Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

A lesser known novella by Edith Wharton, included in her book Xingu and Other Stories published in 1916. Two sisters operate a millinery shop, the eponymous Bunner Sisters, designing ladies hat in a run-down district of New York City.

A ladies hat shop in a shabby neighbourhood sounds incompatible and that’s the reality the Bunner sisters are dealing with, business barely sustaining their living with only a little left for a surprise birthday gift. Ann Eliza uses her savings to buy a new clock for younger sister Evelina’s birthday. Thus begins the turn in their lives.

Ann Eliza and Evelina remind me of Elinor and Marianne in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The older is almost resigned to her fate but the younger constantly suppresses a bubbling, fleeing spirit yearning for fancier and more adventurous experiences. And that’s Ann Eliza’s wish for her sister as well. As the older sibling, she’s willing to give up her own bliss for Evelina’s happiness.

Well, that’s until lately, when Ann Eliza notices Mr. Herman Ramy, the clock maker who owns a dustier shop than theirs in the neighbourhood. Here’s how Wharton describe Ann Eliza’s change:

All the small daily happenings which had once sufficed to fill the hours now appeared to her in their deadly insignificance; and for the first time in her long years of drudgery she rebelled at the dullness of her life. With Evelina such fits of discontent were habitual and openly proclaimed, and Ann Eliza still excused them as one of the prerogatives of youth.

Anne Eliza finds opportunities to go to the clock shop to meet Mr. Ramy or in other places such as the market, but often comes to disappointments. There’s humour in these circumstances, her best laid plans often go awry, crashed by Evelina unknowingly. Ann Eliza always being the patient and self-sacrificing one, sees her chances slip away. As days go by, fate does seem to smile upon Evelina and leaves Ann Eliza behind.

Any more hints I’ll be spilling out spoilers, and that will crash your enjoyment. There are twists and turns. Looks like Wharton is influenced more by Henry James than Austen in leading her readers into the stark reality of being a woman at that time, and her astute revealing of her characters’ psychological states.

I’m always interested in why a filmmaker thinks a certain literary work is good movie material. Bunner Sisters is now a TV movie in development. Edith Wharton’s most well known, both book and adaptation, is probably The Age of Innocence. Bunner Sisters will be a much smaller project for sure, but still piques my curiosity. The Custom of the Country is also on the drawing board. Hope it will take off soon.


Here’s a piece of fond memory from my road trip to New England a few years ago when I visited Edith Wharton’s home The Mount. Relating to #NovNov event, I’m sharing a photo I took, Wharton’s home library:

One wall
Edith Wharton’s personal library at The Mount, photo taken by Arti, Oct. 2015


Bunner Sisters can be read online at Project Gutenberg. Here’s the link.

Check out what others are reading for Novellas in November hosted by Bookish Beck and Cathy746Books.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton”

  1. Oh my word, Arti I just finished reading “Bunner Sisters.” Edith Wharton most certainly can tell a beautiful story dripping in hardship and confusion about those we love.
    Thank you so much for the link. And right now I’m hoping Ann Eliza will find employment and live a quiet life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll thank you for the link, too, and mention that I remember your visit to that library. While a setting like that never can guarantee good literary production — it couldn’t hurt. I may have time for the Bunner Sisters over the upcoming holiday weekend, especially if it rains.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On top of living there Wharton used The Mount as a writers retreat and I say it’s very inspiring. Wharton was an architectural and landscape designer, her gardens are stunning. I don’t mind retreating there even if I couldn’t produce anything in writing. 😉


  3. Thanks for the link: I like Wharton and I’ll certainly check out the book there at Gutenberg!
    This story reminds me a little of a story by Balzac, about a young women content with her dreary life until a young man comes down her street and disrupts her life. Trouble is, Balzac wrote so many stories, I can’t remember which one it was…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You were so lucky The Mount was open and you could go inside during your visit. When we went (in March) it was closed for the season and although we enjoyed walking the exterior and grounds and window peeping it wasn’t quite the same. It does sound like a rather fun story. I might have to check this one out.


  5. Oh, I don’t know this Wharton at all but would love to read it – and see the TV movie. Interestingly, Lily Bart in my favourite Wharton, The house of mirth, ends up working in a milliner’s shop. This makes me even more interested in this story.

    And, I love Custom of the county too, so hope that movie takes off


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