Review: ‘Wharton in Wartime’

When Dr Alice Kelly began perusing the Edith Wharton Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, little did she expect to unearth a hidden literary gem. Tucked between a number of drafts of Wharton’s short stories, she discovered an undated folder entitled ‘The Field of Honour’. Much to Kelly’s surprise, this unassuming envelope was found to contain an unpublished story by Wharton: nine pages of her perceptive commentary on her anxieties about women in wartime, and the relationship between America and France. When Kelly published this in the 4 November 2015 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, with the title ‘An unknown First World War story by Edith Wharton, her discovery made headlines. For those with an academic interest in Wharton, they were granted the rare opportunity to rediscover her, reading a work they had not yet laid eyes on.

For the general public, ‘The Field of Honour’ served to remind many that Wharton – the affluent American writer famous for her novels of high society (think: The Age of Innocence) – was also one of the many women heavily involved in the hidden war effort on the home front. Living in Paris when the First World War broke out, Wharton had turned her literary talents to writing a series of war reports on France, a task she undertook in conjunction to her other wartime charitable work. The timing of this discovery could not have been more fortuitous for Kelly – a month later, her critical edition of Wharton’s Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (a collection of Wharton’s wartime writing, originally compiled by Wharton herself) was published by Edinburgh University Press. It was this book, and the context of Wharton’s First World War writing, which became the subject of the roundtable discussion ‘Wharton in Wartime’, run by the Women in Humanities and TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre for Humanities) groups.

Edith Wharton

Chaired by Professor Elleke Boehmer, Director of TORCH, the discussion featured commentary on Wharton and Kelly’s book, with speakers including Dr Shafquat Towheed of the Open University, Professor Dame Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson College, and Kelly herself (who is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in First World War Writing at TORCH). Kelly began with a presentation on the background to her book, including the fascinating story of her literary discovery. She noted that the surprise and intrigue which characterised the reception of her publication of ‘The Field of Honour’ highlights the difficulty we, as readers, have in placing Wharton not in the ballrooms of the societies about which she typically writes, but in the bloodied battlefields of war, as a serious journalist. And yet Kelly observed, Wharton was by all accounts a central figure in Paris’ wartime activities: aside from her writing commitments, Wharton was also heavily involved in running a number of outreach charities. ‘Fighting France’ (her original collection of journalistic reports) was the result of a request by the Red Cross to report on hospital conditions in France, and the consequent trips to the frontlines Wharton undertook as a part of her investigative duties.

A primary observation of Kelly’s, which would carry through the presentations by Towheed and Lee, was the extent to which Wharton’s wartime reports were ‘sophisticated propaganda’. First published in Scribner’s Magazines, these articles were written for an American audience. They were, as Towheed mentioned, both a series of journalistic reports, conceived from a set of first-hand experiences, as well as a set of carefully considered impressions, intended to persuade the reader, however slightly, towards the cause in question (i.e., the allied war effort). Towheed, a Professor of English Literature, considered Wharton’s wartime works from the perspective of the literary merit of the writing, observing the complexities surrounding Wharton’s perceived position as a propagandist. Not officially under the charge of a ‘higher authority’, Towheed argued Wharton wrote ‘Fighting France’ from the inherently paradoxical position of both a neutral, and a partisan: she carefully walked the tightrope of being persuasively perceptive in addition to interestingly informative. Hence Kelly’s observation that Wharton’s ‘propaganda’ can be described as inherently sophisticated.

6a00d83451584369e2017c3429a2b4970b-800wiLee concluded the discussion, observing that Wharton’s perpetual love of, and for, France provides important insight into her own perceptions of the war about which she wrote. ‘Fighting France’ is a double entendre, a title which alludes to the contradictory nature of warfare, and to Wharton’s own opinions on this. Openly critical of her American homeland, with an unfailing love for France, Wharton’s choice of title could be interpreted as an ode to her adopted homeland, an expression of her chosen patriotism couched in cleverly suggestible language. Wharton, Lee noted, did not ‘have time’ for pacifism, or for neutrality: she celebrated the sacrifices of the young, and in writing ‘Fighting France’, demonstrated an astute awareness of the difficulty of war time writing, of the need to balance factual accuracy with the emotionality of one’s audience.

It is this complexity, this sophistication of her writing, which Kelly ultimately wishes to draw attention to in her edition of Wharton’s work. If the calibre of this roundtable is anything to go by, she is likely to have succeeded: the discussions of Kelly, Towheed and Lee each succeeded in presenting a different aspect of Wharton, providing further understanding, and provoking greater interest, in both her work and her character. Peculiarly, little heed was paid to the place of Wharton’s writing within the field of women in war writing as a whole – an omission made more obvious by the fact Kelly’s PhD thesis covered this exact topic. While time constraints may have been to blame, it would certainly have been illuminating to learn of Wharton’s place amongst her wartime female literary peers. Nonetheless, this collaborative presentation provided an interesting prompt for further discussion on this area, and given the current focus within the academic community on new understandings of the First World War and its contexts, this roundtable is unlikely to be the last word on Wharton, or women, in wartime.

Ashlee Beazley

For more information about future TORCH events, please visit their website.

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