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


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.


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.


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)


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.”


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)


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:

[To be continued tomorrow.]

Did Jack London set fire to Wolf House?

Jack London Ranch 2010 033In this month’s Valley of the Moon Magazine, Jonah Raskin says, well, maybe he did.

Background for this excerpt: Wolf House, the ruins of which still stand in Jack London State Park, was London’s dream home, designed with his input and built from California materials. After citing a 1995 forensic investigation that found oily rags and spontaneous combustion to be the cause, Raskin continues:

Still, not everyone was convinced, including Greg Hayes [Jack London State Park Ranger and London expert]. Even Robert Anderson [forensic investigator] wasn’t entirely convinced of his own argument, especially when I pointed out to him that Jack had written in an essay published before the fire, “It will be a happy house–or else I’ll burn it down.” Just what did Jack mean when he made that provocative remark? Just how unhappy was he in 1913 when his doctors told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, alcohol would kill him.

There was no investigation of the fire that year, not by London’s insurance company, not by law enforcement and not by the fire department, since there was no fire department in Sonoma County in 1913. . . .

Whatever the cause, one thing seems clear. It wasn’t one big happy family on Beauty Ranch. Jack’s second wife, Charmian Kittridge, whom he had married in 1905, typed his manuscripts, followed him most everywhere he went and put up with his philandering. Often depressed, he drove her crazy, and she continued to love him.
According to a witness who overheard an argument in Wolf House shortly before it burned, Charmian told Jack, “You’ll never live here.”

Raskin goes on to discuss other suspects, including jealous neighbors.

What to make of this evidence? A few thoughts:

  1. London’s “or else I’ll burn it down” sounds a lot like London being London to me. That melodramatic note is a fairly characteristic pattern in some of his writing, and holding him to it as a threat, which may work in a police procedural drama, probably means less than you’d think.
  2. “How unhappy was he in 1913”–London’s legion of biographers can sort that one out. He was devastated when Wolf House burned down, as numerous witnesses attest. A brutal letter to his daughter Joan upbraids her for not writing to him to sympathize with its loss.
  3. “You’ll never live here”–Again, in the heat of an argument, the participants say things for effect rather than as actual threats. 1913 was a fraught year for the Londons (see The Little Lady of the Big House), but the two months spent in New York City in 1912 rather than the events of 1913 were a low point in their relationship. If Charmian had to “put up with” a lot from London and his depressions, would she be inclined to burn down a house, knowing that it would send him into a further depth of despair and that, since she’d be there, she’d have to bear the brunt of it?

You can read the article on pp. 46-47 of the issue, which is online at the link above.

“No Irish need apply” a myth? No, it’s true.


Brooklyn Eagle, May 1, 1863. From Patrick Young’s blog post (link below).

At Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke reports the remarkable story of Rebecca Fried, a high school student at Sidwell Friends, who has disproved Professor Richard Jensen’s contention that “No Irish Need Apply” was a feverish figment of the Irish-American imagination:

Fried’s essay is a refutation of a 2002 article by the historian Richard Jensen that claimed that “No Irish Need Apply” signs were rare to nonexistent in 19th Century America, that Irish-American collective memory of such signs (and the employment discrimination they documented) was largely an invented tradition tied to more recent ideological and intersubjective needs, and that the Know-Nothings were not really nativists who advocated employment (and other) discrimination against Irish (or other) immigrants. existence of signs and ads saying “No Irish need apply,” taken as a given in many history classes, was challenged.

Fried published her findings in “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity
of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs”, Journal of Social History, 10:1093, 2015.

Patrick Young, who reproduces excerpts from Fried’s article and some of the many supporting ads, also includes some of the back-and-forth between Jensen and a respectful but unintimidated Fried:

Yes there were NINA newspaper ads—I was the one who found the first one—but I argued they were very rare. If a man read every job want-ad in his newspaper every week for 40 years, he would have a 50-50 chance of coming across one NINA ad in his lifetime. That’s what I called very rare—& the student called very common. Richard Jensen

. . .

I also have to respectfully disagree with your numerical calculation. I explain why at page 25 of the article, which is a brief response to your points. Briefly, if the man in your example read the Sun newspaper, he would have read at least 15 male-directed NINA ads in a single year, plus any female-directed ones, plus any from other sources. Thanks again for this. I respect you and your work.
Rebecca Fried

Burke has a nuanced post that discusses the implications for historians, but on an individual (and non-historian) level, I’ll be using this in English 372 this fall not only to illustrate the issue of anti-Irish prejudice, which we discuss in a broader context of racism and xenophobia, but also to highlight the importance of questioning theories and returning to the evidence even when, or especially when, an idea is taken as given.

Did Edith Wharton meet Oscar Wilde during his 1882 American tour? A continuing literary mystery.’ve been listening to David M. Friedman’s Oscar Wilde in America. In his early days in New York, Wilde gave lectures and appeared at (I’m tempted to say “posed at”) innumerable society parties. Friedman mentions at least two appearances that Wilde made at parties given by Mrs. Paran Stevens.

Now, Mrs. Paran Stevens rings a bell with all Whartonites for several reasons. According to Hermione Lee, Mrs. Stevens, “a grocer’s daughter,” was born Marietta Reed in  Lowell, Massachusetts. She ‘forced herself’ Emelyn Washburn remembered) ‘into New York society by way of Newport” (61).

Edith Wharton’s great-aunt, Mrs. Mary Mason Jones, refused to receive the pushy arriviste Mrs. Stevens, but Mrs. Stevens had nearly the last laugh: After Mary Mason Jones’s death, Mrs. Stevens bought her house, the house that she had not entered during Mrs. Jones’s lifetime.

Wharton herself had the real last laugh. She immortalized Mrs. Stevens as  Mrs. Lemuel Struthers in The Age of Innocence, whose parties, held on Sundays, scandalize Old New York but attract the more cosmopolitan Ellen Olenska.


But there is a closer connection: Mrs. Stevens was nearly Edith Wharton’s mother-in-law. Lee reports that “the engagement between Edith Jones and Henry Leyden Stevens was announced in Town Topics, on 19 August 1882, with a wedding set for October.  In October, however, the engagement was publicly broken off” (61).  Edith Jones, later Wharton, supposedly broke off the engagement, although insiders claimed that Mrs. Stevens wanted to keep control of all her son’s millions and forced him to break the engagement.  Henry was 23 in 1882, and the money was in his mother’s control until he married or reached the age of 25. Henry Stevens died without having married in 1885, the year that Edith married Edward (Teddy) Wharton.

What of Wilde and the 1882 tour?  Could Edith Wharton have met, or rather seen, Oscar Wilde?


First, since the announcement of Edith’s engagement came in August 1882, she and Henry must have been seeing each other for some time. Shari Benstock, in No Gifts from Chance, dates their relationship to the Joneses’ residence in Venice in 1881, with Harry following Edith to Cannes during her father’s last illness (44).  Henry, or “Harry,”  was Edith’s “shadow,” according to her relatives, and devoted to her. And although the stiff-necked Joneses and Rhinelanders, Edith’s relations, did not accept Mrs. Stevens, it’s hard to believe that over the course of their relationship Edith would not have visited Henry’s home.

Thus she could have attended one of Mrs. Stevens’s more literary soirees, especially to meet a celebrated character like Wilde. Wilde’s literary credentials were slim at this point, but his fame as an apostle of the Aesthetic movement was phenomenal. Edith Jones, though unknown, was already a published poet with alarmingly intellectual interests. (Her intellectual interests were, Town Topics speculated, the reason for the broken engagement.) The newspapers were full of Wilde’s visit–and her fiancé’s mother hosted at least two entertainments with Wilde as a featured guest, which a young engaged woman like Edith might have attended with her fiancé.

If she met Oscar Wilde at this time, Edith Wharton seems to have left no record of it, unlike her long friendship with Henry James and other literary figures.

So did she meet or see him in 1882?  What’s your guess?

Dorothy Parker a plagiarist? Say it isn’t so!

A recent article on makes a case for a little “creative borrowing,” otherwise known as plagiarism, on Dorothy Parker’s part as an attempt to revive her fading career.  It argues that Parker saw the book well before she reviewed it (favorably) for Esquire, when it was being handed around in literary circles by a careless Edmund Wilson:

Had this, in fact, been her second look at the book? The trail, it seems, leads to Edmund Wilson. In 1954 and 1955, Parker was a regular guest at his gatherings at the Algonquin when he was in New York, though his other friends objected to her habit of coming “an hour late” and offering odd excuses, like having to walk her sister’s dog. She is more than likely to have visited him in Talcottville as well, where Wilson had been indiscreet with the manuscript. He would have been very likely to also impress on her his major points about Lolita: that the novel was “repulsive,” that it would never be published in the United States, and that Nabokov was vehement about people not knowing that he was the author. Uninspired, a little desperate, and nearly broke, Parker may have been susceptible to an intriguing prompt. Being Dorothy Parker, she also probably could not resist the opportunity to sting the current “golden boy” of The New Yorker by letting him know that she was aware of his secret.

I had read once that Nabokov got the name from Lilliita McMurray, the 16-year-old bride of Charlie Chaplin back in the mid-1920s, who was expensively divorced from him a few years later.

But Nabokov did not need to go that far to get the name, nor did he invent it, as Google’s handy ngram viewer shows:


“Lolita” is used as a name as early as 1851, although it clearly takes a huge leap once Nabokov’s book comes out. Among others, it appeared in a Bret Harte story of 1899, Charles Lummis’s Out West magazine in 1907, and as the protagonist’s name in Owen Wister’s “La Tinaga Bonita” in Harper’s  in 1895.

But those are old usages, you say? How about Bill Johnson’s Ghost Road (1950) or, yes, a Nancy Drew mystery, Carolyn Keene’s 1954 The Ringmaster’s Secret? 

Nabokov may have reinvented the name, and Parker may have borrowed it, but the story doesn’t show any parallels.  Yes, as the article says, there’s a drive in a car, not exactly uncommon in American literature.  But I had always read Parker’s story as being about a theme she’d discussed with Robert Benchley back in the 1920s: what if a man left his beautiful, fascinating wife to take up with a mousy, ordinary mistress?

Parker’s “Lolita” is a story on a familiar theme in her works: the frustratingly obtuse and domineering person (often a mother), who can’t understand why people respond to her the way that they do.  In the story, which is narrated from a third person limited omniscient point of view, Mrs. Ewing, Lolita’s mother, is another familiar Parker character, the flirtatious and feminine Southern(ish) belle who can’t understand what the handsome John Marble sees in her daughter.

There’s more than a hint of sexual competition with her daughter in Mrs. Ewing’s every move: why isn’t he paying attention to her? She undercuts her daughter at every turn, destroying their evenings together as she natters on about nothing and believing that Ewing will eventually leave Lolita: “I say, ‘That’s right, honey, you go ahead and be happy just as long as you can'” (391). As she says to a friend at the end of the story, ”

“A man like John Marble married to a girl like Lolita! But she knows she can always come back here. This house is her home. She can always come back to her mother.”

For Mrs. Ewing was not a woman who easily abandoned hope.

So far, this doesn’t bear much resemblance to Lolita, but it bears a great deal of resemblance to other Parker stories where deluded (and horrible) women wait in hope to destroy someone they are supposed to love. Exhibit A for this would be “The Banquet of Crow” (Esquire, 1957–another late story), but there are others, too.

So did Parker borrow the name from Nabokov?  Maybe.  Judging by the 1950s uses, it might have been one of those names that crops up in cycles, like Jason and Jennifer or Owen and Emily.

Would she have done it to get a little extra publicity, knowing that Nabokov’s book might be published or at the very least that the name would garner a little attention from literary circles? Probably.

Is there a hint of Nabokov’s tale in the story of a harridan mother competing with her daughter for the same man, only to lose out to the daughter’s superior if inexplicable charms? Uncomfortably, yes.

But did she steal the plot from Nabokov, and is this character  an anomaly in the Parker canon? Absolutely not.

[Edited to add: Would Parker really have gone to Talcottville, which is a very small town on SR 12D? Parker, of whom it might be said, “There is no city but New York, and Parker is its prophet”?]