 2. Lily Bart might have been marginally safer with Orangeine than chloral hydrate, although it, too, could be deadly.

    If you’re a random fan, she might keep your letter, as she did the one from the president of the Orangeine Company, who was delighted to see her mention the product in The House of Mirth and in effect offered her an endorsement deal, if I remember correctly. Needless to say, she didn’t comply.

  4. If you’re trying to get her to address your book club, autograph a copy of a book, give her an award (except the Pulitzer Prize), give you a few pithy words explaining her literary philosophy, or any of the other requests that famous authors must get by the thousands, the answer is no.  You might get a frosty but polite letter back from her secretary, roughly as follows: “Mrs. Wharton never speaks in public,” “Mrs. Wharton has made it a rule to reserve autographs for her close friends,” or  “Mrs. Wharton appreciates the honor but is unable to attend,” etc.
  5. If you’re a member of a literary rights agency such as Curtis Brown, most of the time you will have to address your correspondence directly to “Mrs. Wharton,” but all the letters you receive will be from her secretary and will begin “Mrs. Wharton begs me to remind you” or another such phrase. In other words, you have to talk directly to her, but she responds through a secretary–which, if you think about it, makes sense given the constraints on her time. Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 8.59.41 AM
  6. If an underling or someone unfamiliar with Wharton slips and addresses her as “Miss Wharton”–you will certainly hear about it, and not in a good way.

The peak “letter to Wharton” experience may be this one, which is at the Lilly Library. It’s  a form letter written to EW from GLOBE: THE INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE, dated Aug. 6, 1936. It begins “Dear Miss Wharton: Will you write for us?” and asks her to write a short, “intimate” piece for the magazine.  It concludes, “We hope you will go to bat for us. … the deadline was yesterday.”

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Mrs. Wharton read this one.

What does the painting “Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” have to do with Edith Wharton?

cornwallissurrender

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (1820)

What does the surrender of Lord Cornwallis after the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781, have to do with Edith Wharton?

This sounds like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter’s famous riddle “How is a raven like a writing desk?” but there actually is a connection.

John Trumbull’s painting Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, which is in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, depicts, obviously, the surrender. Cornwallis wasn’t there but sent his second-in-command, so General Lincoln (on white horse), Washington’s second-in-command, accepted the sword of surrender. (Based on this chart, I’ve labeled Hamilton, Laurens, Knox, and Lafayette.)

But at the rear of the painting, between Lincoln and Washington, is  Ebenezer Stevens, Colonel of American Infantry, who later rose to the rank of General. The picture and the man are noteworthy for obvious reasons, but they also feature prominently in Edith Wharton’s A Backward Glance–for Stevens was Wharton’s great-grandfather and the man who built the original dwelling called “the Mount,” after which Wharton named her house near Lenox, Massachusetts.

Here’s an excerpt from pp. 11-14 of A Backward Glance, with some added bolding (mine, not Wharton’s) for emphasis:

My great-grandfather, the Major-General Ebenezer Stevens of the Rotunda,
seems to have been the only marked figure among my forebears. He was
born in Boston in 1751 and, having a pronounced tendency to mechanical
pursuits, was naturally drafted into the artillery at the Revolution. He
served in Lieutenant Adino Paddock’s artillery company, and took part in
the “Boston tea-party,” where, as he told one of his sons, “none of the
party was painted as Indians, nor, that I know of, disguised; though,”
(he adds a trifle casuistically) “some of them stopped at a paint-shop
on the way and daubed their faces with paint.” . . .  At Ticonderoga,
Stillwater and Saratoga he commanded a division of artillery, and it was
he who directed the operations leading to General Burgoyne’s surrender.
For these feats he was specially commended by Generals Knox, Gates and
Schuyler, and in 1778 he was in command of the entire artillery service
of the northern department. Under Lafayette he took part in the
expedition which ended in the defeat of Lord Cornwallis; his skilful
manoeuvres are said to have broken the English blockade at Annapolis,
and when the English evacuated New York he was among the first to enter
the city.

bggeneralstevens

From A Backward Glance, p. 15.

The war over, he declined further military advancement and returned to civil life. His services, however, were still frequently required, and in 1812 he was put in command of the New York Brigade of artillery. One
of the forts built at this time for the defence of New York harbour was called Fort Stevens, in his honour, and after the laying of the
foundation stone he “gave the party a dinner at his country seat, ‘Mount Buonaparte’,” which he named after the hero who restored order in
France.

My great-grandfather next became an East-India merchant, and carried on a large and successful trade with foreign ports. The United States War Department still entrusted him with important private missions; he was a
confidential agent of both the French and English governments, and at
the same time took a leading part in the municipal business of New York,
and served on numerous commissions dealing with public affairs. He
divided his year between his New York house in Warren Street, and Mount
Buonaparte, the country place on Long Island created by the fortune he
had made as a merchant; but when his hero dropped the u from his name
and became Emperor, my scandalized great-grandfather, irrevocably
committed to the Republican idea, indignantly re-named his place “The
Mount.” . . . In his Bonapartist days General Stevens must have imported a good deal of Empire furniture from Paris, and one relic, a pair of fine gilt andirons crowned with
Napoleonic eagles, has descended to his distant great-grand-daughter;
but much was doubtless discarded when the mantelpieces went, and the
stuffy day of Regency upholstery set in.

If I have dwelt too long on the career of this model citizen it is
because of a secret partiality for him–for his stern high-nosed good
looks, his gallantry in war, his love of luxury, his tireless commercial
activities. I like above all the abounding energy, the swift
adaptability and the joie de vivre which hurried him from one adventure
to another, with war, commerce and domesticity (he had two wives and
fourteen children) all carried on to the same heroic tune. But perhaps I
feel nearest to him when I look at my eagle andirons, and think of the
exquisite polychrome mantels that he found the time to bring all the way
from Italy, to keep company with the orange-trees on his terrace.

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

allthisandheaventoo1940_574_678x380_11082013091638

Charles Boyer and Bette Davis in All This and Heaven, Too (1940). Picture from TCM.

If Edith Wharton  was so enthusiastic about writing the Lizzie Borden story, why didn’t she finish the play Kate Spain? 

The key to this is what she told her sister-in-law and friend, Minnie Jones, in the letter dated March 9, 1935. At this point, she had written (but not published) “Confession,” and she had also written the first act of what she calls “the Lizzie Borden play.”

But Wharton also worried that “it was more than likely that it had already been used.” Her friend Edward Sheldon, the playwright, told her that it had been done, she claimed, and so she decided not to finish the play.

The story “Confession” was another matter;  as she told Minnie Jones, “I do not think the story will suffer much from its Borden origin, as you will have seen by this time that it is of no importance in my fable, and my young woman could quite as well have murdered an intolerable husband” (Letters 584). In “Confession,” the narrator wonders whether Kate could be “the murderess of her own father”  (Lewis, Collected Stories 2: 817), but the other details differ from the case.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-8-10-35-am

Lizzie Borden listens to testimony about the burning of the dress. From trial accounts of the time in The Lizzie Borden Sourcebook (at the link).

This helps to explain one mystery: why is Kate Spain so much more explicit about the murder than “Confession”? If Wharton intended the story to be a more general “fable” rather than a treatment exclusively of the Borden story, the ambiguity makes sense.

Kate Spain has many specific details, including a piece of stained calico burned around the edges and a deleted segment stating that the father had been killed while lying on the sofa. These references show Wharton’s familiarity with the case. If you’ve read any of the books about the case, for example, you’ll recall that Borden is supposed to have burned a calico dress in the stove. “I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint,”  she said, which apparently didn’t influence the jury’s decision.

allthis

Sheldon didn’t stop at telling Wharton that the Borden case had been overdone, however; he suggested instead that she use “the Praslin murder instead.”  The “Praslin murder” was a famous murder case involving the Duc de Choiseul-Praslin, whose wife, Fanny Sebastiani (by whom he had 10 children), was apparently passionately jealous of him and had recently fired the family’s governess, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, due to her suspicions.  On 18 August 1847, the Duchesse was found bludgeoned and stabbed to death; the Duc maintained his innocence but, while awaiting trial, committed suicide.  The governess, Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, was briefly jailed in the murder but released. She became the wife of the minister Henry Martyn Field, brother of Cyrus Field (whose company laid the first Atlantic cable), and the couple later lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

In her letter to Minnie Jones, Wharton adds, tantalizingly, that she “began a novel on the Praslin case two or three years ago, which alas I did not finish; and last year I saw that some one else had used the subject, though probably quite differently, as I had intended the story to begin only after the governess arrives in Stockbridge” (Letters 584). In addition to being the setting for the real story, Stockbridge was a natural choice for Wharton: she had lived near there in Lenox at The Mount for ten years, and she had set Ethan Frome and Summer in the same region.

The editors of the letters, R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, don’t give a title for this unfinished Praslin novel by Wharton. They do, however,  supply a name of the presumed other novel on the subject, implying that they thought this was the treatment to which she referred: Rachel Field’s All This and Heaven, Too, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer in 1940. Rachel Field was the great-niece of Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, the governess at the center of the case. I’ve read the novel  (the source of the brief summary of the murder case above), and it is sympathetic–very–to her great-aunt’s position.

Here’s another mystery, though: All This and Heaven, Too was published in 1938, the year after Wharton’s death. Was this the version that Wharton referred to, and if so, how had she seen it by 1934, the “last year” when she mentioned seeing something else about the subject? If it was in French, she might have read it but wouldn’t have been deterred from writing about it, because she was looking at the American market for her works.

I’ll have to look more closely to see if there’s a serial version (haven’t found one yet), but another possibility is that someone at Macmillan, which was Wharton’s publisher and also Field’s, tipped her off about it.

That’s all for now, but the search continues for a lead on the Praslin novel that Wharton saw.

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.”

330px-lizzie_borden

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.]