Total War: Edith Wharton’s Paris in its Time of Need

by Emily Shuman

Edith Wharton, a prominent American author, left her home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and settled permanently in Paris, France, in 1906. The Paris Wharton experienced in the early years of the twentieth century was one of economic growth and energy.  France was enjoying a more influential diplomatic position on the European stage, which, in combination with the country’s economic success, created the prewar period known as “La Belle Époque.” In reaction to growing German international aggression, a renewed nationalist spirit swept through the city. This glamorous, booming culture soon came to an abrupt halt with the assassination of the Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist and the ensuing outbreak of World War I. On August 14, 1914, the first border clashes began as Germany invaded France through Belgium. By late 1914 the war became deadlocked in trench warfare and a war of attrition. The bloody international conflict dominated the world stage and devastated the home front. The effects of World War I became the most influential aspects of not only Edith Wharton’s daily life in Paris, but her subsequent literary works as well.

Troops in Paris in 1916

Paris was completely transformed by the effects of a total war. As refugees began pouring in, Wharton devoted all of her energy to relief efforts. She worked tirelessly establishing workrooms for jobless women, hostels for refugees, tuberculosis sanatoriums for soldiers, and her Children of Flanders charity. Wharton was not alone; it became a common trend for American women to aid in the French relief efforts. Over one hundred and thirty private American agencies were established to support refugees.

American philanthropic poster

While Wharton selflessly toiled to ease the suffering of her beloved France, the United States continued to remain neutral. The United States followed isolationist foreign policies; determined to keep the war solely on the European continent. She grew frustrated and embarrassed at the neutrality of her country. The author enlisted her pen to persuade the United States to come to France’s aid, writing a series of essays in Fighting France describing the terror and suffering on the front lines. To her relief the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917. Wharton expressed her release from shame in a letter in which she wrote, “Let us embrace on the glorious fact that we can now hold up our heads with the civilized nations of the world” (Price 122).

American Propaganda Poster

Wartime Paris resembled nothing of La Belle Époque. The Parisians struggled daily for basic consumer goods as the war drastically increased the standard of living. Consumer culture in the early years brought about a temporary destruction of class distinctions. According to Tyler Stovall, “That people of all classes bought basic consumer goods meant that they could easily serve as a symbol of social and national unity” (295). The citizens of Paris, regardless of class,  shared a common bond in that they all struggled to fulfill the same basic needs during the wartime crisis. On a more violent note, consumer riots broke out over the city directed at stores with overpriced goods or with German or Austrian affiliations. As Stovall observes, “Whereas most of the popular demonstrations that accompanied the rush of colors to Paris acclaimed the soldiers headed to the front lines, some also took the opportunity to attack those perceived as enemies of the nation” (299-300). To make matters worse, a housing crisis erupted over escalating rates and inabilities to make payments. For many families the war removed the principal bread winner, leaving a struggling mother behind to make payments. The Parisian glamour diminished overnight as men melted into a mass of uniforms, creating unity and destroying class distinctions based on dress, embodying the union sacrée. The landmark fashion industry of Paris was abandoned for more pressing issues. Wartime solidarity was reflected in the ubiquitous traditional black of mourning. The city was dominated by wartime crises which reflected in Wharton’s daily life and writing.

The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, ending World War I. By that time, eight and a half million soldiers had died either as a result of wounds or disease. As treaty negotiations began, France focused its energy on recovering from the destruction and devastating loss of manpower. The country, including Wharton, mourned the loss of the prewar, traditional way of life. In The Age of Innocence, she advocated the “need for continuity and tradition–forever lost in the cataclysm of the Great War” (Funston 1). Parisian culture was traumatized by the Great War, as was Wharton. The war had been the dominant influence on her life in Paris, filling her days with charity oriented tasks and her pages with stories of wartime struggles. France slowly recovered from the catastrophe as it unknowingly approached yet another. Wharton, however, would not live to see Paris struggle through another apocalyptic military conflict. She passed away at her villa in France on August 11, 1937.

Works Cited

Funston, Judith, E. “Wharton, Edith.” http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-01745.html. American National Biography Online. Feb. 2000. Thu Sep 09 2010.

Price, Alan. “Edith Wharton at War with the American Red Cross: The End of Noblesse Oblige.” Women’s Studies 20.2 (1991):121. Web. 12 Sept. 2010.

Stovall, Tyler. “The Consumers’ War: Paris 1914-1918.” French Historical Studies 31.2 (Spring 2008): 293-305. Web. 12 Sept. 2010.

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