Saturday, May 09, 2015

Annals of War: Mrs. Wharton has her picture taken


Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
(No, this isn't the photo in question!)

by Ken

I don't mean to make light, or at any rate not too light, of these weird and wonderful little story of the great American writer Edith Wharton's, which I couldn't resist sharing. Because the circumstances in which these odd events transpired were anything but light.

By chance in the very week that the world took note of the 100th anniversary of the sinking-by- torpedo of the Cunard liner Lusitania, at 2:10pm on Thursday, May 7, 2015, thereby drawing a certain amount of attention to World War I, I happened to be making my way through the portion of Edith Wharton's memoir, A Backward Glance, a problematic but nevertheless often fascinating book that was begun in 1932, when she was 70, and first published in serial form in 1934. And it's in the chapter from the book called "The War" that I stumbled across this story that seemed too charmingly strange not to share.

In June 1914 Wharton, then basically living in Paris, recalls hearing the grim tiding of the murder of the Archduke Ferdinand ini Sarajevo. Her friends and acquaintances understood that it was a grim tiding, but not just how grim. She proceeded with a planned holiday to Spain, then amid mounting confusion found her way back to France in time for the outbreak of war.

But with banks not paying out funds, she found herself without money, and more or less without a home, since she had already had her servants close up her Paris home and proceed to a country home she had rented for a planned summer in England she had been eagerly looking forward to. Afraid that the servants would be stranded there without funds, she determined to make her way there, but now had to deal with the double obstacles of the inability to shake loose any money and the legal impossibility of traveling to England. All of that she overcame, feeling obliged to rescue whatever the situation was in the rented house, but having done that, and then managed to swap residences with its owner, who was then in London but needed to get back to the country, she found herself trying desperate to secure permission to return to France, where she was already involved in war-relief efforts -- and eventually wound up deeply engaged in war-related activities there for the duration of the war.

But first she had to get back to France, which she was assured was impossible. Eventually she did secure the necessary permission, but still had to shuttle endlessly between the American and French embassies in London to get the paperwork done. At last one of the "over-worked officials" told her that she needed to have a photograph taken for the permit ("I imagine there were no regular passports yet") and "hurriedly gave me the address of the photographer usually employed by the Embassy, who, he said, being used to the job, would deliver my photograph the same day."
I hastened to the address given -- a vague street somewhere in Millbank. The houses were all exactly alike, but on the one bearing the number given me I read the sign "Photographer", and confidently rang the bell. A small shy man with pale hair and eyes admitted me, and showed me into a parlour furnished with aspidistras andantimacassars. Thence, after a long delay, he summoned me with the request to follow him to the roof. I wa slightly surprised, but in those days everything was unexpected, and I climbed obediently up a ladder to the top of an outbuilding behind the house. Here this strange photographer seated me on a kitchen chair, and ducking under the voluminous black draperies took aim. But apparently something did not work, and after repeated duckings, and rumpled reappearances, he said in a tone of apology: "I'm so sorry, madam, but the truth is, I've always specialized in photographing wild beasts, and this is the first time I've ever done a human being."

I had evidently come to the wrong address; but there was nothing for it but ro receive his excuses with a shout of laughter, and implore him to go on all the same. He did, and the portrait bore painful witness to the truth of his statement; but though it looked like a wild-cat robbed of her young it was sufficiently like me to get me safely through to Paris.
Wharton wrote a good deal for publication about the war and her experiences and observations of it, often from close to the front. And on one point, she makes clear in this same chapter in A Backward Glance, she's adamant.
When I am told -- as I am not infrequently -- by people who were in the nursery, or not born, in that fatal year, that the world went gaily to war, or when I have served up to me the more recent legend that France and England actually wanted war, and forced it on the peace-loving and reluctant Central Empires, I recall those first days of August 1914, and am dumb with indignation.

France was paralyzed with horror. France had never wanted war, had never believed that it would be forced upon her, had proved her good faith by the absurd but sublime act of ordering her covering troops ten miles back from the frontier as soon as she heard of Austria's ultimatum to Servia! It may be useless to revive such controversies now; but not, I believe, to put the facts once more on record for a future generation who may study them with eyes cleared of prejudice. The criminal mistakes made by the Allies were made in 1919, not 1914.



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