Edith Wharton, Writing a war story (Review)

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

Edith Wharton, A journey

According to Keirsey, Edith Wharton may have b...

Edith Wharton (Presumed Public Domain via Wikipedia)

I am a fan of Edith Wharton and have read around seven of her novels, some of which are part of my personal canon. However, I have only read a couple of her short stories, and she wrote quite a few of those too. In fact, she was a prolific writer. And so, when last week’s Library of America story turned out to be one of hers, I decided to read it.

“A journey” was written, according the brief introductory notes, in the 1890s when Wharton was in her late 20s to early 30s. It was written during the time when she was married – unhappily – to Edward Wharton, from whom she was eventually divorced in 1913. The notes say that three of the stories written during the 1890s explore marital misery, and that the journey in this story “becomes a metaphor for an unhappy marriage”.

That could be so, but let’s get to the story. It describes a train journey in which a young woman is accompanying her terminally ill husband back to their home in the East after having spent some time, under doctor’s orders, in Colorado. The story starts with:

As she lay in her berth, staring at the shadows overhead, the  rush of wheels was in her brain, driving her deeper and deeper into circles of wakeful lucidity. The sleeping car had sunk into its night silence. Through the wet window-pane she watched the sudden lights, the long stretches of hurrying blackness …

The next paragraph briefly chronicles their short marriage and the sudden disparity between them as his health collapses:

a year ago their pulses had beat to one robust measure; both had the same prodigal confidence in an exhaustless future. Now their energies no longer kept step …

And then here is the entire third paragraph:

When they married, she had such arrears of living to make up: her days had been as bare as the white-washed school-room where she forced innutritious facts upon reluctant children. His coming had broken in on the slumber of circumstance, widening the present till it became the encloser of remotest chances. But imperceptibly the horizon narrowed. Life had a grudge against her: she was never to be allowed to spread her wings.

Oh dear … methinks the note-makers at the Library of America are right. It’s not what is said so much as what is not said and how what is said is said. What is not said is anything about true love and empathy (though we are told in the fourth paragraph that “she still loved him of course”). In other words, there is no sense of the looming tragedy of the loss of a soul-mate. As for how it is all said, the language is heavy and gloomy. It’s clearly raining, and there are “shadows” and the “hurrying blackness” (a metaphor, presumably, for his coming death, as well as being a literal description of night). The paragraph describing his appearance in her life and their marriage is not exactly joyful either. The focus here is more on where she’d been, so the language is negative (“arrears”, “slumber”). And even the description of the possibilities opening up to her through marriage – “the encloser of remotest chances” – is not what you’d call expansive. No wonder she thinks life has a “grudge against her”. I would too.

The rest of the story is about a rather self-focused young woman. She goes through the motions of caring for her husband – and occasionally “warm gushes of pity [not “sympathy” or “love”, note!] swept away her instinctive resentment of his condition” – but her thoughts are all for herself. Here is her reaction to being in Colorado:

Nobody knew about her, or cared about her; there was no one to wonder at the good match she had made, or to envy the new dresses  …

This is early Wharton. The hallmarks of her writing style are here – the careful choice of words to convey meaning that may be opposite to what’s expected, the development of character through those words, the build up of atmosphere and tension through a well-sustained tone – but it doesn’t quite have the tightness and singularity of purpose of her later works. We don’t get to understand the young woman well enough to be able to respond to her on anything more than a superficial level. I suspect that Wharton would want us to extend her some sympathy but I think we are more likely to see her as a little pathetic, and we really know almost nothing about the husband (except that he had been “strong, active, gently masterful”) so our reaction to his predicament is more intellectual than emotional.

As the journey proceeds, our heroine is faced with a moral dilemma, but she doesn’t take full responsibility for what is happening: “it seemed to be life that was sweeping her on with headlong inexorable force – sweeping her into darkness and terror”. The story, in fact, takes on some elements of horror fiction but that is not its intent and it doesn’t develop along those lines.

I particularly like Wharton when she tackles the intersection between societal expectations and character. This story has glimmers of that – but it’s not really elaborated. Nonetheless, it’s a good story that grabs you from the start with its oppressive atmosphere and foreboding tone. Even early Wharton, I’ve found, has much to offer her readers.

Edith Wharton
“A journey”
The Library of America
Originally published in a collection in 1899?
Available: Online

Note: Stef at So many books has recently reviewed Hermione Lee‘s biography of Wharton, and Kevin at Interpolations has extensively reviewed some of her novels.