Life for Edith Wharton in Paris was lived in stimulating freedom and aristocratic luxury until World War I broke out. Shocked by the ravages of the fighting the famous American novelist set to work helping impoverished refugees and wounded French soldiers. She even established work rooms employing displaced women and destitute housewives to make fashionable undergarments.
Examining life through her autobiography, A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton wrote that her “years of Paris life were spent entirely in the rue de Varenne; and all those years rise up to meet me whenever I turn the corner of the street. Rich years, crowded and happy years; …I should have been hard to please had I not discovered many compensations in my life in Paris.”
Brought up in privilege on west 23rd street in New York, Wharton’s greatest enjoyments as a youth were reading and playing make-believe. She travelled widely throughout Europe with her parents and spent many a summer in the verdant countryside and the rolling hills of New England.
Married in 1885, Wharton and her husband built The Mount, a country manor in Lenox, Mass., in 1902. It inspired many of her most poignant novels, such as Ethan Frome and Summer. They tell of life in the New England hill towns.
Edith Wharton in Paris
With her husband fighting depression, a disorder hardly better understood today, they traveled to the south of France for the therapeutic relief offered by the warm Mediterranean air. By 1909 they took up their own flat in Paris, at 53 rue de Varenne. Sadly, her husband’s condition grew increasingly difficult, and their living situation became untenable. They divorced in 1913 after 28 years of marriage, and Wharton moved permanently into the Paris apartment.
With the experiences of previous visits and now permanently living in the City of Lights, the author moved among the most fashionable, wealthy and influential of society’s statesmen and journalists alike. In Paris she “”enjoyed a freedom…, not possible to the native born, who were enclosed in the old social pigeon-holes…” As an American of means she could gracefully straddle various social segments. Enthusiasm in France for her writing had been growing. Her latest work, The Custom of the Country had even recently been translated into French along with The House of Mirth. Wharton’s characterization of New England life, then completely unknown to the French, boosted her popularity and reputation.
The Poor Archduke
But old-world diplomatic alliances had created confusion and crisis in Europe. Long unresolved and pent-up hostilities were released. Germany declared war on France in August of 1914.
Of those months immediately preceding the outbreak of war, Wharton recalled, “How happy and safe the future seemed.”
So aloof to the unfolding hostilities were Wharton and her friends that when the trigger was pulled in Sarajevo, and the war was set in motion, “We gave little thought to the poor murdered Archduke…”
The Western Front
France rushed to reclaim the “lost” provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The move put the two armies face-to-face along Germany’s western border – the so-called Western Front.
People were shocked to learn that the nature and methods of war had changed. Gone were the Victorian-era days of horse cavalry and bayonet combat. Both sides had new and bigger artillery guns, dreadful chemical gases, frightening flame throwers and far-reaching aerial bombs.
The German advance into France scared many people out of Paris. When they continued into Belgium in the fall of 1914, Belgian refugees flooded the city. War engulfed everyone: civilians, women and children alike. The city was swamped by the growing throngs and drowning for the lack of funds to deal with them. Casualties on the French side were legion.
French service organizations had not, on the one hand, prepared at all for this influx of refugees. On the other, the French army had drained the city of men from all walks of life, conscripted to fill the ranks. With their husbands gone, wives had no money. Nor did they have a way to make any since they were normally bound to their household chores.
Almost all hotels, restaurants, shops and work-rooms had closed with the drafting of the men. There remained large numbers of women and children without means or livelihood for whom immediate provisions had to be made.
In the growing domestic crisis, the French Red Cross asked the now-famous Edith Wharton for help. She hesitated. The war had even frozen her personal money transfers from America. But, once determined that she must help France, she undertook her duty with raw enthusiasm. She helped to set up an American Hostel for Refugees, which managed to provide shelter, meals and clothes. Eventually it offered employment agency services to help the needy find work.
In early 1915, Wharton organized the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee, which gave shelter to nearly 900 Belgian refugees.
In lieu of raising money as a traditional charity, she opened a cutting and sewing workroom to make undergarments. In this way she gave meaningful employment to war refugees, underprivileged women and the wives of factory men called to service.
They made lingerie, men’s undershorts and foundation garments. The business engaged some 90 women who received both food and wages.
Of these heady days, Wharton wrote, “There was an ardor in the air which made it seem easy to accomplish whatever one attempted.”
As Wharton’s workshop grew, wealthy friends with spare property to offer gave her space in Paris. She had several skilled workers among her first recruits. That led Wharton to the idea to use finer materials and make “high end” or fashion undergarments that could be sold in America. And with the volunteer support of international agents she received orders from American department stores.
Fundraising was a constant effort. In order to tap America for funds to aid their relief efforts, the French Red Cross again turned to Wharton. The agency asked her to report on the needs in military hospitals near the front. Journalists were restricted at the war front, but she managed to get the necessary passes and permits to travel there.
Witnessing haunting scenes of desperation as well as valor Wharton created a series of magazine articles for publication in the States. The physical destruction of men’s minds and bodies was unparalleled in history.
By May of 1917 Wharton found the morale of the French army at a low ebb. Men were being sent back to the front instead of to a rest area as they were promised. “More than half of the divisions in the army were in various stages of indiscipline and mutiny.”
Marshall Petain, general and commander of the French Army, empathized with the soldiers. He halted offensive actions and gave soldiers a break, stating, “We shall wait for the Americans and their tanks.”
Wharton’s stirring articles produced an outpouring of support from America. So-called “Edith Wharton” fund raising committees sprang up in New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia and elsewhere. That made it financially possible for the Red Cross to continue its work.
Bloody fighting also continued. In July of 1918 the German offensive reached Château-Thierry, only 50 miles from Paris. Bombardments on the city thundered through the various arrondissements. Works of art were evacuated from the Louvre and sandbags were placed around monuments. Blackouts shrouded the city from German night bombers.
Then, large numbers of American soldiers began arriving in France. Allied forces turned back the German offensive. By November 1918 one set of church bells after another all over Paris began to ring out peace! The war was over.
The war upended the world in which Wharton once thrived. The First World War brought the innocence of her youth to an end, Years later she wrote, “the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914… ”
Edith Wharton in Paris, Remembered
For her heroism, the French posted the following at the door of 53 rue de Varenne:
(Translated as) In this building lived from 1910 to 1920 EDITH WHARTON American Novelist 1862 to 1937. She was the first writer from the United States to expatriate herself to France, for the love of this country and her literature.
Quoting Wharton in English it says,
My years of Paris life were spent entirely in the Rue de Varennes – rich years, crowded and happy years.
Finally it says again in French,
Close to Henry James, the work of Edith Wharton describes the high society from which she came, in ways both delicate and biting.
The Local Memories Association.
The End of the Story
Had she only been the great American novelist, it would have already been quite a lifetime. But the French honored her for the service she extended to the nation in their time of great need.
Edith Wharton died in 1937 and is buried in Versailles, France.
John E. Happ, the author of this story about Edith Wharton in Paris, has been immersed in the contrasting narratives of foreign cultures since college in Spain and speaks five languages. His varied assignments in Germany, Switzerland, the Philippines and Japan contribute greatly to his research and perspectives. Happ is a contributing author at the Journal of the American Revolution, has written for the web site The 75th Artillery C.A.C During World War One and the adventure magazine, Atlantic Coastal Kayaker.
Images: The Mount By Margaret Helminska – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63730387. French bayonet charge By Underwood & Underwood. (US War Dept.) – http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil/DVIC_View/Still_Details.cfm?SDAN=HDSN9902296&JPGPath=/Assets/Still/1999/DoD/HD-SN-99-02296.JPG., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2599594.