Edith Wharton Waits for War

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton, 1905

Edith Wharton might have looked like one of the Gilded Age society matrons straight out of the pages of her novels like The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, but it turns out she could really roll up her sleeves when the situation demanded. Now, on the 100th anniversary of World War I, it is time we give Wharton full credit for her service as an American war correspondent and refugee aid worker.

Wharton recorded her observations about World War I in a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine. Since then, these articles have been published together in a book called Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. Her war work, which included charitable efforts on behalf of Belgian refugees and international advocacy against American neutrality, earned her a French Legion of Honor medal in 1916.

A postcard sent by Edith Wharton to her housekeeper Anna Bauman picturing the town of Heiltz-le Maurupt after the First Battle of the Marne in September, 1914.

A postcard sent by Edith Wharton to her housekeeper Anna Bauman picturing the town of Heiltz-le Maurupt after the First Battle of the Marne in September, 1914.

This blog will follow in her footsteps from the outbreak of World War I in July, 1914 through her travels through the battlefields of the Champagne-Ardennes region in early 1915, and her visit to the Lorraine and Vosges regions in May of 1915. In addition to her travels to the German front, Wharton worked tirelessly to organize workshops for unemployed Parisian women and shelters for Belgian refugees.

July 30, 1914: Wharton Returns to Paris, Stops at Chartres Cathedral on the Eve of World War I

It was the last days of July, 1914. Edith Wharton and her “unromantically companionable” travel partner Walter Berry were hurrying back to Paris from a three week trip to Spain. Events in Europe were quickly escalating after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As Wharton herself put it: “the international news [was] looking fairly black.” Just a few days earlier, on July 28, 1914, Austria had declared war on Serbia. Wharton and Berry spent the night in Poitiers, where the atmosphere was “strange, ominous and unreal, like the yellow glare that precedes a storm. There were moments when I felt as if I had died, and waked up in an unknown world.” (A Backward Glance, 1934).

Nevertheless, as Wharton and Berry drove from Poitiers to Paris, they stopped for a picnic lunch underneath some apple trees and she found it hard to think about the reality of war: “the serenity of the scene smiled away the war rumours which had hung on us since morning.” (Fighting France From Dunkerque to Belfort, The Look of Paris, Scribner’s, 1915).

The traveling companions made it to Chartres by four o’clock that afternoon, just as the sun was bursting out from behind banks of thunderclouds. They entered the Chartres Cathedral, stood before the magnificent stained glass windows, and sought solace from the beauty and power of the sight before them. Wharton later recalled the scene like this:

[S]teeped in a blaze of mid-summer sun, the familiar windows seemed singularly remote yet overwhelmingly vivid. Now they widened into dark-shored pools splashed with sunset, now glittered and menaced like the shields of fighting angels. . . . When one dropped one’s eyes from these ethereal harmonies, the dark masses of masonry below them, all veiled and muffled in a mist pricked by a few altar lights, seemed to symbolize the life on earth, with its shadows, its heavy distances and its little islands of illusion. All that a great cathedral can be, all the meanings it can express, all the tranquilizing power it can breathe upon the soul, all the richness of detail it can fuse into a large utterance of strength and beauty, the Cathedral of Chartres gave us in that perfect hour (Fighting France, The Look of Paris).


A Visit to Chartres in Wharton’s Footsteps

You too can feel the same tranquilizing power of the stained glass windows of Chartres. The train ride from Paris to Chartres is as short as one hour, and the Cathedral is an easy five minute walk from the Chartres train station. If you’re lucky, the sun will pop out for you just like it did for Wharton and Berry in 1914. Unfortunately, the day of my visit it was wet and rainy, and only the dimmest of light poured through the windows.



The Blue Virgin Window in the Chartres Cathedral.

The Blue Virgin Window in the Chartres Cathedral.




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South Rose Window

South Rose Window


Standing in the rain outside the cathedral

Standing in the rain outside the cathedral


If you’re looking for a good spot for lunch on a day trip to Chartres, the town is absolutely full of them. But for an unbelievably memorable crêpe, you’ve got to stop in at Creperie la Picoterie at 36 rue des Changes, Chartres.

Creperie la Picoterie

Creperie la Picoterie


Creperie la Picoterie’s buckwheat crepe with smoked duck, apples, cherries, goat cheese, lettuce, black olives and rhubarb compote. As good as it looks!


One of my traveling pals got the Pain de Poilane sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes and it was incredible too.


Next Up in Wharton’s Footsteps: Paris on the Eve of War, August 1914


Recommended Reading:

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook.

Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort by Edith Wharton is available as a free ebook at archive.org.


Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton

Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton













Back to Sarah’s Key

The original US cover of Sarah's Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace?)

The original US cover of Sarah’s Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace. Anyone else notice that or is it just me?)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay was one of the first books I wanted to map out during my year in Paris. I read this book with my Chicago-based book club and never forgot it. I was determined to find the sites from the book and take some photos for my blog. My original post, with photos of the commemorative plaques and statues near the Eiffel Tower can be found right here.

I’ve been meaning to update that post for awhile now. Back in 2012, I made some new discoveries and went back to take some more photographs. How it happened is kind of cool.

I noticed that one of my favorite Paris bloggers (Richard Nahem of Eye Prefer Paris) had posted photos of the courtyard of the fictional apartment from Sarah’s Key. But wait! His photos were of 26, rue Saintonge in the Marais, and mine were from 32, rue Saintonge. Whoops!

I tweeted out to Richard (I’m @parisartclub, he’s @eyepreferparis) wondering about the mix-up, when who should tweet us back? Tatiana de Rosnay herself (what a treat!), explaining the reason for our confusion. Apparently, in the book Sarah’s address is 26, rue de Saintonge and in the movie it’s 32.

So then of course I had to go see the address from the book for myself. I good friend and fellow reader from Chicago was visiting and was game for a literary trek. We headed into the Marais (she had a recent travel article in hand about the hopping Haut-Marais) and we found ourselves near rue de Saintonge. “This way to Sarah’s house!” I pointed. Obviously, book lovers like me have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

I found the bright blue doors at #26, just like Eye Prefer Paris had earlier. My friend and I also got the chance to peek in the courtyard, and we had a little “book club moment.” We looked up at the open windows, picturing Sarah’s old neighbor the music teacher, playing the violin as he sat in his window. Seriously, I think I wiped away a tear or two.

Here is the passage from Sarah’s Key that we recalled:

     Outside, the girl saw a neighbor wearing pajamas leaning out his window. He was a nice man, a music teacher. He liked playing the violin, and she liked listening to him. He often played for her and her brother from across the courtyard. Old French songs like “Sur le pont d’Avignon” and `A la claire fontaine,” and also songs from her parents’ country, songs that always got her mother and father dancing gaily, her mother’s slippers sliding across the floorboards, her father twirling her round and round, round and round until they all felt dizzy.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking them?” he called out.

His voice ran across the courtyard, covering the baby’s yells. The man in the raincoat did not answer him.

“But you can’t do this,” said the neighbor. “They’re honest good people! You can’t do this!”

At the sound of his voice, shutters began to open, faces peered out from behind curtains.

But the girl noticed that nobody moved, nobody said anything. They simply watched.



The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge


The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah's Key at 36 rue de Saintonge, Paris

The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah’s Key at 26 rue de Saintonge, Paris. Can’t you just picture the nice man and his violin leaning out the window?


photo 3



photo 2-3


The plaque on a nearby school. It says: "From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were Jews. MOre than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the elementary schools in this quarter. Let's Never Forget Them.

The plaque on a nearby school on rue des Quatre-Fils in the 3rd.  It says: “From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were born Jewish. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the Ecoles Elementaires Filles et Garcons des Quatre-Fils.  Never Forget Them.














This is all probably a good reminder as we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris on August 25, 2014. Ne les oublions jamais.


Life Drawing by Robin Black

life drawingI just can’t pass up a novel about art and artists.

Especially if the cover art features a broken paintbrush which has left a streak red paint (cadmium red medium?) across the cover, hinting at some kind of danger or menace. How intriguing.

Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House US, July 15, 2014) is an astutely psychological novel about a troubled marriage between an artist and a writer. Seeking to escape the city, Gus and Owen buy a country home where she can turn the back porch into an art studio and he can use the stone barn for a writer’s retreat. Sounds idyllic, romantic even? Hardly.

From the very first line you know the husband will be dead by January: “In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.” Gus is narrating, and what a multi-layered voice she has: remorseful, restless, thoughtful, haunted and sad. She quickly lures you into the mystery of her misery.

It is not a question of what happened to her husband, but how and why. The mystery is even more beguiling because Gus is just barely coming to understand it herself. Gus tries to explain: “as one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.”

And what a complicated landscape she’s in. Even before the new neighbor Alison moves in, Gus and Owen are having a rough go. Gus had an affair a couple of years ago, and they’re still sorting things out. As Gus says, the betrayal was “a lingering presence in our lives, a taunting little goblin in the shadows, daring us to call him out.” Her husband suffers from writer’s block, and Gus believes that she is to blame for killing his creativity. In contrast, Gus’s imagination is sparked by old newspapers she finds in the farmhouse and she is both enthralled and challenged by her work on a new series of paintings. Owen is irritated and Gus feels guilty. But still she escapes to her studio and paints.

Chances are that you will soon be convinced, like I am, that Gus is utterly real. Even the paintings on her walls come alive, complete with their own backstory. One in particular captivated me. There is a painting above the fireplace, Owen’s favorite, a painting Gus made in an old millinery shop in Philadelphia. I’d love to know where Robin Black got the inspiration for that fictional painting, maybe . . . here?

tissot milliner's shop

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, from the series Women of Paris, 1883-85, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Or here perhaps?

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Just knowing that Gus had spent weeks sketching and painting in a millinery shop, looking past the vivid hats out to the dingy gray of a February streetscape, and somehow doing a pretty good job of it – good enough to hang the completed painting above the fireplace anyway – made me admire her as an artist. Was it the subconscious pull of art history that was drew her to the same kind of place as Tissot and Degas? Or did Gus just need a warm sheltering place to change hats after her affair was finally over?

I found myself wishing that Gus could stop by my own  studio some time, have coffee, and talk about art. Maybe we could take a life drawing class together at our local art league. Gus struggles with the human form; she’s not a natural portraitist. She’s just not that good with people.

Poor Gus.

Such is the talent of Robin Black. She makes her characters live and breathe and entangle  you in their world. I care deeply about Gus. It’s been about a month since I finished an advanced copy of the book and I’m still wondering how she’s doing.

Trust me, you won’t be able to put this book down until you learn how and why Gus’s husband died. Life Drawing is a beautiful literary book with deep personal insight and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Without a doubt, one of my favorite reads this year.


–Margie White is a former bookseller, an avid reader and a painter of limited talent but unlimited enthusiasm.


A gathering at Printers Row Litfest (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black

A gathering of fans and authors following a panel discussion at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 2014 (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black



D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944

The recent anniversary of D-Day has put me on a reading streak of WWII related books. My favorite is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (You can read my earlier review and see my photographs of its setting in St-Malo here.) One of the most powerful insights from the book was the realization of how much damage the Allies caused as they forced the Germans out of St-Malo.

An Alliance Francaise teacher recently shared with me a line she recalled from her parents: “Nous aimons les Américains. Mais nous aimerions qu’ils encore plus si ils ont bombardé un peu moins.” (We like the Americans. But we would like them even more if they bombed a little less.)

d-day through french eyesSpurred on by these insights, I was drawn with great curiosity to this book: D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 by Mary Lousie Roberts (University of Chicago Press 2014). The book is based on first-person testimony by French people who lived in Normandy in June of 1944. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear their stories.

Paratroopers fell into family gardens and farmers’ fields and were welcomed into French farmhouses, regardless of the danger. Norman families gathered up the silk parachutes and later used them to make shirts, blouses and even wedding dresses.  As Roberts put it: “In the next few years, hundreds of Norman brides would be married in dresses made from that material.”

But the truth is much more complicated. Liberation came at great cost. Nineteen thousand civilians were killed during the Norman invasion. The towns of LeHavre, Caen and Saint-Lo became “martyred towns, almost completely wiped off the map.” These towns were key transportation routes for advancing German troops and the Allies were determined to  destroy their bridges and roads. The Allies dropped leaflets to warn the occupants of these targeted towns, but they often had nowhere else to go. Bomb shelters were rare in France, unlike England. The Normans hid under tables or mattresses and prayed the rosary while “friendly” bombs fell and their homes were destroyed. By the time Caen was liberated, just one-quarter of the town was still standing.

In a chapter called “First Glimpse,” the French share their first impressions of the American soldiers. They were all amazed at their height and size – they called the Americans “giants,” “beanpoles,” “strapping fellows.” They noticed the Americans’ silent rubber boots, so different from the loud sound of German boots they’d become accustomed to.

Norman children fondly recalled American soldiers who gave them their first Hershey bars and their chewing gum. They thought the “brownish-beige chocolate . . .  tasted funny,” and didn’t really know what chewing gum was. “Do you just keep on chewing?” Many Norman children were fatherless during the war, so they bonded quickly with the American soldiers who befriended them, playing soccer and basketball. The adults marveled at “thin” Lucky and Camel cigarettes wrapped so neatly in cellophane. The French noticed that German soldiers smelled like leather, soap and tea, but American soldiers smelled like peppermint, doughnut and American tobacco.

These are just a few of the many well-told first-person stories in D-Day Through French Eyes. They offer a refreshing and sobering point of view for Americans who are more accustomed to looking at the world through their own eyes. We should probably try it more often, n’est-ce pas?

A Remarkable Story of French Resistance: The Silence of the Sea

This summer has been a busy one for 20th century historians. First we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France in 1944, and soon we will recognize the beginning of World War I in 1914. It’s been a great time to dive into the sea of new books about both wars.

silence of the sea

I’d like to recommend an old book, forgotten by many, that was secretly published in France in 1942: Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) by Jean Bruller, alias “Vercors.”

It is the story of an older man who lives with his niece in a small town in France that is occupied by the Germans in 1940. A polite and aristocratic German officer is quartered in their home.

The German greets them in good French and offers an apology: “I am extremely sorry. . . . It had to be done, of course. I would have avoided it if I could.”

The Frenchman and his niece do not respond. You can feel the silence fill the room: “The silence was unbroken, it grew closer and closer like the morning mist.” The officer begins to grasp what is happening. The Frenchman and his niece are refusing to speak to him. They are creating their own form of resistance. Silent and stoic, polite but proud. The officer is taken aback, but then smiles and says, “I feel a very deep respect for people who love their country.”

The rest of the book is the story of the German’s stay, filled with gesture and nuance, but the only person who speaks until the very end is the German. We learn a great deal about the German officer through his monologues at night in front of the fire. The uncle, who narrates the story, explains:

I can’t remember today everything that was said during the course of more than a hundred winter evenings, but the theme hardly ever varied; it was the long rhapsody of his discovery of France: how he had loved her from afar before he came to know her, and how his love had grown every day since he had the luck to live there. And believe me, I admired him for it. Yes, because nothing seemed to discourage him, and because he never tried to shake off our inexorable silence by any violent expression.

The Frenchman and his niece grow to admire the German, despite their circumstances. The niece’s gestures betray a developing fondness. The German is hopeful and somewhat deluded that the occupation can turn out well, both for him and the niece, and for both countries as well.

The niece speaks but one word to the German, and only at his final parting. It’s a very powerful story, beautifully done. The simplicity is all on the surface, much like its title, The Silence of the Sea. Beneath the veneer of politeness is a hidden intensity, dignity and power.

In the literary introduction to my edition of the book (Berg 1993 paperback) it explains that Bruller based the cultured German character on a real German officer who stayed in Bruller’s mother’s home, to whom Bruller never spoke.

I would recommend this short but powerful story to anyone who enjoyed Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. You may have already recognized this book’s similarity to the second novella in Suite Francaise in which French villagers adjust to the presence of German soldiers during the occupation. However, there is good news about the author of Silence of the Sea, unlike Nemirovsky’s tragic story. Jean Bruller (who was Catholic) took great precautions in the face of enormous risks in getting his story published. He never even told  his own wife and mother about the book or his nom de plume as “Vercors.” Not only did Bruller survive the war, he was still alive in 1988 when he helped prepare his story for republication.

The edition I ordered  is especially good for those of us working on our French. It is a bilingual edition with historical and literary introductions, explanatory notes and even a glossary of French terms. The story itself is less than 20 pages long. For those with further and deeper interest in the subject, the bibliography offers a thorough list of books and articles about the French Resistance and Vercors in particular.


For further reading:

Some V-E Day Reading Recommdations on this blog: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/some-v-e-day-reading-recommendations/