Fighting France: from Dunkerque to Belport is a small collection of essays, written by American novelist and short story writer Edith Wharton at the beginning of the First World War while she was living in France.
“The signs over these hotel doors first disturbed the dreaming harmony of Paris. In a night, as it seemed, the whole city was hung with Red Crosses. Every other building showed the red and white band across its front, with “Ouvroir” or “Hopital” beneath; there was something sinister in these preparations for horrors in which one could not yet believe, in the making of bandages for limbs yet sound and whole, the spreading of pillows for heads yet carried high. But insist as they would on the woe to come, these warning signs did not deeply stir the trance of Paris. The first days of the war were full of a kind of unrealizing confidence, not boastful or fatuous, yet as different as possible from the clear-headed tenacity of purpose that the experience of the next few months was to develop. It is hard to evoke, without seeming to exaggerate it, that the mood of early August: the assurance, the balance, the kind of smiling fatalism with which Paris moved to her task. It is not impossible that the beauty of the season and the silence of the city may have helped to produce this mood. War, the shrieking fury, had announced herself by a great wave of stillness. Never was desert hush more complete: the silence of a street is always so much deeper than the silence of wood or field.”
As a consort to the president of the American chamber of commerce in France, Edith Wharton was given unique access to life at the front. In these essays Wharton meets with French soldiers, seeing for herself the impact upon everyday life, the devastation and desolation in once beautiful villages along the Western Front.
In many ways this book – though gloriously written, as one would expect from the pen of Edith Wharton – is rather out of step with the world we live in now. It reads rather like a piece of flowery propaganda at times, which in itself I think is fascinating, showing us as it does the spirit of patriotism that everyone it seems wanted to show the world. Edith Wharton was a fierce Francophile, and there’s no doubt where her sympathies lay here, the French are brave and stoical, the Germans evil, laying siege to the French countryside, destroying its villages. Written in 1915, it is hardly surprising that this is her view – it couldn’t be expected that it should be otherwise, it is probably only now with the distance of time that we are able to acknowledge, faults and heroisms on both sides.
They are grave, these young faces: one hears a great deal of the gaiety in the trenches, but the wounded are not gay. Neither are they sad, however. They are calm, meditative, strangely purified and matured. It is as though their great experience had purged them of pettiness, meanness and frivolity, burning them down to the bare bones of character, the fundamental substance of the soul, and shaping that substance into something so strong and finely tempered that for a long time to come Paris will not care to wear any look unworthy of the look on their faces.
During this year in France, Edith Wharton was able to tour various parts of the front, she appears fairly matter of fact about her presence in these places, but when we consider how close she was at times to the fighting this becomes a quite extraordinary chronicle. She focuses mainly on the deserted and war ravaged villages, and shows us temporary hospitals and soldiers’ messes and once poignantly encounters injured soldiers, suffering with no one to care for them. The soldiers set up little temporary villages right behind the lines, where they were able to live almost normally between engagements, and in the company of the her party and their guide Edith Wharton was able to meet these men. Wharton’s descriptions of landscape are just lovely, in her company the breeze rustles through the trees gently, while birds sing over head in trees alongside summer meadows.
“As we sat there in the grass, swept by a great mountain breeze full of the scent of thyme and myrtle, while the flutter of birds, the hum of insects, the still and busy life of the hills went on all about us in the sunshine, the pressure of the encircling line of death grew more intolerably real. 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 monsters in scenes to which the mind has always turned for rest.”
As an early twentieth century travelogue by a great American writer, Fighting France is a beautifully rendered little piece, locations exquisitely described with obvious affection. As a first-hand account of France during the first few months of The Great War, however, it is rather over blown and very one sided. The final section – entitled The Tone of France is particularly objectionable – as Wharton appears to speak for the whole of France, allowing her admiration of the French spirit and patriotism to descend into terrible generalisations. However I can’t help but also see something rather interesting in Fighting France as a social document, and I wonder what it might have been like had Edith Wharton written these essays with some greater distance to the war.
This was my eleventh read for the Librarything Virago Group’s Great War theme read (I have rather neglected it of late) links to my other Great War reads are on my reading challenges page.