Review: ‘Fighting France’

In November 1915, American author Edith Wharton first published Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort, a collection of essays on the First World War. Exactly a century later, in the same month, Dr Alice Kelly’s annotated version of Fighting France was released. Kelly’s Fighting France is no mere work of commemoration, however. While the current centenary commemorations have given Kelly an appropriate background against which to situate Fighting France, her purpose in republishing Wharton goes beyond this. It both complicates perceptions of Wharton (best known for her socially observant novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, 1920) and places her within the wider context of female wartime writers (on whom Kelly wrote her PhD thesis).

Wharton’s original publication of Fighting France arose from the series of six articles she wrote as a war reporter for France, the majority of which were published in the American periodical Scribner’s Magazine. Wharton was (perhaps surprisingly) a central figure in wartime activities in Paris: aside from her writing commitments, she was also heavily involved in running a number of outreach charities. The articles which comprise Fighting France were the result of a request by the Red Cross to report on local hospital conditions, and the consequent trips to the frontlines Wharton undertook as a part of her investigative duties.

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Kelly provides a fresh perspective on Wharton, contextualising her from a centennial vantage point. From the first paragraphs, Kelly is quick to situate Wharton’s wartime writings in contemporary scholarly debates which surround her works. As Kelly notes, Wharton’s war writing has been frequently considered — and often dismissed — as propaganda, as a persuasively patriotic description of France’s apparently “unique” experience of the global conflict. This is too simplistic a reading for Kelly, however, who instead draws the reader’s attention to the nuances of Wharton’s wartime compositions. For example, when Wharton wrote her collection in 1915, the First World War was only in its sixteenth (of an eventual fifty-two) months. And yet, as Wharton writes in ‘The Tone of France’, France’s ‘white glow of dedication’, evident in the first few months of the war, had already begun to be replaced by a note of resignation, a sense that the ‘unparalleled calamity’ was not yet near its end. At the time, Wharton goes on to write, ‘no one knew what the resistance was to cost, how long it would have to last, what sacrifices, material and moral, it would necessitate… [F]or the moment baser sentiments were silence: greed, self-interest, pusillanimity seemed to have been purged from the race.’ Rather than implying that ‘resignation is the prevailing note in the tone of France’, Wharton instead is suggesting that the attitude of the French, ‘after fourteen months of trial’ was ‘not one of submission’, but one of ‘the hot resolve to dominate the disaster… on the resolute ignoring of any alternative to victory.’

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Edith Wharton

Wharton’s suggestion that the French were already aware of the intricacies of the war, and of the depths of sacrifice this would inevitably bring, could easily be perceived as a naïve attempt at contemporary propaganda. Kelly, however, argues differently. Instead, she suggests that Wharton’s writing is more sophisticated, characterised as it is by her complex combination of emotive connotations and astute observations. What Wharton is deft at writing (and Kelly at drawing the reader’s attention to) is a kind of “paradoxical” reporting: Wharton writes from the positions of both a neutral observer and a partisan; she is both persuasively perceptive and interestingly informative. In describing France’s wartime atmosphere in ‘The Tone of France’, Wharton demonstrates her own astute awareness of the need to balance factual accuracy with the emotionality of the audience. While the latter may be more evident in the above extract, as the article continues Wharton provides the ‘proofs’ and ‘conditions and qualities’ upon which she has based her judgement. One example is Wharton’s own admission that ‘[t]he door is so largely open to conjecture that every explanation must depend largely on the answerer’s personal bias.’

It is this self-awareness which sets Wharton’s wartime writing apart from her wartime literary peers, and which, above all, illustrates the sophistication Kelly emphasises. As is likely apparent, there is a lot to be said on the subject of Wharton’s wartime writing, and it is no wonder that Kelly’s introduction accounts for almost a third of the volume. Kelly does an excellent job in breaking down the various themes that crop up about Wharton (her social elitism, her complex personal life, her apparently simplistic understanding of the war, to name but a few), and she threads these back together to make her overarching argument for Wharton’s writing as an ‘intensely literary sort of propaganda’ with inherent complexities.

While it could be argued that a fresh perspective on works such as Fighting France are welcome at any time, the fact that Kelly’s edition coincides with the centenary of the First World War is undoubtedly fortuitous timing. In taking advantage of the continuing popular interest in the war, Kelly also uses Fighting France to tap into the growing scholarly interest in women’s literary contributions to the war. In doing so, Kelly has ensured Wharton’s place in the collective memory of wartime writing. In short, her edition of Fighting France is brilliant. It is a work which subtly highlights the role played by women during the First World War, and which deftly captures the paradox of Edith Wharton’s wartime writing. As the centenary of the First World War continues, let us hope Fighting France is not the last word on Wharton, or women, in wartime.

Ashlee Beazley

‘Fighting France’ is available to buy from Edinburgh University Press.

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