‘Bunner Sisters’ by Edith Wharton – A Bleak Naturalistic Novella of the 1890s

 

‘Bunner Sisters’ by Edith Wharton    (1892,1916) – 95 pages

‘The House of Mirth’, ‘Ethan Frome’, and ‘The Custom of a Country’ were wonderful, but I found ‘Bunner Sisters’ to be a sad excuse for a novella. The emphasis should be on the word ‘Sad’.

There is a reason that ‘Bunner Sisters’ was written in 1892 and several magazines rejected it at that time and it was not published until 1916. Hermoine Lee, in her introduction, mentions “the unflinching grimness” of the work. Yes, I agree.

In the late 1800s, the fiction of Emile Zola had a profound effect on the literary world.  In such novels as ‘L’Assommoir’, ‘Germinal’, and ‘Nana’, he started a new literary genre of extreme realism called naturalism.  With ‘Bunner Sisters’, Wharton wrote her own naturalistic novella suffused with pessimism in regard to the lower classes, especially its single women.

In ‘Bunner Sisters’, the older sister Ann Eliza and the younger sister Evelina live together in a shabby New York City neighborhood in the 1890s. The two sisters are beyond what was usually thought of as marriageable age. They keep a small shop selling artificial flowers and small hand-sewn articles for women, and they barely scratch out a living.

Ann Eliza decides to get Evelina a clock for her birthday with money she has saved, and that is when their real troubles begin. Enter the clock maker Herbert Ramy. He is a German, and he seems quite capable with clocks. Soon he starts coming around to the sisters’ house. At first Ann Eliza thinks he might be interested in her even though Evelina is the one who has had boyfriends before. Then Ann Eliza realizes that Evelina has her eyes and heart set on Mr. Ramy and decides to forgo her own possibilities in favor of her younger sister.

Did I mention that to the sisters Mr. Ramy sometimes looks sick with a dull look in his eyes and in need of care? The sisters figure he’s just a bachelor who doesn’t take good care of himself, but later we find out the real reason Mr. Ramy looks sick.

Things proceed as expected. I won’t divulge any more of the plot.

Edith Wharton usually wrote of the upper classes, but in this case she went slumming. Things were bad enough for poor people without Wharton embellishing their problems. Charles Dickens showed the severe effects of poverty on English youth and families, and here Edith Wharton shows the severe effects of poverty on American adult single females, especially if they let the wrong man take advantage of them. At least Dickens usually had an upbeat ending for his poor souls.

‘Bunner Sisters’ is a bleak read without any redeeming glimmer of hope at the end.

 

Grade:   C-

 

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting. I hadn’t heard of this one.
    It seems to share a theme with other Whartons that I’ve read…the desperate lives of unmarried women when they can’t earn enough to keep themselves. For such a theme to have any meaning, it needs to go beyond failed romances, or untrustworthy men (that’s the stuff of genre fiction), it needs to explore the structural reasons why it happens. Like Catherine Helen Spence’s Mr Hogarth’s Will and George Gissing’s The Odd Women, which I haven’t read but saw Simon’s recent review of it http://tredynasdays.co.uk/2019/02/george-gissing-the-odd-women/
    Is there any sign that Wharton was exposing a bigger picture in this story?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • Hi Lisa,
      ‘Bunner Sisters’ is definitely lesser known Edith Wharton although it was made into a TV movie in 2018 which I haven’t seen. ‘Bunner Sisters’ certainly doesn’t get into the structural reasons for single women’s poverty at that time but sticks close to this one case where these two women – sisters – are done wrong by this German man. I found the novella quite claustrophobic and could never read more than four pages at a time without becoming oppressed about these women’s plights. The sisters’ situation keeps getting worse and worse until the end.
      I’ve read a couple of George Gissing novels – Maybe ‘The Odd Women? – and want to read more.

      Like

      Reply

  2. […] In ‘Bunner Sisters’, the older sister Ann Eliza and the younger sister Evelina live together in a shabby New York City neighborhood in the 1890s. The two sisters are beyond what was usually thought of as marriageable age. They keep a small shop selling artificial flowers and small hand-sewn articles for women, and they barely scratch out a living. […]

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: