This post is contributed by Linda Selman, whose staged reading of Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters is currently running as part of the Metropolitan Playhouse’s Gilded Age Festival in New York City.
Even Wharton devotees might be unfamiliar with Bunner Sisters, an early story that strays from Wharton’s typical moneyed setting. Written in 1891 but not published until 1916, Bunner Sisters is one of Wharton’s first New York stories and shows a concern for the lives of working-class women. In the story, Wharton follows the lives of unmarried shopkeepers Ann Eliza and Evelina Bunner, who eke out a living selling handicrafts to the wealthy residents of Stuyvesant Square. Together, Ann Eliza and Evelina face marriages of necessity, dashed hopes, and economic pressures.
Although far from the world of May Welland or Undine Spragg, Wharton’s observations about the false choices and vulnerability inherent in women’s lives are just as astute. Social class, she observes, doesn’t govern women’s prospects so much as gender.
While adapting the novella for the stage, I inadvertently uncovered a likely inspiration for Wharton’s Bunner Sisters. Although little-known today, writer and editor Henry Cuyler Bunner (1855-1896) led a movement that changed the face of politics, art, and literature in America. Bunner was the “literary light” of his era and the first to bring to the forefront the radical concept of “New York as a Field for Fiction.” His works focused on the drama and the hopes of the poor, immigrants, and the disenfranchised trying to make a life in the crowded city streets. Bunner Sisters, in title and in thematic content, is Ms. Wharton’s homage to his literary form.
The City of New York proclaimed December 10, 2012 Henry Cuyler Bunner Day in honor of his cultural legacy to New York City. The National Arts Club further celebrated Bunner’s legacy and Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday with a tribute performance of my adaptation of Bunner Sisters.
In honor of Edith Wharton’s 152nd birthday on January 24, it is with great joy that I extend an invitation to all Edith Wharton admirers to attend a brand new staged reading adaptation of Bunner Sisters currently running as a part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s Gilded Age Festival! Mount members will receive a special $3 discount on tickets.
Linda Selman’s essay, “The Influence of the Bunner Brothers on Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters” won honorable mention in the Edith Wharton 2006 Essay Prize and was published in the Edith Wharton Review. Her book, The Inadvertent Researcher: A New York Story chronicles that scholarly adventure in words and pictures.