Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief
Extras

Edith Wharton

French Ways and Their Meaning

In 1919, Scribner's published a collection of articles written by Edith Wharton for various publications, and called it French Ways and Their Meaning. The articles had been written primarily to introduce American soldiers to the French alongside whom they would soon be serving; our War Department, as it then was, placed the collection in the libraries of all troop ships. It is hard to guess what a young, unsophisticated soldier would have made of Mrs Wharton's knowledgeable idolatry. If I found it an easy read, that's probably because I already share most of its prejudices. I am thinking of writing to Diane Johnson - now that I have her address - and suggesting that she give us an update on the French ways that Mrs Wharton discusses. I'd love to hear Ms Johnson's take on this extract from the Preface

The French are the most human of the human race, the most completely detached from the lingering spell of the ancient shadowy world in which trees and animals talked to each other, and began the education of the fumbling beast that was to deviate into Man. They have used their longer experience and their keener senses for the joy and enlightenment of the races still agrope for self-expression. The faults of France are the faults inherent in an old and excessively self-contained civilization; her qualities are its qualities; and the most profitable way of trying to interpret French ways and their meaning is to see how this long inheritance may benefit a people which is still, intellectually and artistically, in search of itself.

Well, now that we've settled that!

In her brief introduction to the 1997 reprint of French Ways,* Diane de Margerie astutely suggests that the book is an autobiographical sketch of the woman that Wharton, on the brink of settling in France forever, wished to become, or hoped that she had become. Because Wharton was wealthy and gifted, and because the lustre of her fiction deepens every year, it's difficult to conceive of her painful childhood - painful simply because she was a girl in upper-crust New York. Girls were intellectually circumscribed to an extent that brings foot-binding to mind; they really were seen and not heard. Her instilled deference persisted into the zenith of her career; here she is, in the middle of a discussion of dinner parties, quite respectful of male supremacy:

In circles where interesting and entertaining men are habitually present the women are not expected to talk much. They are not, of course, to sit stupidly silent, responsiveness is their rôle, and they must know how to guide the conversation by putting the right question or making the right comment. But above all they are not to air their views in the presence of men worth listening to. The French care passionately for ideas, but they do not expect women to have them, and since they never mistake erudition for intelligence (as we uneducated Anglo-Saxons sometimes do) no woman can force her way into the talk by mere weight of book-learning. She has no place there unless her ideas, and her way of expressing them, put her on an equality with the men; and this seldom happens. Women (if they only knew it!) are generally far more intelligent listeners than talkers; and the rare quality of the Frenchwoman's listening contributes not a little to the flashing play of French talk.

We must see how far Wharton has come just to publish her views. Wharton didn't bother complaining about America, she simply left it, or, rather, stopped coming home from trips to France. Diving into war work as a relief organizer and as an ambulancière, she was appointed to the Légion d'Honneur in 1916. She had divorced her improvident husband (who'd married her for her money) and was probably conducting an affair with a fellow American. In France, she found freedom and the warm acceptance so often bestowed on wealthy, well-behaved Americans - and Wharton was determined to become even better-behaved, by underlining her manner with a conception of the French character from which all the right moves could be deduced automatically. That is the true subject of French Ways, and, understood as such, the book reads like an ice-cold shower first thing in the morning. Right or wrong in detail, it is truly French insofar as it partakes of le sérieux.

Several times throughout the book, Wharton asserts that the French are grown-up. Now, "grown-up" is a word to be used with chiildren, a synecdoche of maturity in which the characteristics of adulthood are reduced to height, a simple concept that children can grasp. When Virginia Woolf famously observed that Middlemarch is the only novel written for grown-ups, she implicitly dismissed most novel readers as immature. Wharton is up to the same thing. She has the authority of the French themselves, who so often lovingly dismiss young Americans as enfants. Americans go on learning into their dotage, because nobody ever teaches them anything important when they're young. In France, it is different.

Mrs Wharton's France is an incredibly aged country - she makes a bold attempt to date it all the way back to the era of the Lascaux cave-paintings - whose people have developed the closest ties to their bits of land. She reminds us that it took brutal eviction to force the Huguenots to emigrate, and who knows how many French Protestants changed their creed when the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685. I know several Frenchmen who are very fond of America, and who may even have spent most of their adult years here. But their love of France is undiminished. I suspect that it is not entirely a chosen love; French children are brought up to appreciate their country in ways that Americans all too obviously are not: its social and material attractions are brought to their attention. They are encouraged to reverence their homeland, and because their homeland has been ever more carefully tended for centuries, reverence is easily inculcated.

"Reverence" is in fact the first of Mrs Wharton's topics. It is followed by "Taste," "Intellectual Honesty," "Continuity," and "The New Frenchwoman," with a Conclusion to wrap things up. Let's cut straight to "The New Frenchwoman." It begins archly:

There is no new Frenchwoman; but the real Frenchwoman is new to America, and it may be of interest to American women to learn something of what she is really like.

...

She has always been there, waiting to be understood, and a little tired, perhaps, of being either caricatured or idealised.

(The latter remark is another poke at the sloppy American habit of seeing women either as Madonnas or as whores.) Wharton's comparison of French and American women is extremely interesting not least because it completely skirts the issue of equality with men, and concentrates instead on the different ways in which women relate to men. In America, according to Wharton, girls are allowed considerable freedom with boys but are withdrawn into purdah upon marriage; conversely, the French girl has no existence until she is married, whereupon she takes a public place in the world. How well this distinction holds up in fact is arguable, but it is clear that, in Wharton's view, the Frenchwoman, even if she lacks civil rights, leads the more engaged life and makes the more definite contribution to society. Wharton makes much of the fact that "in the commercial class, the Frenchwoman is always her husband's business partner." Not only does she do the books and handle sales, she's also his business advisor. As to love, Wharton is a wholesale "European." The French marry to perpetuate property through children. Love is too fleeting for such a serious commitment, and the French don't expect to find it in marriage. Again, Wharton undoubtedly overstates French complaisance about les affaires du coeur. But if she is not describing, she is prescribing; she most definitely urges a rethink upon her countrymen.

This chapter also contains an extended "parenthesis" about the French conception of business.

Americans are too prone to consider money-making as interesting in itself; they regard the fact that a man has made money as something intrinsically meritorious. But money-making is interesting only in proportion as its object is interesting. If a man piles up millions in order to pile them up, having already all he needs to live humanely and decently, his occupation is neither interesting in itself, nor conducive to any sort of real social development in the money-maker or in those about him. No life is more sterile that one into which nothing enters to balance such an output of energy. To see how different is the French view of the object of money-making one must put one's self in the place of the average French household. For the immense majority of the French it is a far more modest ambition, and consists simply in the effort to earn one's living and put by enough for sickness, old age, and a good start in life for the children.

This conception of "business" may seem a tame one to Americans; but its advantages are worth considering. In the first place, it has the immense superiority of leaving time for living, time for men and women both. The average French business man at the end of his day may not have made as much money as the American; but meanwhile he has had, ever day, something the American has not had: Time. Time, in the middle of the day, to sit down to an excellent luncheon, to eat it quietly with his family, and to read the paper afterward; time to go off on Sundays and holidays on long pleasant country rambles; time, almost any day, to feel fresh and free enough for an evening at the theatre, after a dinner as good and leisurely as his luncheon. And there is one thing certain: the great mass of men and women grow up and reach real maturity only through their contact with the material reality of living, with business, with industry, with all the great bread-winning activities; but the growth and the maturing take place in the intervals between these activities; and in lives where there are no such intervals there will be no real growth.

Amen, amen. The critique remains fresh. Today's productivity-crazed executives worship financial success faute de mieux. It is not possible in this country to rely upon family institutions and local customs for support in the pursuit of personal satisfaction. With respect to the encouragement of rich and varied living, America is a gulag of solitary confinement in which everyone is expected to take care of himself. The French do not exactly take care of one another (outside the family), but they agree to live in a way that bestows that most precious, and by Americans most wasted, commodity: Time. All in all, I think that we Americans are rather more demented about all of this than Wharton's contemporaries were.

At bottom, French Ways and Their Meaning is an exhortation to think, period.

The odd Anglo-Saxon view that a love of beauty and an interest in ideas imply effeminacy is quite unintelligible to the French; as unintelligible as, for instance, the other notion that athletics make men manly.

The French would say that athletics make men muscular, that education makes them efficient, and that what makes them manly is their general view of life, or, in other words, the completely of their intellectual honesty.

A case can be made, that Wharton's France is a fantasy, and I would not recommend French Ways and Their Meaning to impressionistic minds in the first throes of francophilia. Its importance lies in its mirroring portrayal of America, as a land that spins meaninglessly because it has not developed institutions and ways of life worth living for. Ours is a vastly more sophisticated nation than the United States of 1919 - overall. But there remain large pockets of backwardness, in rural areas as in executive suites, wherever the imagination is stunted and noncommercial seriousness is dismissed as boring. Even if you've no plans to visit France or to take up French, Mrs Wharton's little book may persuade you that reverence, taste, intellectual honesty, and continuity are genuine and vital connective tissues that make life more meaningful as it becomes more sociable.

*co-published by the Edith Wharton Restoration at The Mount and the Countryman Press, with support from the Fondation Champagne Henriot Pour L'Oeuvre Retrouvée.

Permalink | Portico

Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press

Write to me