“Since leaving Paris yesterday we have passed through streets and streets of such murdered houses, through town after town spread out in its last writhings,” the celebrated novelist Edith Wharton writes on May 13, 1915, from the town of Nancy, in the Argonnes region of France. “And before the black holes that were homes, along the edge of the chasms that were streets, everywhere we have seen flowers and vegetables springing up in freshly raked and watered gardens.”
Wharton, born in New York City in 1862, settled permanently in France in 1907. Celebrated for her vivid and acutely observed novels of Victorian life, including The House of Mirth (1905) and her later classic The Age of Innocence (1920), Wharton was living in Paris when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914. From the beginning of the war, Wharton devoted herself to the Allied cause, working with the French Red Cross and leading a committee that founded hostels and schools to serve refugees, including many children, from the German-occupied zones of northeastern France and Belgium. She was eventually awarded the French Legion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) for her work.
In 1916, Wharton edited an illustrated literary anthology featuring works by prominent writers and artists including John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats and John Singer Sargent. She herself traveled to the front lines of the conflict, writing reports for American newspapers urging the United States to enter the war. Her novella The Marne, published in 1918, criticized America’s slowness to help France. That same year, Wharton s wartime observations were collected and published together in the book Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belport.
Wharton concluded her entry of May 13, 1915, included in Fighting France, with a lyrical description of the town of Nancy at dusk, a peaceful and beautiful scene marred only by the threatening sounds of war in the near distance. “Now, at sunset, all life ceases in Nancy and veil after veil of silence comes down on the deserted Place and its empty perspectives. Last night by nine the few lingering lights in the streets had been put out, every window was blind, and the moonless night lay over the city like a canopy of velvet.” The ordered masses of architecture became august, the spaces between them immense, and the black sky faintly strewn with stars seemed to overarch an enchanted city. Not a footstep sounded, not a leaf rustled, not a breath of air drew under the arches. And suddenly, through the dumb night, the sound of the cannon began.”