Edith Wharton: Fighting France

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 11:30am -- mfarias

In May of 1915, the acclaimed novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was in Nancy, France, in the northeastern part of the country. After a year of war, its effects were visible on the homes and lives of the people of France who were attempting to continue through the destruction. On May 13, 1915, Wharton began writing her observations of Nancy, which were later published along with her other wartime observances in Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (1915).

Edith Wharton (Source: Britannica.com)

Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York on January 24, 1862 to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. As a child she traveled to Europe extensively and began writing early. She was one of the intellectual elite who summered in Newport during the Gilded Age. From the 1860s to the 1880s she lived with her parents and older brothers at their summer home Pencraig. When she was 23, she married Edward Robbins Wharton in 1885 and they shared the Pencraig Cottage across the street from her parent’s home. In 1901, she grew tired of Newport life and purchased land in Massachusetts where she designed and built her estate, The Mount. As a result of her husband’s declining mental state, they were increasingly able to travel less and spent more time at The Mount until they sold it in 1911 and divorced in 1913. By many accounts, she was somewhat permanently living in France already by 1907, but she moved to Paris following the divorce. Wharton was living in Paris when the war broke out in 1914, but she chose not to flee, as many did. Instead, she became an active supporter of the war effort in France.


One of her first actions was to set up women’s workrooms in Paris. As Wharton herself noted in the New York Times, “When war broke out an immense number of benevolent women in Paris felt a violent but vague impulse to ‘help.’” Her first workshop was quickly overflowing with women and she opened up others in the area to meet the demand. When the Germans invaded Belgium in the fall of 1914, refugees were pouring into France and she helped set up the American Hostels for Refugees, which provided food, clothes, and shelter. She said “they all came at once in a terrible tidal wave” and she was spurred into action, calling upon friends with large homes to provide access, asking for money from people in France and back home in America. On their behalf, she collected more than $100,000 and continued to work. Wharton also ran a rescue committee dedicated to helping the children of Flanders, whose town was bombed by Germans. For all of her efforts, in 1916 she was awarded France’s highest decoration, the Légion d'honneur.


"A French Palisade," Edith Wharton at the front. 
Fighting France from the collection of the Redwood Library

Through her various connections, Wharton was one of few foreigners allowed to visit the front lines in France. She made five separate trips in 1915, which were later published as articles and then compiled together in Fighting France, which became an American bestseller. Wharton’s writing on the bleak realities of war was on its own in America, when the nation was attempting to keep its distance from the war, and Wharton was determined to shed light on the consequences being suffered by countries who needed help. As she writes in the conclusion of the book, “If France perishes as an intellectual light and as a moral force every Frenchman perishes with her….It is against this death that the whole nation is fighting; and it is the reasoned recognition of their peril which, at this moment, is making the most intelligent people in the world the most sublime.”

Fighting France from the collection of the Redwood Library

On May 13, 1915, she began her dispatch from Nancy in Lorraine and the Vosges, where she writes: “Since leaving Paris yesterday we have passed through streets and streets of such murdered houses, through town after town spread out in its last writhings; and before the black holes that were homes, along the edge of the chasms that were streets, everywhere we have seen flowers and vegetables springing up in freshly raked and watered gardens.” She did more than just detail the destruction of homes and towns, but also show how lives ended: “One old woman, hearing her son’s death-cry, rashly looked out of her door. A bullet instantly laid her low among her phloxes and lilies; and there, in her little garden, her dead body was dishonoured.” On May 14, she wrote of the silence that was broken when, “suddenly, through the dumb night, the sound of the cannon began.” Her observances continues through the next couple of days as she passes destruction and the people who survived who are trying to start again, all while the echoing sounds of the war continue nearby.

Fighting France from the collection of the Redwood Library

While Wharton must surely be remembered for her literary works, the more than forty books she wrote during her lifetime that earned her the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature (she was the first woman to win the award), her efforts during the war further set her apart. Edith Wharton was a fierce intellectual whose novels have reached millions and whose actions during the war led another Newport intellectual, Henry James, to label her the “great generalissima.” So this weekend, on the anniversary of her march through Lorraine and the Vosges, through Nancy, we remember her remarkable work.