Edith Wharton is best known for her stories of strangled lives and doomed love affairs in high society. But on this Veterans Day—and the anniversary of the end of World War I—comes a reminder that Wharton was concerned with issues of war as well. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber reports that a new short story written by Wharton about the First World War has been discovered in a Yale archive.
The story, entitled "The Field of Honor," was found on the back side of another manuscript by Alice Kelly, a writing fellow at Oxford who was looking through Wharton's papers while researching a book. Six of the story's pages were typed, Garber writes, and the last three consist of cobbled-together strips of paper and fragments of writing.
Kelly, who announced the find in the Times Literary Supplement this week, believes that Wharton was working on the story at the same time she was considering or even drafting The Age of Innocence—her best-known, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Kelly believes that the story, which is not mentioned in Wharton’s correspondence, may never have been considered for publication both because of its portrayal of women who volunteered for war work and because Wharton may have suspected that it would be difficult to place once the war ended.
Wharton lived in Paris at the outbreak of World War I. The recently-divorced author decided to stay in France rather than flee back to the United States. She contributed heavily to the war effort, as her obituary in the New York Times noted:
When the World War broke out she was in Paris and she plunged at once into relief work, opening a room for skilled women of the quarter where she lived who were thrown out of employment by the closing of workrooms. She also fed and housed 600 Belgian refugee orphans. In recognition France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor and Belgium made her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold. Meanwhile she wrote stories and articles on the war, including "Fighting France" and "The Marne."
As both a tale of a failed marriage and a vicious critique of women who superficially participated in the war, "The Field of Honor" is pure Wharton in its depiction of strained relationships, tense foreign relations and drawing-room drama. Perhaps it will draw more attention to Wharton's war writing as the world stops to ponder the weight and meaning of "the war to end all wars."