Edith Wharton, war correspondent. Not the first image that comes to mind of the author of The Age of Innocence and other novels of the gilded age. But that is how she came to write Fighting France, first published as a series of articles in Scribner’s Magazine in 1915.
Wharton had moved to France before the war. Very much a Francophile, she encouraged the U.S. to enter the war. She also undertook charitable work and raised money for refugee relief. (For her efforts, she was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour in 1916.)
The first chapter, The Look of Paris, describes the city in the first six months following the outbreak of the war. At first, there was apprehension and “the air was thundery with rumours.” Then mobilization: “The street was flooded by the torrent of people sweeping past us to the various railway stations. All were on foot, and carrying their luggage; for since dawn every cab and taxi and motor—omnibus had disappeared. The War Office had thrown out its drag-net and caught them all in.”
Wharton sympathetically recounts the evolving impact of war on the city, the French people, the ex-patriots in residence, and “the great army of the Refugees” who eventually converged there. “It is not only the fighters that mobilize: those who stay behind must do the same. For each French household, for each individual man or woman in France, war means a complete reorganization of life.”
…now we were to learn that mobilization is only one of the concomitants of martial law, and that martial law is not comfortable to live under—at least till one gets used to it. At first its main purpose, to the neutral civilian, seemed certainly to be the wayward pleasure of complicating his life; and in that line it excelled in the last refinements of ingenuity.
That actually sounds like some of my peacetime dealings with bureaucracy in Paris!
From February to August 1915, Wharton made four trips behind the Allied lines on the Western Front. Her accounts of these trips form the bulk of the book. She was one of few foreign women permitted to travel so close to the front. Her party had a military escort on each trip, so she saw what they wanted her to see.
At times, she seemed to be on a frivolous lark … a luncheon or picnic near the war zone, walled gardens in bloom … but she quickly countered the tranquility with the realities of the nearby war. She observed the effects on towns and countryside, civilians and soldiers. We see that the home front could be very close to the front lines.
There is no doubt of the propaganda slant in Fighting France. Wharton was writing to convince Americans to join the Allies. And those permitting her access and accompanying her likely counted on her to convey a supportive view of the cause. Nonetheless, her impressions are an eloquent and vivid view of France at the time.
Finished Fighting France … still awaiting the next book from the library … filled the intervening evening with a copy of The Marne I found on gutenberg.org. Published in 1918, it builds on Wharton’s knowledge of France and the intelligence she gathered for Fighting France. It’s a mercifully short novella filled with a privileged, self-absorbed class of Americans playing at involvement in the war effort. War … how terribly inconvenient … and not sufficiently glamourous to compensate. Even the “sympathetic” main character railing against the indifference of his compatriots is tiresome. An unfortunate contrast to Fighting France.