Unpublished Short Story by Edith Wharton Discovered at Yale University

Hidden between a number of other drafts and short stories by Edith Wharton, an unknown story titled “The Field of Honour” was recently discovered in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The story, nine pages in all, is composed of six typeset pages, one page of strips of paper cut and pasted together, and two final pages of fragments. All of the pages are covered in edits and annotations in pencil and ink, but together they form a coherent story. It is clear that the author is Edith Wharton, from the handwriting, as well as the fact that a section of one of her published stories, “The Refugees” is written on the back of one of the fragmented pages.

The woman who found the story, Dr Alice Kelly, Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Oxford, was doing research for her book on modernism and the First World War at Yale University when she made the discovery. She claims the cut and paste nature of some of the pages, as well as the scribbles and edits on all of the pages, is typical of Wharton. She says of the find: “Working in the marble-clad Beinecke Library in the Wharton papers was the highlight of my time at Yale, and led to my discovery of this unknown First World War story and its significance in terms of Wharton’s war writings.”

“The Field of Honour,” is set during the First World War and reflects on the time Wharton spent in France during that time. Wharton was very much engaged with the war, she worked for a time as a war reporter, and in her fiction she wanted to write about the war’s effects, the losses and the changes it brought on for those who survived. In “Field of Honour” she describes women who are gaining power and freedom in a society where the men are gone. At one point the narrator, who is probably female, and ambivalent about the advanced position of women in wartime society, is describing the beauty of the character Rose as a direct result of the absence of her husband, and feels the need to put a stop to her progress: “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.”

Kelly explains her fascination with the plot of “The Field of Honour”: “Where this story differs from Wharton’s other war fiction — and what makes it particularly interesting — is its depiction of a common wartime fear: that women were profiting socially, professionally, even sexually from the wartime economy that privileged their lives over male lives.”

The idea for the story was possibly born in 1915, when Wharton wrote her editor explaining that she was unable to finish her novel draft by the time they had agreed upon, and asked whether he would take a handful of short stories in the meantime, which she had plans to write, on subjects “suggested by the war.” Kelly believes “The Field of Honour” could have been one of these stories, as it is certainly concerned with issues related to the war. It is unknown why “The Field of Honour” never made it to publication, Wharton may have simply abandoned it to focus on other projects, like the Age of Innocence, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Kelly’s full article and reproduction of the story can be read here.

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