“It is not in the mud and jokes and everyday activities of the trenches that one most feels the damnable insanity of war; it is where it lurks like a mythical monster in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.”
–Edith Wharton, Fighting France
Edith Wharton was familiar with the environs of international conflict associated with the First World War. Her work in the French relief effort is much of what defines her post-authorial life.
With the unfolding events in Paris, I couldn’t help but wonder how Wharton would have reacted to her beloved expatriate city under siege. I happened upon this piece from The New Republic that reveals her responses to the ravages of war, war violence, and the sociological effects of its reality:
The writer points out that “[w]hen Wharton takes advantage not of her eyewitness proximity to the trenches but rather of the distance and off-kilter perspective that her non-combatant status and relative safety made possible, she seems able to report authentically the terror of the war.”
Upon further reading, I can mutually empathize with the writer’s observation of the frustrating paradox that pits the image of Wharton’s literary, idyllic Berkshire Estate against the unflinching realism of wartime. Also keenly demonstrated is Wharton’s detachment from that realism. Her novels tellingly reveal her stand-aside observant gaze upon the members of her society that are so instrumental in the formation of her “Old New York.” She also appears equally withdrawn in her method of documentation and representation of the very real and cataclysmic European conflict.
Does this indicate that she was largely indifferent to its traumatizing effects on individual lives? Even, conversely, indifferent to the sufferings of her own characters? Or is it simply her characteristic role as writer and correspondent that lends to her generally unemotional tone?
While it is at least safe to assume she was overtly concerned with conflict itself, wartime or otherwise, and innately intuitive of the anxieties it caused, one can really only assume what she may have thought of Paris being “terrorized” at a point in history other than wartime, had she lived. Having settled there through the First World War and following its end, until her death, her attachment to the city may have revealed a new found allegiance to it, a profound sense of sympathy with its people, the recent and more sophisticated tactics and horrors of contemporary warfare (she might agree) worse even than the subversive, life-destroying manipulations of her Bertha Dorset.
References: Samet, Elizabeth D., (6 September 2010), “Edith Wharton’s War” – New Republic (TNR).