Finding myself in mid-Edith Wharton Fest, and gathering together all the books by and about her that I possess, I came across a thing of beauty... a little Hesperus Press edition of Fighting France - From Dunkerque to Belfort by our Edith in the War Cabinet. This is a rather grand name for the £10 bookcase with sliding glass doors (clever Bookhound find) where I keep all my war-related reading.
From the blurb..
'Opening in August 1914, as the onset of the First World War is announced to a sunlit Paris, Edith Wharton's chronicle of her experience of the front lines powerfully evokes a country and a way of life under threat.
As nuanced in her observations of human behaviour as she is in her vivid depictions of French landscape and architecture, Wharton fully exploits her unique position as consort to Walter Berry, President of the Amercian Chamber of Commerce in Paris, which allows her unparalleled access to life in the trenches. Sensitive without sentimentality, Fighting France is nothing less than an inspirational testament to the strength of the human spirit as a time of great adversity.'
And what a record this is. Edith Wharton's writerly instinct for spotting what lies beneath which I am finding so skillfull and so entertaining in her fiction, now turned on a shocking moment in history witnessed first hand...
'...for a minute I has the sense of an all-pervading, invisible power of evil, a saturation of the whole landscape with some hidden vitriol of hate. The the reaction of the unbelief set in, and I felt myself in a harmless ordinary glen, like a million others on an untroubled earth...'
But unlike many others Edith is also able to get away from the trouble and take a holiday on the Riviera every so often, as revealed in another book in my Edith pile, My Dear Governess, The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann ...and who can blame Edith for getting away. This wasn't her war and she could so easily have remained in comfortable but stultifying splendour back in New York, but as Colm Toibin elaborates in his introduction...
'Edith Wharton had grown to love France...her novelist's eye for the perfect detail was matched ...with a sense of moral grandeur and warlike fervour, which makes her book and important document not only about the state of the front but of the state of mind of a woman who passionately and idealistically supported the war...'
a good little book for a very different perspective, and that of a woman.
Interestingly too Fighting France was published in 1915 having first appeared as a series of tmely and informative articles in Scribner's Magazine, and at a time when many foreign corrsepondents were still excluded from the war zone. However, the publication in 1923 of Edith Wharton's novel of the Great War, A Son at the Front was considered mistimed and misplaced. J.B. Priestley of the opinion that the novel had arrived at the wrong moment according to Mary Conde, in an essay I discovered in one of those books that sits on the shelf in case it comes in useful one day, Women's Fiction and the Great War (edited by Raitt and Tate). Either too early or too late, though belated and out of date was the general consensus, with people finding it too painful to go back and look at such recent sorrow and pain... and looking at that cover on an early edition it is not hard to see why.
Please do keep your Women in War reading suggestions coming, I will compile a list as a blog post this weekend. Mixing the wars for a minute, the Tinker is already reading Jude's suggestion Fifty Years of Silence by Jan Ruff O'Herne, harrowing and courageous in the extreme is his verdict so far. His was one of the ships that brought prisoners-of-war home from Japan at the end of the Second World War, so he is no stranger to the aftermath...yet still he is shocked.
Goodness...how vital all these primary source accounts are.