Discovered: A Lost Short Story From Edith Wharton

“The Field of Honor,” written in France during the first World War, considers the fate of the home front.

Edith Wharton, photographed in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1906 (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University)

It had been there all along, filed away in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library: a story, taking up nine pages in all, about the anxious operations of Parisian society during World War I. Six of the pages are neatly typeset, with edits and annotations scrawled in both pencil and ink; the next page is composed of strips of paper, cut and neatly pasted together; the next two are composed entirely of fragments. Together, those cobbled media—paper, pencil, ink, paste—tell a full story, under the title “The Field of Honor.” It’s impossible to determine whether in the mind of its author that story is also complete. That author, either way, never published it.

What seems clear, though, is that the author in question is Edith Wharton.
“I call it ‘Wharton’s cut and paste,’” says Alice Kelly, a postdoctoral writing fellow at Oxford who is writing a book on modernism and the First World War and who made the discovery of the previously unknown work during the course of her research at Yale. The cobbling together of papers was a common Whartonian writing method in the days before Command-X and Command-Z; the scrawled edits, rendered in pencil and ink, were also distinctly familiar. Further confirming that the story in question was Wharton’s was the fact that on the back of the fragmented pages is written a draft of another short story already known to be by the author, “The Refugees,” which Wharton wrote around mid to late 1918 and published in January 1919.
So it’s very likely, Kelly told me, that the prolific author was writing both “The Field of Honor” and “The Refugees”—war stories, told from the perspective of a different kind of battlefield—at around the same time. The long war, the war people at the time thought might truly be “the war to end all wars,” was finally drawing to a close. Which would also date the newly discovered work right before the publication of The Age of Innocence (1920). As Kelly puts it, “It’s kind of exciting that this is what she was thinking about at the same time that she was writing that novel.”
A page from the typescript of "The Field of Honor" (Edith Wharton Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
A page from the typescript of "The Field of Honor" (Edith Wharton Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)
“The Field of Honor” (you can read it in full here) is a story about both society and Society; this is Wharton, after all. But it reflects the fact that Wharton spent the war not just in France (she had lived there since 1907), both also on, and otherwise very close to, the front. (An ardent supporter of her adopted country’s war effort—and an ardent supporter of the war in general—she established women’s charities to assist with that effort in addition to working as a full-time writer.) The story concerns, in particular, the society that was left behind while many of the men around whom it had revolved left France’s cities for the front.
And it particularly concerns the women who found themselves both bereft and newly powerful in the exodus. There’s Rose Belknap, the American socialite unhappily married to a French nobleman, the Marquis de la Varède (“Tom” by nickname), who is liberated by her husband’s decision to go off to war. There’s the narrator, likely female, who functions among other things as proof that the “frenemy” existed as a trope long before it existed as a term, and who is decidedly more ambivalent about the new state of affairs. As Kelly explains it:

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 narrator’s discovery that Rose’s blooming is a direct result of her freedom from her husband provokes a violent impulse: “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.”

Where the story doesn’t differ from Wharton’s other war fiction, however, is in its preoccupation with the greater meaning of the war itself—with the losses, with the sense of pervasive purposelessness, with the changes it would bring about for the people who survived. A lesser-known aspect of Wharton’s work takes on those concerns, concerns most commonly associated with men: Sassoon, Brooke, Eliot, Hemingway. And a lesser-known fact about Wharton’s career is that, for a time, she was a war reporter.
In June of 1915, as the war raged on around her, Wharton did something that pretty much every professional writer will be familiar with: She wrote to her editor and explained that her draft would be late. It wasn’t just that she had become “pen-tied,” as she would put it. It was also, she explained, that the war had come to occupy her mind as not just a humanitarian pursuit, but a literary one. She wanted to write stories about what war meant.
“Some months ago,” she confessed to Charles Scribner,

I told you that you could count on the completion of my novel by the spring of 1916; but I thought then that the war would be over by August. Now we are looking forward to a winter campaign and the whole situation is so overwhelming and unescapable that I feel less and less able to turn my mind from it. May I suggest, during the next six months, giving you instead four or five short stories, not precisely war stories, but on subjects suggested by the war? So many extraordinary and dramatic situations are springing out of the huge conflict that the temptation to use a few of them is irresistible. I have three in mind already and shall get to work on them as soon as I can finish my articles.

“My novel” in this case was Hudson River Bracketed, which would be published, finally, in 1929; “my articles,” in turn, were the pieces of war reporting Wharton had been producing from the front lines in France, which were appearing in magazines like Scribner’s and The Saturday Evening Post. In November of 1915, she would publish them in the collection Fighting Francethe critical edition of which Kelly is publishing later this year.
“The Field of Honor”—a fictional side note to the nonfictional war stories Wharton was producing—would have fit in well with these efforts to explain, and more generally make sense of, the war. It is very much a “not precisely war story.” It is full of anxieties both microcosmic and macro. It helps to frame Wharton’s work in a larger historical context, and perhaps in a larger literary one, as well. While “much of Wharton’s wartime writing has been dismissed by even her most steadfast admirers as propagandistic or sentimental,” Kelly notes, “more recently a critical reassessment has begun. Although those writings might lack the ambition or the polish of masterpieces such as The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, they are far more sophisticated than has previously been assumed.”
Why “The Field of Honor” never made it to publication remains a mystery. “Perhaps,” Kelly writes, “Wharton considered her harsh portrayal of volunteer women war workers too vitriolic.” Or perhaps she decided to abandon the story to focus on The Age of Innocence, the novel that would go on to win her a Pulitzer and to take its place in the American canon. Whatever the reason, “The Field of Honor” has now joined another kind of canon: the collection of works that were created by literary luminaries only to be abandoned or rejected or forgotten. The kind of stories that get filed away in dark places, discovered decades later, asking as many questions as they answer.