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.

Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week