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Edith Wharton, Writing a war story (Review)

July 17, 2016
According to Keirsey, Edith Wharton may have b...

Edith Wharton (Presumed Public Domain via Wikipedia)

“Writing a war story” is quite different to the Edith Whartons I’ve read to date, and it was clear from the opening sentence – “Miss Ivy Spang of Cornwall-on-Hudson had published a little volume of verse before the war”. It was the comic tone that did it. All the previous works of hers I’ve read, several novels and novellas, plus a couple of short stories, have been serious, if not downright tragic. However, Wharton was a prolific writer, so I wasn’t completely surprised. In fact, I was rather thrilled to have come across this story via the Library of America (a few months ago now).

I haven’t yet read the highly recommended biography of Wharton by Hermione Lee, but I’ve heard enough about her life to know that she lived in France during the First World War, and that she contributed significantly to the war effort. As LOA’s notes tell us, she stayed in France when the war started while others fled. She raised money, visited the front, established refugee hostels and homes for children. She was admired widely but she, herself, apparently underplayed her role, believing, writes LOA, “that nothing she did could compare with the agonies suffered by the soldiers and their families”. Her story, “Writing a war story” satirises both this role and the idea of writing stories for soldiers, for the war effort.

The plot is simple. Ivy Spang, who had published, to minimal recognition, a book of verse, is asked to contribute a short story to a new magazine, The Man-at-Arms, aimed at convalescent soldiers. Flattered, she accepts, and, due for leave from her volunteer work of “pouring tea once a week” for soldiers in a hospital, she sets off “to a quiet corner of Brittany”, because

devoted though she was to her patients, the tea she poured for them might have suffered from her absorption in her new task.

But, the task proves harder than she’d imagined. She struggles to find “Inspiration”, her mind being full of the one serious but unfortunately pretentious and condescending review, by the editor of Zig-Zag, of her published verse collection. She tells her companion, Madsy, that “people don’t bother with plots nowadays” and that “subject’s nothing”. Eventually, in desperation, she accepts Madsy’s offer to use/collaborate on one of the “stories” Madsy had jotted down from her hospital volunteer work. They agreed that Ivy would take the basic story but add her literary “treatment”. You can probably guess the outcome, but you should read the story to see just how it comes out. There’s a photo and a famous novelist involved too. In addition to the satire on “literature” and war volunteer work, there’s also a gender dig.

One of the things I most enjoyed about the story was its satire of literary pretensions, and how easy it is for an unconfident writer to be derailed by the wrong sort of praise, as Ivy is by Mr Zig-Zag!

In the story’s conclusion, a novelist laughs at her story, before he realises she’s the author. When he realises, and she asks for feedback:

He shook his head. “No; but it’s queer—it’s puzzling. You’ve got hold of a wonderfully good subject; and that’s the main thing, of course—”
Ivy interrupted him eagerly. “The subject is the main thing?”
“Why, naturally; it’s only the people without invention who tell you it isn’t.”
“Oh,” she gasped, trying to readjust her carefully acquired theory of esthetics.

Poor Ivy! I liked the fact that Wharton’s satire is subtle, not over the top. We readers can see what’s coming but Ivy isn’t ridiculed. We feel for her aspirations but we can see that her lack of confidence has laid her open to influence. And there’s irony here because that very influence, that editor of Zig-Zag, had warned her of “not allowing one’s self to be ‘influenced'”, of the importance of “jealously guarding” her “originality”.

There’s more to this story, particularly for people interested in Edith Wharton’s biography. My point is that whatever your interest – literature, war literature, Edith Wharton herself – this story has something to offer, as well as being a good read (with a subject, or two!)

Edith Wharton
“Writing a war story”
The Library of America
Originally published in Woman’s Home Companion, 1919
Available: Online

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2016 9:31 am

    You know, now that I look back on it, I wonder if Wharton wasn’t poking fun in The Reef? When I wrote my review I was indignant about Anna’s *horror* over a premarital relationship and I thought that Wharton was ‘over the top’. Maybe I missed something in the tone?

    • July 18, 2016 7:58 pm

      Good question Lisa. I haven’t read The reef so couldn’t say. My sense is that many of her novels – I’ve read 8 of her novels/novellas – are serious critiques of upper crust society. Tone is probably critical to understanding who or what she is critiquing. I notice that you “read” this by audiobook. Maybe that isn’t the best way to understand the nuances of Wharton, but I don’t know! You’ve made me intrigued about it now! Can I squeeze it in somewhere?

  2. July 18, 2016 10:15 am

    I felt sorry for Ivy but I did love the satire. As you say Wharton’s biography would be very interesting. I was always under the impression that Wharton wrote about what she knew so maybe there is something of herself (doubts about her ability and what to write), in this story.

    • July 18, 2016 8:05 pm

      Yes, I think you’re right about Wharton Meg. I wondered too. Is she expressing her own uncertainty, or her own reaction to literary pretensions? What is she saying about the war effort?

  3. July 18, 2016 11:10 am

    I never encountered Wharton in school, for one reason or another, and haven’t read her on my own! I have been getting into some older books lately — not TERRIBLY old, but not brand-new either — like Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and the Anne of Green Gables series.

    • ian darling permalink
      July 18, 2016 6:49 pm

      I will read this. I haven’t read any of Edith Wharton’s novels yet but have read some of her short stories. I especially like some of her ghost stories which are as subtle and ironic as Writing A War Story appears to be.

      • July 18, 2016 8:20 pm

        Ah, Ian, I think Library of America’s story of the week has done a ghost story or two of hers but I haven’t read them. Sounds like I should go back and check one out.

    • July 18, 2016 8:09 pm

      Oh, GTL, it’s always good to read some oldies – at least I love getting a sense of the history of literature. I hope you manage to get to Wharton some time. I’d love to hear what you thought.

      • July 19, 2016 1:51 am

        I’ve mostly read new books for Grab the Lapels because authors or publishers sent them to me. I’m almost done with the pile, and I haven’t accepted new books in ages!

        • July 19, 2016 8:02 am

          Yes, i know what you mean GTL, it can skew one’s reading a little too much. I try to slow it down because I want a mix in my reading.

  4. July 20, 2016 4:07 am

    I’ve not read this Wharton story before. I always think of her as so serious and so end up being surprised by how funny she can be. That Hermione Lee bio is really good. I know it’s long but it is worth the time, really well done.

    • July 20, 2016 9:24 am

      You’re right Stefanie – even in her serious books you realise there’s humour if you stop and think. I haven’t forgotten that you read the Lee bio. I’m pretty sure I gave it to my Mum years ago, so I will try one day to get to it. It has to be long, Wharton lived such a long and packed life didn’t she!

  5. July 23, 2016 4:49 pm

    It’s been a while since I read anything by Wharton, and your post reminds me that I must get back to her soon. The House of Mirth was my last – I loved the way she observed and dissected the workings of society. I’ll probably continue with her society novels for now and save the stories for the future. Will look out for this one.

    • July 23, 2016 5:05 pm

      Thanks Jacqui. I love The house of mirth. It’s unforgettable – as you say the way she analyses the working of society in her society novels is so clear-eyed, so spot on. I’ve read a few of them, but The house of mirth so far is probably my favourite. They’re all great reads though.

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