Edith Wharton, Writing a war story (Review)
“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!)
“Writing a war story”
The Library of America
Originally published in Woman’s Home Companion, 1919