Edith Wharton’s Newly Discovered Short Story Is Surprisingly Political

Edith Wharton is far better known for her tales of opulent New York City life than for her time in France supporting her adopted country’s efforts during the First World War. But recent scholarship, and a new find, might change that. Alice Kelly, a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford, was researching Wharton’s wartime writing when she made an exciting discovery:

Among the Wharton papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, I came across another of them. Despite the story’s war- related title – “The Field of Honour” – the unpublished, nine-page work has never been noticed before. Six of the pages are in typescript, with annotations in pencil and black ink; the seventh is composed of six paper sections (two in typescript and the rest in manuscript) stuck together as one sheet – Wharton’s version of cut and paste.

The newly found story, which is quite short and has an abrupt but amusing ending, is, as Kelly notes, a symbolic exploration of many of Wharton’s concerns and prejudices during wartime.

It involves the doings of her usual moneyed-elite characters, but instead of mocking them for mere shallowness and callousness towards each other, she focuses her venom on their casual approach to the war. In particular, the piece turns a sharp eye on the main character, Rose de la  Varède (once Rose Belknap), one of Wharton’s many American girls who has married into European nobility without fully accepting the potential consequences and culture clashes that will ensue. Her spouse, the Marquis, suffers from some sort of addiction; he and his wife are unhappy but unable to divorce because of their Catholicism, and eventually he decides to send himself to the front, where he presumably will perish.

Through skilled dialogue and several chance encounters, the conflict of the story arises: the narrator (whose gender is not fully elucidated; Kelly thinks it’s a woman, although I spent much of my read thinking it was a man) is eventually shocked to see Rose in bloom and happy without her husband around, as though the war has been a mere vehicle for her liberation. “Now I knew why she looked so pretty. I felt at that moment as if she were a venomous insect that one ought to smash under one’s heel. Freedom from Tom! That was the only thing the war meant to her.”

In other Wharton novels, like The Buccaneers and even The Age of Innocence, the author is more sympathetic to women who find themselves trapped in not merely loveless, but genuinely imprisoning marriages. The war seems to alter this perspective somewhat, in a way that Kelly notes has whiffs of gendered anxiety (the war was making women too empowered).

Wharton emphasizes Rose’s carelessness over her unhappiness. She is more focused on looking her best when she visits the wounded and altering her uniform to make it more attractive, and doesn’t seem to grasp the awfulness of what’s going on. According to Kelly, this is in accord with Wharton’s experience during the war, in which she found herself more and more alienated from her fellow American expatriates in France, whom she saw as dilettantes dabbling in relief efforts for sport. “Wharton, an extremely hard-working relief worker, observed with contempt the volunteer (particularly American) women workers who were only superficially interested in the war,” she writes.

As a Wharton enthusiast, what I liked best about “The Field of Honour” were its flashes of humor. The story’s tone is darkly witty, with an aside at its outset explaining why the narrator dines with unpleasant people:

look here, do you dine only with people you esteem? I tried it once, conscientiously, for a season; but the soup was always cold, and there was generally a sweet-bread vol-au-vent; so after a fair trial I gave it up. I daresay you have too.

And she fits in another dig at Rose’s ability to read aloud during an epic takedown of Rose’s wartime efforts:

It was awfully interesting and touching: she sat with the poor fellows, and took them fruit and flowers, and read aloud to them. (They had my sympathy; I’d heard her read aloud.) She did it every day, regularly, she went on with emphasis, as if suspecting me of incredulity; I must come and see her some day in her dress. She had devised something like the Red Cross uniform, only pearl grey, and more becoming: she thought one ought to look one’s best when one went on an errand of mercy. But the idiotic authorities wouldn’t let her wear it in the street.

It’s also fascinating to see Wharton turn her eye towards bigger issues. She excels at dissecting society’s flaws by focusing on a tiny subset of it, and even if her war writing loses some of that intense specificity, it reminds us that Wharton always had bigger human questions on her mind.

A few years ago, bloggers unearthed some very erotic Wharton writing dealing with incest that had previously been mostly known to scholars. This piece is quite different, a bit of wartime satire, but feminist reappraisal of a prolific, flawed yet incredibly talented writer has led to these rediscoveries, allowing us to see the real breadth of what interested Wharton and captured her imagination.