Unpublished Edith Wharton Play, The Shadow of a Doubt, Discovered by Wharton Scholars

(Lenox, MA)— The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home in Lenox, MA, is excited to share that two scholars, Laura Rattray, a reader in American literature at the University of Glasgow, and Mary Chinery, a professor of English at Georgian Court University in New Jersey, have made a new archival discovery: a previously unknown, original, full length play by Edith Wharton called The Shadow of a Doubt.

The location of the discovery at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin was unexpected. Wharton scholars have been traveling to the Ransom Center for over three decades to research Wharton’s papers. The source of their interest, however, was the author’s correspondence to her lover, Morton Fullerton. What scholars missed was hidden, in plain sight, in the Center’s Playscripts and Promptbooks Collection (Performing Arts): two typescript copies of The Shadow of a Doubt, by Edith Wharton.

The Edith Wharton Review, published by Penn State University Press, have published Rattray’s and Chinery’s findings in a journal article entitled “The Shadow of a Doubt: A Play in Three Acts by Edith Wharton.” The article includes the play in its entirety.

The play, set in England, includes Wharton’s signature social realism and use of dramatic irony and wit to satirize social privilege and affluence. The play does take a decidedly dark and controversial turn into a world of extortion, mistrust, deception, and the revelation of an act claimed alternately as euthanasia and as murder.

Rattray and Chinery have been able to establish that The Shadow of a Doubt was not only completed, but in production by early 1901 with theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, and with Elsie de Wolfe in the leading role. For reasons not yet known, the production was abandoned.

The Shadow of a Doubt is not referenced in Wharton’s own autobiography, A Backward Glance or in major biographies by R. W. B. Lewis, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and Hermione Lee. Its timing is crucial to understanding Wharton’s progression as a writer. Long before the publication of her first novel, it seems that Wharton was establishing herself as a playwright.

“This play really adds to our understanding of Wharton’s early work and provides hope that there are other manuscripts out there, perhaps among the papers of those associated with Wharton,” said Chinery when asked about the significance of her and Rattray’s find.

The discovery also broadens our understanding of Wharton’s work as a novelist. The Shadow of a Doubt rehearses motifs for The House of Mirth (1905). The solidarity among women lower down the social scale, portrayed in the final chapters of The House of Mirth, is in clear evidence in The Shadow of a Doubt. Equally important, Wharton would recycle major material and themes from “Shadow”—including an entire plotline and the controversial theme of euthanasia—for her 1907 novel The Fruit of the Tree, throwing into question long established readings, and the assumed provenance, of that work.

When asked about the discovery, Rattray exclaimed, “The archives with huge holdings on Wharton have been extensively researched. After all this time, nobody thought there were long, full scale, completed, original, professional works by Wharton still out there that we didn’t know about. But evidently there are. In 2017 Edith Wharton continues to surprise!”

Susan Wissler, executive director at The Mount, who read the play upon learning of the discovery observed, “The script contains many witty social zingers and, though not exactly a happy ending, at least the heroine doesn’t die!” Wissler hopes to soon to present a staged reading of the newly discovered play in the near future.

About The Mount:

The Mount is a National Historic Landmark and cultural center that celebrates the intellectual, artistic, and humanitarian legacy of American writer Edith Wharton. We engage a diverse audience by providing context to Wharton’s life and achievements through our interpretive and public programs and the preservation of her historic estate and gardens.

Each year, The Mount hosts over 45,000 visitors. Daily tours of the property run May through October and weekends Novembers through February. Special events are hosted throughout the year. Annual programming includes an outdoor sculpture exhibit, lectures, readings of Wharton’s work, and a free music series.