Abandoning words for the battlefields of the Somme

Carole Angier finds an account of Edith Wharton's war work takes biographical detail a step too far; The End of the Age of Innocence: Edith Wharton and the First World War by Alan Price, Hale, pounds 17.99

In her mid-fifties, Edith Wharton, the pampered, patrician novelist, abandoned her writing career to spend nearly four years travelling out to the battlefields of the First World War. There she drove herself nearly to physical breakdown with the sad and heavy burden of trying to care for jobless women, orphaned children and tubercular soldiers.

It was admirable work but, in biographical terms, it makes for extremely tedious copy. And as Professor Price tells it in this brief book, it is staggeringly boring. Price piles on the detail, mostly about money and squabbles (alas, charity is mostly about money and squabbles), hardly pausing to consider what it all means. And when he does pause to consider, you wish he hadn't; the results are of such eye-stretching obviousness. What effect did Wharton's dedication to war work have on her fiction? It limited her output! (She herself said it left her "pen-tied".) Why did this sophisticated social satirist descend to sentimental fiction and propaganda pieces? To save the lives of her orphans and refugees!

If ever Price makes a point with some content, it immediately appears to be wrong. For example: the effects of the war "would be with Edith Wharton for the rest of her life", he intones; he then describes how she went straight back to her writing, and wrote about many of the same unmilitary things (e.g. incest) she always had done. And if ever he makes a point once, he makes it several times: in the preface, in each chapter, and in the summary at the end of each chapter (well, of most chapters).

''The End of the Age of Innocence'' is not only his title, it is also the last line of his preface and the last line of his book. But at least "The First World War ushered in the true end of the age of innocence" is not obviously meaningless. Unlike his other main point - made in the preface, chapter one, and the conclusion: "For a novelist who made fictional worlds and for woman who created aesthetic spaces (her houses and their gardens), the loss of control [represented by the war] was traumatic." More traumatic than for people who didn't create aesthetic spaces?

I suppose I did learn one or two interesting things. That the American Army was 17th in size in the world, for instance, when it entered the First World War; or that when several hundred American writers and editors were polled in 1914, the vast majority favoured neutrality. By contrast the reactions of Wharton herself, and of her friend Henry James, put us all to shame. She did the work described here. He said "The war has used up words." If only it had.

There have already been five Lives of Edith Wharton, including two big ones only two years ago. You would not think there was much left to say - and you would be right. Price (Associate Professor of English and American Studies, Penn State) has found a career-publishing niche in Wharton's First World War charity work, and has already overfilled it in the academic journals. That's fine; it's what they're there for. But it does not seem to have occurred to him (or to Hale) that this space may have been left because it wasn't worth occupying. With touching naivety he thanks Wharton's last two biographers for sharing materials with him. I am sure Shari Benstock and Eleanor Dwight are nice and generous people. But I do not think it cost them very much to share this particular material with Price.

It is sad, because it was brave of Robert Hale to publish a minority interest literary book, and to publish it so handsomely, on better paper and in better print than most big, greedy publishers spare for their bestsellers. But Hale's judgement, unfortunately, was not equal to its courage.

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