Edith Wharton’s Lost Book Deal
Dear Mrs. Wharton;
Again, it’s not that we don’t like “Laurel Dyckman,” we certainly do. It’s just, well, it’s pretty well-trodden ground, is it not? Our staff has expressed a greater concern for her fate when she was Lily Bart, or May Welland, or that foreign lady. At this point, a more upbeat narrative seems attractive, perhaps for a holiday release? We even took it home and let our wives give it a quick go, and more than one of them wished that Miss Dyckman had tried harder to make it work with Henry Holstead, that nice young man she’s introduced to in the second chapter. The only real objection, as far as we can tell, is that he seemed “dull.” “Dull” isn’t so terrible, at least not as terrible as the final third of the manuscript (tone, not quality, dear!), when Miss Dyckman is forced to move in with her married sister whose husband strenuously disapproves of her.
Now, we understand that fiction is your wheelhouse, but have you given any thought to using your considerable skill to assist young ladies in their romantic endeavors? “Laurel Dyckman” could easily be transformed into “The Good-Enough Husband: A How-To Guide for the City Girl.” Instead of the three chapters Miss Dyckman spends walking the grounds at Briarcliff, having those interminable conversations with the aging governess, you could include passages on grooming, dressing, and making amiable small talk with worthy gentlemen. You wouldn’t have to leave Miss Dyckman out altogether, or even change her story! Instead, at the end of each of the original chapters, you could take time to explain how Miss Dyckman could have changed her conduct to better comport herself in love and society. The conversation with the aging governess? An excellent example of the futility of forming friendships with other single women, who can only compete with you for male attention, and can have no advice to offer on securing a husband.
As an additional example, after Miss Dyckman’s unfortunate dinner party with the Rosings, and her inexplicable coldness to Mr. Mather, it would be extremely convivial of you to mention that, for a young woman of more than twenty-three years, a male acquaintance should be examined for any active impediment as a husband, and should not instead be expected to stand out in any particular way.
Your manuscript is enclosed, with annotations. It would certainly be premature to discuss returning your advance; we remain confident that “Laurel Dyckman” or “Miss Goofus and the Future Mrs. Gallant,” or whatever title is eventually converged upon will have a happy home with us,
Your friends at A. Merriton & Co.