The Marne, Edith Wharton (1918)

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
Date: 1918
Device: Kindle
Pages: n/a

Mademoiselle Misfortune Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)

“What’s the child looking at,” asked Miss Weatherwax?
“Oh, everything!,” said Alice. “It’s all so beautiful!…If you’ve never seen it before, you ought to take a long, long look. You’ll never see it just this way again.”

…said the little old American woman, “That’s right, I’ll never see it again for the first time, will I? Well, Alice, let’s stare.”

I gave this book 5 stars. I am not sure it deserves that many. Not that the book was bad, but it was a bit fluffy and short on any real complication. However, this year has shown me that I sometimes need fluff and a sweet, happy reading experience with characters whose evolution is optimistic and positive.

The story takes place in France with the close knit Moreau family. Alice Moreau is 14 years old and the oldest of six girls. Her brother Edward, the oldest and the only boy, is often her foil for excursions and attention. He is to follow in their father’s footsteps as a diplomat for the French government, although he is unhappy as he has no choice in the matter. Alice is looking for her place in the world frustrated that Edward is the child her father chooses when he and Madame Moreau attend cultural and social events and who has seen more of life than she has.

But that all changes when a short, older female ball of fire descends on the family. Miss Weatherwax is the sister of Monsieur Moreau’s great friend, John Weatherwax, a well-known American explorer and authority on the Incas. They met when Moreau was sent to Peru. Weatherwax has died and his sister, who spent her entire life looking after her brother’s finances and other details leaving him free to travel, has never left the States herself. Now it is her time for adventures and exploring and it seemed obvious that she should begin her explorations in France and with the family of John’s old friend. However, she has given the Moreaus no advance warning.

Miss Weatherwax does not speak French, but the Moreau children are fluent in English due to their father having been educated in England. The children are not terribly fond of English but their father forces them to speak, especially at mealtimes. After Monsieur and Madame Moreau visit Miss Weatherwax’s hotel for dinner, she invites them to the Paris opera with the stipulation they bring one of the girls. Alice is thrilled that she, not Edward, is finally the chosen one and is in blissful heaven as she prepares for what she hopes is a special experience.

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In the middle of the Grand Escalier de l’Opera Miss Weatherwax and Alice stared and stared.

Alice shines in diplomacy herself as she navigates poor Miss Weatherwax through the rites of the box seat after a kerfuffle ensues with another opera goer. Alice translates between the angry seasoned Frenchman and the naive American spinster and manages to smooth out if not a lasting peace, at least a temporary armistice for the duration of the evening. It is obvious to Miss Weatherwax Alice is the perfect traveling companion for the trip she has planned to the French Riviera.

They set off on an unforgettable trip full of danger, intrigue, a foiled kidnap plot and further diplomatic trials. Alice comes into her own not only as a diplomat in her own right, but develops detective skills, rescues a precious cat, foils and solves a kidnapping and spins stories for her sisters back home. This is a coming of age story not just for Alice and Edward, but for the entire Moreau and Weatherwax families. The perfectly resolved ending gave each and every one everything they wanted!


“The Six Misfortunes I call them,” said Madame Toussaint. “Six daughters! Six misfortunes, if you wish to have my opinion of the matter!”

[Alice and Miss Weatherwax] left their packing and went to stand for a few moments on the balcony overlooking the sea. A long shining path of moonlight spread out before them on the water, and Alice said, “That is our road, Mademoiselle. It’s all shiny and bright, and all the things that both of us have missed will be on it.”

Carol Ryrie Brink (December 28, 1895 – August 15, 1981) is best known for her frontier historical novel Caddie Woodlawn, which won the Newbery Medal in 1936.


Title: Mademoiselle Misfortune
Author: Carol Ryrie Brink
Publisher: The Macmillan Company
Date: 1935
Device: Hardcover
Pages: 267


Challenge: Classic Club

A Year-Long War and Peace Readalong

war_and_peace_read_along

 

Staring a 1455 page book straight in the eye, so to speak, is incredibly daunting. I wonder if it is realistic that I will stick with it? Like many classics, War and Peace is a book I have always felt I needed to read at some point in my life. And while I greatly enjoyed Anna Karenina last year, this book beats that one by many, many hundreds of pages.

Russia

At only 4 very short chapters in, though, I know what will sustain me throughout this year-long readalong and it is what I remember from Anna Karenina: the way Tolstoy describes his characters intentions, their inner thoughts as well as their outward appearance. I am a visual person. It’s how I learn things. I need to see and do a thing to make it stick, to make me understand it. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the myriad characters that populate his books allow me to see them visually creating a life for them in my head, which is how I have experienced reading since childhood; descriptions of time, place and intimate surroundings rounding off the pictures I need in my head.

Because there are 361 chapters in this book the readalong host Nick Senger has created a ‘chapter-a-day’ reading schedule and my expectations are high that I will finish. The character list for War and Peace is a page and a half, but I know I will ‘see’ them all. It is early yet, but the characters have drawn me in with their appearance, their humor and their thoughts.

russia3

 

Some characters we are introduced to so far:

Prince Vasily always spoke listlessly, like an actor repeating a part in an old play…like a wound-up clock, saying by force of habit things he did not even expect to be believed.

Anna Pavlovna was brimming with zest and animation, despite her forty years. To be an enthusiast had become a social attitude with her, and sometimes, even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her.

[Prince Andrei Bolkonsky]…it was obvious that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room but was so thoroughly bored with them that he found it tedious either to look at them or listen to them. And among all those faces he found so tiresome, none seemed to bore him so much as that of his pretty little wife.

Princess Ellen smiled; she rose with that same unchanging smile, the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman, with which she entered the drawing room….Ellen was so lovely that not only did she show no trace of coquetry, but on the contrary, appeared to be almost embarrassed by her undeniable, irresistible, and enthralling beauty….[She] leaned her plump bare arm on a little table….The whole time the story was being told, she sat erect, gazing now and then at her beautiful round arm resting lightly on the table, or at her even more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted the folds of her gown…

Ippolit struck one not so much by his remarkable resemblance to his beautiful sister, as by the fact that despite this resemblance he was surprisingly ugly. His features were the same as hers, but while his sister’s face was lit up by a perpetually beaming, complacent, youthful smile, and her body was of a singularly classic beauty, his face was overcast by an idiotic and invariably peevish, conceited expression, and his body was thin and weak. His eyes, nose, and mouth all seemed to be puckered into a vacant, bored grimace, and his arms and legs always fell into unnatural positions.

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It’s rather unwieldy to read this in mass market form!

Have you read War and Peace? What did you think?

We are using this hashtag on Twitter for daily quotes from the book if you want to see what we’re up to! #warandpeacereadalong.

Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics

Roxana, Daniel Defoe (1724)

Roxana

 

If you have any Regard to your future Happiness; any View of living comfortably with a Husband; any Hope of preserving your Fortunes, or restoring them after any Disaster; Never, Ladies, marry a Fool; any Husband rather than a Fool…

 

So begins Roxana’s life of woe, written as a cautionary tale “to my Fellow-creatures, the Young Ladies of this country,” that any life is better than marriage with a Fool “nay be any thing, be even an Old Maid, the worst of Nature’s Curses, rather than take up with a Fool.”

Because, Fool she marries, has 5 children by him, suffers through her brother’s financial folly and thereby hers when he is given her portion of their father’s inheritance which he spends and then the folly of her husband’s financial losses. To add to this latest injury, her husband leaves her and their five children to find his fortune elsewhere, with no provision for food, bills or a roof over their head.

Though he has threatened to leave in the past, Roxana never believed he would do it and expects to hear from him or to at least receive something for her livelihood, but as the weeks and months drag on there is no word from him and she begins selling furniture, clothing and jewelry to feed the household. As the situation deteriorates, she knows she must give up her children and hopes the sister of her husband will oblige, so she sends her devoted maid Amy, who has been working without wages, to take the children to their aunt.

The landlord, who has given Roxana a year’s free rent to sort out her situation, begins to insinuate himself in her financial affairs with food and other necessities, which Roxana believes are without strings. However, it becomes clear that if Roxana is interested in staying in the house, he will want to share it with her, cohabit, as if they are a married couple. This is the predicament Roxana will find herself in throughout her life as no word from her husband either for a divorce or by a death certificate will allow her to legally marry. She will be forced to survive in cohabitation, as a mistress, a concubine, a whore.

After the landlord dies, she continues in this manner with successive men, in various situations, acknowledging she is at least lucky that her beauty can still attract rich men, even after so many children and the wear and tear of the guilt she suffers over the choices she has had to make since her husband left. She is given beautiful clothes, jewelry and homes to live in and money to keep up her lifestyle. One of her greatest fears as the years pass in this way, is over the control of this fortune, which she would have to give up if ever she could legally marry. Marriage would mean her husband would control her estate to do with it what he would and as past circumstances have shown her, she could once again find herself unprotected and defenseless. This terrifies her even after she hears her husband has died and she is free to marry legally.

Roxana is never morally accepting of the choices she has made and is often ashamed at her sinful life. The fate of her children haunt her and she wants to make restitution although the difficulty here is admitting to them how she has come by her wealth. With Amy as her “agent,” she makes some financial amends, but this ends up in disaster later on.

The subject matter of this 18th century novel made me wonder how it was received in its day. I discovered the book was popular, though throughout many early editions, the ending was changed by whoever published it as was common at the time. Most had Roxana on her deathbed confessing her sins and crying out her repentance giving her a measure of goodness and assurance of a Christian burial. In some of the endings when she reveals the truth to her children they forgive her and the book ends happily.

However, the real text as Defoe writes it ends with Roxana and Amy’s world collapsing once again into destitution, “the Blast of Heaven seem’d to follow the Injury…and I was brought so low again, that my Repentance seem’d to be only the Consequence of my Misery, as my Misery was of my Crime.


Note on the Text

My edition preserves the original format of the text keeping the unique spellings and word usage, the capitalization of words within sentences and the seemingly (to me, anyway) random italicization of words. But it was not difficult to read. Though at times dense, Defoe’s writing is descriptive and absorbing as if Roxana is telling her story live, in front of a spellbound audience.

A Personal Note

If not for a reading challenge that called for a book with an ‘x’ in the title, I am not sure I would have chosen this book. I scoured myriad lists to find a title and though I knew of Defoe, having read A Journal of the Plague Year  many years ago, I had never heard of this title, so I was happy to acquaint myself with another one of his works. Though I am not always successful in completing book challenges, I can honestly say they have enriched my life!

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My Edition
Title: Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress
or, a History of the
Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of
Mademoiselle de Beleau, afterwards called
the Countess de Wintselsheim
in Germany
Being the Person know by
the Name of the Lady Roxana
in the time of Charles II

Author: Daniel Defoe
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1724
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, What’s in a Name?, Mount TBR