So you want to write a letter to Edith Wharton

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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?

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.]

 

Murder on her Mind: Did Edith Wharton write about Lizzie Borden? (part 1 of 3)

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Lizzie Borden, via Wikimedia Commons. Did she indeed “take an axe” and, well, you know?

At the Society for the Study of the American Short Story conference next week, I’m presenting a paper called “Edith Wharton’s Suspense Theater” that looks at her late short stories, including (if there’s room) “The Day of the Funeral,” “Confession,” “The Looking Glass,” and “Pomegranate Seed.”

But to answer the question that brought you here: why, yes, she did. In fact, Wharton wrote at least two pieces about the Lizzie Borden case.

For those of you who haven’t heard of Lizzie Borden, here’s the Wikipedia version. Shorter version: On the hot morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew, Lizzie’s father, and her stepmother, Abby, were murdered with an axe inside their home, which was locked from the inside. Lizzie was tried for and acquitted of the crime; after her acquittal, the murders remained unsolved. Lizzie Borden died in 1927.

Edith Wharton was fascinated by the case, and she fictionalized it twice.

The first is her story “Confession,” which, as she wrote to her sister-in-law Mary Cadwallader (“Minnie”) Jones on March 9, 1935, was “suggested by the Lizzie Borden case.”

“Confession” was first published in Storyteller 58 (March 1936): 64-85 (under title “Unconfessed Crime”) and then in The World Over, 1936. The story involves a mysterious “Mrs. Ingram” and her companion “Miss Wilpert” in Europe, but no spoilers here–you’ll have to read the story.

If you need to look up the original publication information on Wharton’s stories, I made a complete list here some years ago: https://edithwhartonsociety.wordpress.com/works/edith-whartons-short-stories-publication-information/

[To be continued tomorrow.]

Edith Wharton’s Favorite Novels (and The House of Mirth isn’t among them)

From an interview, supposedly Edith Wharton’s first.

Carroll, Loren. “Edith Wharton in Profile. In first interview of Long Career, America’s Famed Novelist Talks of Growing Interest in Theatre.” New York Herald. Paris Edition. Nov. 16, 1937.

. . .

But many “radical” novelists, she thinks, are only deceiving themselves. “Their preoccupation with new methods and details of technique is simply a sign of fatigue. The English language is not dead; it is inevitably enlarging itself. Dropping out capital letters and punctuation is only a symptom of poverty of imagination. The main thing is still creation of character, just as it was for Tolstoy, Stendahl, Trollope, Thackeray, George Eiot, Flaubert, and Henry James.”

These names were not produced at random. From their work Mrs. Wharton makes her choice of great novels: “War and Peace,” “La Chartreuse de Parme,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Middlemarch,” Trollope’s political novels and “several of Thackeray’s.” Of “The Portrait of a Lady, she says, “It is a perfect thing of its kind.” And of George Eliot, “If she hadn’t gone to live with George Henry Lewes, and felt obliged in consequence to defend conventional morality, she might have been one of the greatest of English novelists.”

Disclaiming any intention of estimating her own work, Mrs. Wharton is willing, nevertheless, to choose her own favorites. They are “The Custom of the Country,” “Summer,” “The Children,” “Hudson River Bracketed” and “The Gods Arrive.”

. . . .

Edith Wharton Collection at the Beinecke Library to close temporarily beginning in April 2014

From Gary Totten: 

Various Archival Collections to Close Temporarily Beginning in April 2014

Beginning in April 2014, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library will temporarily close various archival collections in preparation for a major building renovation scheduled to start in May 2015. In general, collections that are temporarily closed will be unavailable for six to eight weeks.

Researchers planning to visit the Beinecke should consult the library’s closed collections schedule beforehand to confirm the availability of desired materials. The schedule is currently subject to change, so researchers should check it frequently as they plan their visits.

Over the next year, the library will transfer about 12,000 cartons of collection material to an offsite shelving facility. This work requires the temporary closing of many of the library’s most important and frequently consulted archival collections. While temporarily closed, the collections will be unavailable for consultation in the reading room, classrooms, or for reproduction requests.

The temporary closings will be staggered throughout the year. Among collections slated to close in the spring of 2014 are the papers of Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill, H.D., Langston Hughes, James Weldon and Grace Nail Johnson, and Edith Wharton. Collections to close in the fall of 2014 include the papers of Mable Dodge Luhan, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe.