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Found: A Lost Play by Edith Wharton

In which woman’s past as a nurse comes back to haunt her.

Edith Wharton around 1890.
Edith Wharton around 1890. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Public domain

Before she became a novelist, Edith Wharton tried her hand at writing plays, and recently two scholars discovered one of her dramatic works, forgotten until now, hiding in an archive in Austin, Texas, Rebecca Mead reports in The New Yorker.

Wharton’s literary fame came later in life, and she wrote a number of unproduced plays in her 30s. She seemed, at one point, to be on the cusp of success. In 1901, her play The Shadow of a Doubt was slated to be produced, and a famous actress was cast in the lead role. The producer pulled out before the premier, though, and the play faded into obscurity.

Laura Rattray, of the University of Glasgow, and Mary Chinery, of Georgian Court University, had discovered an article referencing The Shadow of a Doubt. While attending a conference in Austin they searched the Harry Ransom Center’s holdings for the manuscript. They came up with two copies and have published the text in the Edith Wharton Review. It’s the first previously undiscovered work by the author found in 25 years.

The play, they write, features a former nurse whose husband discovers that she had helped in the assisted suicide of his first wife. As Mead writes, the play presages the themes of Wharton’s later novel, The House of Mirth.