When thinking of progressive authors, Edith Wharton (1862-1937) may not be the first name that comes to mind. Born into old Dutch American aristocracy, Wharton’s mother was a Rhinelander, her father’s mother a Schermerhorn, and her father’s family, the Joneses, the source of the phrase, “keeping up with the Joneses.” She would eventually maintain homes on Park Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island (“Land’s End”), and Lenox, Massachusetts (“The Mount,” which Henry James called a “delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond”). Deeply conservative in her politics, she was opposed to women’s suffrage and described herself as a “rabid imperialist” during her late-life exile in France, where she lived in a Parisian apartment formerly owned by George Vanderbilt II. For Mark Twain, the decades following the American Civil War were a “Gilded Age” of inequality and corruption. For Wharton, they were the “Age of Innocence,” a vanished Manhattanite world of opera balls and social calls.
According to some accounts, Wharton’s creative method was one befitting Marie Antoinette. She would write in bed and throw her pages on the ground for a secretary to pick up and transcribe.
Despite such patrician habits, Wharton was keenly aware of the limitations imposed on a woman of her privileged background. A voracious reader as a child, Wharton always wanted more education than she received. Her mother forbade her to read novels until she was married, an edict ruthlessly yoking her hopes for intellectual autonomy to her romantic prospects, and one which Edith amazingly obeyed. Her first novel would not appear until she was 37 years old. Not coincidentally, her writing career would truly blossom only after her divorce—from both husband and country—in 1913.
Wharton once wrote that women in American society were “made for pleasure and procreation” and almost all of her works illustrate the tensions of the white-collar marriage marketplace. Her female heroes possess too many scruples to be adventuresses in the manner of Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe. But they are free spirits nonetheless, resistant to the social laws of old New York. Their refusal to barter their beauty for status or money often results in social downfalls of surprising tragic force. As Lord Osterleigh says in The Shadow of a Doubt, “when a woman refuses to explain her situation to society, society is at liberty to infer what it pleases—and it always infers the worst.”
The Shadow of a Doubt dates to 1901, a year before the publication of Wharton’s first novel. It was in rehearsals for a Broadway production, but she withdrew the work, likely from loss of funding. Rediscovered this year, the work fascinates for the glimpse it provides of the playwright Wharton might have become, one combining the moral seriousness and stagecraft of Ibsen with the acerb social comment of Oscar Wilde. Like her novels, the play exhibits the popular contrivances of its day: letters revealing long-lost secrets, private confessions, melodramatic tableaux vivants of characters frozen with emotion. But Wharton’s modernism and feminism shine through. She never moralizes, preferring wry understatement, and she makes no attempt whatsoever to soften her main character, Kate Derwent, an attractive interloper in an upper-class marriage. Though Kate is accused of adultery and even assisted suicide, she really rouses suspicion because of her refusal to play the social game, and the play turns on her desire to establish a relationship built on emotional truth, not external appearances, with her new husband.
In 1934, Wharton writes, “a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” The Shadow of a Doubt speaks vividly to a modern America where women’s words are still not given the benefit of the doubt, one every bit as frivolous and debased, as implicitly tragic, as it was in Wharton’s day.