“Whither thou goest will I go, thy people shall be my people…” Yes, France was the Naomi-country that had but to beckon, and her children rose and came.
Edith Wharton had been living in France for many years when WWI began. Like many in Europe, Wharton was frustrated and angry at America’s reluctance to enter the war and The Marne was written in response. The main character, Troy Belknap, is her voice against this hesitation, a call to save what she has come to love. This is a very emotional Wharton that I have not seen before. Through Troy, whose yearly visits to France with his parents, has given him a love for the country, there is something very personal that Wharton brings to this story.
Troy is very young when he first summers in France. His parents arrange a tutor for him in all the subjects that interest him and every year he sees this same tutor, Paul Gantier. As he grows older, his friendships and enjoyment with his studies grow. It is an easy life of long motor drives, sightseeing, archaeological trips and the lovely sights to stoke a precocious imagination.
As the family travels each summer they often stay in the same hotels and inns and Troy has become very attached to one particular family and looks forward to seeing them every year. He has an insatiable urge for knowledge and getting the most out of his summers in France. He calls France, “his France.” His love for the country is deep in both the past and present, loving history as well as attentive to the people he meets wanting to know their story. He is devastated the summer the Germans begin their march toward Paris when his tutor has to leave him to fight. He is too young to go himself and is angry that the US has not stepped in.
His family, like many foreigners, are stranded once the fighting begins. Some are able to get to England, but find the same issue there. Wharton does not hold back her contempt at the utter narcissism that they feel their plight should be taken into consideration above all others-“…We’ve really spent enough money in Europe for some consideration to be shown us…” For the first time in their lives they are asked to think of others and rather than see where or how they could help the country they use for status and reputation at home, they are indignant they aren’t taken into consideration first. Troy is outraged at their egotism spends as little time as possible with them.
The misery of feeling himself a big boy, long-limbed, strong-limbed, old enough for evening clothes, champagne, the classics, biology, and views on international politics, and yet able to do nothing but hang about marble hotels and pore over newspapers, while rank on rank, and regiment on regiment, the youth of France and England, swung through the dazed streets and packed the endless trains—the misery of this was so great to Troy that he became, as the days dragged on, more than ever what his mother called callous, sullen, humiliated, resentful at being associated with all the rich Americans flying from France.
Once back in New York City a sort of ‘one-upmanship’ is occurring with these same people who complained that they were not given priority in leaving, but are now telling anyone who would listen about their privations and hardships.
“The tragedy of it—the tragedy—no one can tell who hasn’t seen it and been through it,” Mrs. Belknap would begin, looking down her long dinner table between the orchids and the candelabra; and the pretty women and prosperous men would interrupt their talk, and listen for a moment, half absently, with spurts of easy indignation that faded out again as they heard the story oftener. As more of the once stranded civilians return home they have fresh tales to tell and Mrs. Belknap finds herself out-storied, out-charitied, and out-adventured. She is pushed aside to make room for others, people want something newer….
As soon as he turns 18, Troy returns to France as an ambulance driver. And one day he is met on the road by a truck load of American soldiers. America has finally joined with France and England against Germany! “There they went, his friends and fellows, as he has so often dreamed of seeing them, racing in their hundreds of thousands to the rescue of France; and he was still too young to be among them, and could only yearn after them with all his aching heart!”
But at the last moment, one of the trucks stops and a young man calls out to him to hop in the truck, “come and help!” And just like that Troy, without a moment’s hesitation, leaves the ambulance and becomes a soldier. As the truck rolls on he is given some instruction, though he is also filled with guilt about leaving his position. At the first battle he is wounded and brought to a field hospital. Regaining consciousness it turns out that was the great Battle of the Marne. The Allies had pushed back the Germans and the advance on Paris has been checked! But the oddest thing happened. Troy’s wound was severe and in semi consciousness he saw Paul Gantier, the young man who had been his childhood tutor, lift him up until he felt himself floating. Regaining consciousness at the hospital, the medics told him that his rescue had been incredible, but that no one knew his rescuer, not his name or where he had gone to. And then he just disappeared. A stunned Troy held his tongue-his tutor had died near the beginning of the war….
Published in 1918 with battles still raging, this is more a book about the attitudes at the home front than the war itself. And with the war still on, this book is published as a type of propaganda, guilt propaganda if there is such a thing, I would call it. And perhaps not directed at middle America, but to those of the upper classes who can make a difference, the ones who call the shots and who supposedly love France.
Wharton wrote another novel about the war and a few nonfiction. I will get to those at some point and will be interested to see if they are as passionate.
There had never been anything worthwhile in the world that had not had to be died for, and it was as clear as day that a world which no one would die for could never be a world worth being alive in.
Every stone that France had carved, every song she had sung, every new idea she had struck out, every beauty she had created in her thousand fruitful years, was a tie between them that all civilization was bound up in her, and that nothing that concerned her could concern her only.
For France was his holiday world, the world of his fancy and imagination, a great traceried window opening on the universe. And now, in the hour of her need, all he heard about him was the worried talk of people planning to desert her!
Title: The Marne
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., Limited