A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton

Chapter 14

14.1.

On the 14th of July 1919 I stood on the high balcony of a friend’s house in the Champs Elysees, and saw the Allied Armies ride under the Arch of Triumph, and down the storied avenue to the misty distance of the Place de la Concorde and its obelisk of flame.

As I stood there, high over the surging crowds and the great procession, the midsummer sun blinding my eyes, and the significance of that incredible spectacle dazzling my heart, I remembered what Bergson had once said of my inability to memorize great poetry: “You’re dazzled by it.”

Yes, I thought; I shan’t remember all this except as a golden blur of emotion. Even now I can’t catch the details, I can’t separate the massed flags, or distinguish the famous generals as they ride by, or the names of the regiments as they pass. I remember thankfully that a grand mutile for whom I have secured a wheeled chair must have received it just in time to join his group in the Place de la Concorde . . . The rest is all a glory of shooting sun-rays reflected from shining arms and helmets, from the flanks of glossy chargers, the dark glitter of the ‘seventy-fives, of machine-guns and tanks. But all those I had seen at the front, dusty, dirty, mud-encrusted, blood-stained, spent and struggling on; when I try to remember, the two visions merge into one, and my heart is broken with them.

14.2.

The war was over, and we thought we were returning to the world we had so abruptly passed out of four years earlier. Perhaps it was as well that, at first, we were sustained by that illusion.

My chief feeling, I confess, was that I was tired — oh, so tired! I wanted first of all, and beyond all, to get away from Paris, away from streets and houses altogether and for always, into the country, or at least the near-country of a Paris suburb. In motoring out to visit our group of refugee colonies to the north of Paris I had sometimes passed through a little village near Ecouen. In one of its streets stood a quiet house which I had never noticed, but which had not escaped the quick eye of my friend Mrs. Tyler. She stopped one day and asked the concierge if by chance it were for sale. The answer was a foregone conclusion: of course it was for sale. Every house in the northern suburbs of Paris was to be bought at that darkest moment of the spring of 1918. They had all been deserted by their owners since the last German advance, for they were in the direct line of the approach to Paris, and the little house in question was also on Bertha’s trajectory. But Mrs. Tyler, the next day, told me she had found just the house for me, and we drove out to see it. The way there — now, alas, disfigured by the growth of Paris — was through pleasant market-gardens, and acres of pear and apple orchard. The orchards were just bursting into bloom, and we seemed to pass through a rosy snow-storm to reach what was soon to be my own door. I saw the house, and fell in love with it in spite of its dirt and squalor — and before the end of the war it was mine. At last I was to have a garden again — and a big old kitchen-garden as well, planted with ancient pear and apple trees, espaliered and in cordon, and an old pool full of fat old gold-fish; and silence and rest under big trees! It was Saint Martin’s summer after the long storm.

The little house has never failed me since. As soon as I was startled in it peace and order came back into my life. At last I had leisure for the two pursuits which never palled, writing and gardening; and through all the years I have gone on gardening and writing. From the day when (to the scandal of the village!) I chopped down a giant Araucaria on the lawn, until this moment, I have never ceased to worry and pet and dress up and smooth down my two or three acres; and when winter comes, and rain and mud possess the Seine Valley for six months, I fly south to another garden, as stony and soilless as my northern territory is moist and deep with loam. But to do justice to my two gardens, or at least to my enjoyment of them, would require not a chapter but a book; and pending that I must pass on to the other branch of my activity.

14.3.

The brief rapture that came with the cessation of war — the blissful thought: “Now there will be no more killing!” — soon gave way to a growing sense of the waste and loss wrought by those irreparable years. Death and mourning darkened the houses of all my friends, and I mourned with them, and mingled my private grief with the general sorrow. I myself had lost a charming young cousin, Newbold Rhinelander, shot down in an aeroplane battle in September 1917, and three dear friends. Of these, Jean du Breuil de Saint Germain and Robert d’Humieres both fell leading their men though in each case their age would have assured them a safe berth as staff officers, had they been willing to accept it. The third of my friends was a young American, Ronald Simmons, excluded from active service by a weak heart, and appointed head of the American Intelligence service at the important post of Marseilles. He did admirable work there till the Spanish grippe swept over France; then his heart gave way, and he died in three days.

But sorrows come “not single spies but in battalions,” and while I was mourning the friends killed in the war, more intimate griefs befell me. In 1916 died Henry James, the perfect friend of so many years, and in 1920 my beloved Howard Sturgis. By the loss of these two friends, and that of Egerton Winthrop, who died suddenly at about the same time, my life was greatly impoverished. In recent years I had seen less of Egerton Winthrop; but a friendship such as ours is made of many elements, and there remained, I believe, on his side a great affection, and on mine a gratitude which went back to the first days of what I might call my conscious life. To the purblind creature he had found me he had been the first to hold out a wise and tender hand; and the loss of his wisdom and tenderness made a darkness in my life.

But with Henry James and Howard Sturgis the sorrow was present, was poignant. They were part of my daily thoughts and plans, and my roots were torn up with theirs. In Howard Sturgis’s case a fatal illness had declared itself, and much suffering was inevitable; so that his best friends could only pray for the end to come quickly. Happily it did, and he faced it with lucid serenity. It added to my grief that it was impossible for me to go to him; not that a last meeting would have helped either of us much, but simply because I knew he would have liked the fact of my coming.

In Henry James’s case, though he was so much older, it was harder for his friends to resign themselves, for it seemed as though a man of his powerful frame and unimpaired intellectual vitality ought to have lived longer. We all knew that for years he had suffered from the evil effects of a dangerous dietary system, called (after the name of its egregious inventor) “Fletcherizing.” The system resulted in intestinal atrophy, and when a doctor at last persuaded him to return to a normal way of eating he could no longer digest, and his nervous system had been undermined by years of malnutrition. The Fletcher fad, moreover, had bred others, as usually happens; and James’s incessant preoccupation with his health gradually led to periods of nervous depression. The death of his brother William shook him to the soul, not only because of their deep attachment to each other, but because Henry, following the phases of his brother’s fatal malady, had become convinced that he had the same organic heart-disease as William. The intense disappointment caused by his successive theatrical failures may also have had a share in weakening his health. Mr. Leon Edel, in his suggestive essay on James’s play-writing, has made out so good a case for him as a dramatist (if only circumstances had been more favourable) that I sometimes wonder if I was not wrong in thinking these theatrical experiments a mistake. James, at any rate, never thought them so. He believed himself gifted for the drama, and, apart from the creative joy that the writing of his plays gave him, he longed intensely, incurably, for the shouting and the garlands so persistently refused to his great novels, and which, had he succeeded in his theatrical venture, would have come to him in a grosser but more substantial form. I once said that Anglo–Saxons had no notion of what the French mean when they speak of la gloire; but in that respect James was a Latin, and the last infirmity of noble minds was never quite renounced by his.

His dying was slow and harrowing. The final stroke had been preceded by one or two premonitory ones, each causing a diminution just marked enough for the still conscious intelligence to register it, and the sense of disintegration must have been tragically intensified to a man like James, who had so often and deeply pondered on it, so intently watched for its first symptoms. He is said to have told his old friend Lady Prothero, when she saw him after the first stroke, that in the very act of falling (he was dressing at the time) he heard in the room a voice which was distinctly, it seemed, not his own, saying: “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” The phrase is too beautifully characteristic not to be recorded. He saw the distinguished thing coming, faced it, and received it with words worthy of all his dealings with life.

But what really gave him his death-blow was the war. He struggled through two years of it, then veiled his eyes from the endless perspective of destruction. It was the gesture of Agamemnon, covering his face with his cloak before the unbearable.

Before James died he bore witness, in his own moving way, to the depth of his grief. He loved England, naturally, as his home of many years, as the scene of his greatest work, and of his dearest friendships; but he loved America also, and the longing for a better understanding between his native and his adopted countries possessed him more and more as the war dragged on. His one consolation was the knowledge that Mr. Page, for whom he had a great regard, was fighting valiantly in the same cause; but after the “Lusitania,” and the American government’s supine attitude at that time, James felt the need to make manifest by some visible, symbolic act, his indignant sympathy with England. The only way open to him, he thought, was to renounce his American citizenship and be naturalized in England; and he did this. At the time I considered it a mistake; it seemed to me rather puerile, and altogether unlike him. Not knowing what to say I refrained from writing to him; and I regret it now, for I think the act comforted him, and it deeply touched his old friends in England.

I have never seen any one else who, without a private personal stake in that awful struggle, suffered from it as he did. He had not my solace of hard work, though he did all he had strength for, and gave all the pecuniary help he could. But it was not enough. His devouring imagination was never at rest, and the agony was more than he could bear. As far as I know the only letters of mine which he kept were those in which I described my various journeys to the front, and when these were sent back to me after his death they were worn with much handing about. His sensitiveness about his own physical disabilities gave him an exaggerated idea of what his friends were able to do, and he never tired of talking of what he regarded as their superhuman activities. But still the black cloud hung over the world, and to him it was soon to be a pall. Perhaps it was better so. I should have liked to have him standing beside me the day the victorious armies rode by; but when I think of the years intervening between his death and that brief burst of radiance I have not the heart to wish that he had seen it. The waiting would have been too bitter.

14.4.

My spirit was heavy with these losses, but I could not sit still and brood over them. I wanted to put them into words, and in doing so I saw the years of the war, as I had lived them in Paris, with a new intensity of vision, in all their fantastic heights and depths of self-devotion and ardour, of pessimism, triviality and selfishness. A study of the world at the rear during a long war seemed to me worth doing, and I pondered over it till it took shape in “A Son at the Front.” But before I could settled down to this tale, before I could begin to deal objectively with the stored-up emotions of those years, I had to get away from the present altogether; and though I began planning and brooding over “A Son at the Front” in 1917 it was not finished until four years later. Meanwhile I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and wrote “The Age of Innocence.” I showed it chapter by chapter to Walter Berry; and when he had finished reading it he said: “Yes, it’s good. But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it. We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.”

I secretly agreed with him as to the chances of the book’s success; but it “had its fate,” and that was — to be one of my rare best-sellers! I still had the writing-fever on me and the next outbreak came in 1922, when I published “The Glimpses of the Moon,” a still further flight from the last grim years, though its setting and situation were ultra-modern. After that I settled down to “A Son at the Front”; and although I had waited so long to begin it, the book was written in a white heat of emotion, and may perhaps live as a picture of that strange war-world of the rear, with its unnatural sharpness of outline and over-heightening of colour.

After “A Son at the Front” I intended to take a long holiday — perhaps to cease from writing altogether. It was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914, and I felt myself incapable of transmuting the raw material of the after-war world into a work of art. Gardening, reading and travel seemed the only solace left; and during the first years after the war I did a good deal of all three.

Years earlier, the reading of Monsieur Joseph Bedier’s famous book, “Les Chansons Epiques,” had roused in me a longing to follow the medieval pilgrims across the Pyrenees to the glorious shrine of Compostela; and after the war this desire, and the resolve to satisfy it, were reawakened by the appearance of two new books, Kingsley Porter’s “Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads,” and Miss Georgeana King’s “The Way of St James.”

We began our pilgrimage at Saint Jean–Pied-de-Port, in the western Pyrenees, and descended thence into Spain by Roncevaux and Jaca. We were resolved to miss no stage of the ancient way, and from Jaca we went to Eunate, Logrono, Estella, Puenta de la Reina and Burgos, and thence, by way of Fromista, Carrion de los Condes and Sahagun, to Leon, and across the Cantabrian Mountains to Oviedo. The roads in the Asturias and Galicia were still mediaeval, and our progress was slow; but our determination to carry out the pilgrimage to its end (or, I should rather say, to its beginning) bore us on over interminable humps and bumps to La Coruna, and thence to the solitary and mysterious point of Finisterre (Nuestra Senora de Finibus Terrae), where, as readers of the Golden Legend know, the decapitated body of St James the Greater landed in the boat carved out of stone in which it had been reverently laid on the distant shore of Palestine. From Finisterre, with imaginations raised to a high pitch of expectancy, we followed the saint back, past his halting-place at Padron, to the mighty church which enshrines him; and on arriving at Santiago de Compostela we found that our expectations had not been pitched high enough! Perhaps because this was the first journey of any length which I had made since the war, every mile of the way seemed fabulous and beautiful. But even the impression left by the Panteon de los Reyes at Leon, and the incomparable Camara Santa of Ovideo, faded in the radiance which streams from the singing sculptures of the Portico de la Gloria. Yet when I returned to Compostela a few years later, over smooth roads, and without the excitement of plunging into the unknown, the strange grandeur of that isolated city of palaces and monasteries, and the glory of its great church, impressed me more deeply than ever, and I rank Compostela not far behind Rome in the mysterious power of drawing back the traveller who has once seen it.

14.5.

For years and years — ever since our first cruise in the Aegean — I had dreamed the impossible dream of going on another. Youth had passed, and middle age was going, in the vain cherishing of that dream, when suddenly, unexpectedly, a stroke of literary luck made it seem that I might repeat the adventure. In going on our first cruise we had been reckless to the point of folly; but we were young, we were two, we were ready to face any financial consequences. Now I was old, I was alone, and I had learned the necessity of living within one’s means. But when a friend wrote me that he had seen at Southampton a delightful little yacht of the same tonnage and draught as our dear old “Vanadis,” my prudence vanished like a puff of smoke, and I felt as reckless (and as young!) as when I had first set foot on the deck of the latter, nearly forty years earlier.

So the yacht “Osprey” was chartered, and we set out from the old Port of Hyeres, the same from which Saint Louis, King of France, sailed forth on his last crusade. The date was March 31 1926, the day serene and sunny, and we were a congenial party, with lots of books, a full set of Admiralty charts, a stock of good provisions and vins du pays in the hold, and happiness in our hearts. From that day until we disembarked at the same port, two months and one week later, I lived in a state of euphoria which I suppose would seem inconceivable to most people. But I am born happy every morning, and during that magical cruise nothing ever seemed to occur during the day to diminish my beatitude, so that it went on rolling up like the interest on a millionaire’s capital. Now and then, it is true, a twinge passed through me at the thought of the reckoning; but I said to myself: “Never mind! As soon as I get home I’ll write the story of the cruise, and call it ‘The Sapphire Way,’ and it will be such enchanting reading that it will immediately become a best-seller, and pay all the expenses of the journey.”

Would it have, I wonder? The book is not yet written, and probably never will be; for I returned to fiction as soon as I got home, as I always do when no more pressing task prevents. Yet what a charming book it would have been — like so many that have never been written!

At any rate, the intention of doing it sent my conscience to sleep, and I lived in unbroken bliss as we wandered from island to island, from shore to shore, always “under a roof of blue Ionian weather,” retracing the stages of the former cruise, and seeing many new wonders which had then been difficult to access, such as Delphi, Mistra, Cyprus and Crete. Not the least interesting part of the adventure was the following out, stage by stage, of our old itinerary, and noting the changes produced either by the hand of man (as at Rhodes and the renovated islands of the Dodecanese), or by that other Hand, always written with a capital, which scatters earthquakes and volcanic eruptions throughout those lovely lands as freely as man distributes his administrative changes.

At Rhodes, which I had seen in the depths of Turkish squalor and laissez-faire, we now found a city magically restored to its ancient beauty, without the over-doing so irresistible to most restorers; and in the islands of the Dodecanese, taken over with Rhodes by Italy, the same touch has given order the cleanliness even to such human rabbit-warrens as the mediaeval citadel of Astypalaea.

A fortunate change in our travelling equipment was the substitution of oil for coal as fuel; so that, instead of having to lose hours in coaling, the “Osprey” glided from port to port without delay or discomfort; and had her oil-tank been slightly larger we should not even have had the small inconvenience of replenishing it. Even the Hand of God fell on us lightly and as it were playfully; for we had the luck to slip into Santorin and Crete between two earthquakes of considerable violence, one of which occurred only a few weeks before our visit, and the other just afterward. So it was that in Santorin’s mysterious harbour we lay close to a new lava-island still visibly edged with subterranean fires, and at Candia, in Crete, beheld in all their plastic perfection the glorious Minoan jars garlanded with sea-weed and sea-monsters, the slim Prince Charming of the lilies, and the frivolous young ladies leaning from their box above the arena to watch the young acrobats leap from bull to bull, where, a few weeks after our visit, the Museum floor was strewn with their shattered fragments.

But I am writing my reminiscences, and not that memorable work, “The Sapphire Way,” which, if ever it is done, will require several hundred pages, and all the colours of Turner’s palette; so I will conclude by saying that this cruise proved to me again what the first had so fully shown: that Kein Genuss ist vorubergehend, and that no treasure-house of Atreus was ever as rich as a well-stored memory.

14.6.

These and other wanderings have been the high lights of the last years; when I turn from them the sky darkens. The disappearance of one dear friend after another must always be the chief sadness of a life bound up in a few close personal ties. Such losses seem doubly poignant in the brave new world predicted by Aldous Huxley, and already here in its main elements — a world in which so many sources of peace and joy are already dried up that the few remaining have a more piercing sweetness. Saddest of all is it, as the years pass, to see the premature ending of lives which seemed meant to widen into usefulness and beauty. Such a life I had hoped Geoffrey Scott’s would be. Since our first meeting, more than twenty years earlier, I had always found him a delightful comrade. I had rejoiced, with his other friends, in the appearance of those two well-nigh perfect books, “The Architecture of Humanism” and “The Portrait of Zelide,” so little appreciated at first beyond a small circle of readers, so tardily discovered by the general public; yet, accomplished as these books were, I felt in him something dispersed and tentative, as though the balance between his creative and critical faculties had not yet been struck. This discord ran through his whole character, and though no one could be gayer, more flashingly responsive to every appeal of life’s ironies and beauties (and for him, as for all subtler intelligences, the two were always interwoven), yet under this laughing surface lay a desert of gloom and despondency —

A country where the lights are low, And where the roads are hard to find,

as he once wrote of his own mind. Even his work, though he brought to it such a scrupulous art, ceased to interest him as soon as he had exteriorized the emotions producing it; and I used to tell him he was like an over-fed squirrel, who only cared to crack every nut, and then threw them away. But I was mistaken; he was not over-fed, but only groping for the right nourishment.

After the war he used to stay with me for long weeks, and we made various motor-flights together in Umbria and the North of Italy. In 1926, when he spent a month with me in the country near Paris, he was planning a book on Benjamin Constant — and what a book it would have been! I can imagine no subject better suited to him, and no one better fitted to interpret that unquiet and elusive character. I took him to the drowsy hill-village of Saint Michel-du-Tertre, where Benjamin Constant had once lived, and to the Abbaye d’Herivaux, which he had bought after the Revolution; but all through Geoffrey’s eager enquiries, and his keen interest in the projected work, ran the same streak of agitation and uncertainty. He had been asked for a life of Boswell for the English Men of Letters series, and the suggestion delighted him. But he was reluctant to begin the book because he knew of the existence, in private hands, of a quantity of unexplored Boswellian material, as yet inaccessible to scholars, but which, through the friendly intervention of Sir Edmund Gosse, he hoped one day to examine. I remember his once saying sadly: “If I put off the Boswell in the hope of seeing those papers, some one else will write the book instead, and every one will say, as they always do, that I’m lazy and undecided; yet to set to work without being able to use this new material seems hardly worthwhile. What do you advise?”

I answered at once: “Never mind what people say. Don’t do the book till you can consult all the material available. Never do anything against your better judgment simply to prove that you’re not lazy.” As far as his own welfare was concerned, it might have been better for him to tie himself down to any definite task, rather than drift longer on the old sea of alternatives; but since the question was one of literary probity it seemed impossible to hesitate.

I have never seen him more adrift, more undecided and disenchanted, than during those weeks; and it was a relief to hear, I think that same autumn, that the Boswell documents had been bought by an American collector who, at Geoffrey’s request, had agreed to let him examine them. The rest of the story is known; the unforeseen importance of the discovery, the new owner’s invitation to Geoffrey to return to America with him and edit the whole collection, and Geoffrey’s immediate acceptance. To his friends there is a certain irony in the fact that the sensitive and imaginative art-critic and biographer, master of a perfect prose and of a delicate lyrical gift, should have become known to the general public only through an editorial task. The first Boswell volumes met with unqualified praise, and Geoffrey’s letters showed the steadying effect of the welcome given to his labours. I had feared the strain, and the long exile from Europe, in conditions scarcely made for peace of mind; but I soon felt that he was gaining strength from the effort. His letters were not altogether happy, but they gave no hint of uncertainty; he was determined to carry the work through, and buoyed up by knowing that the need to be near the British Museum must soon bring him back to England.

One day in London, in July 1929, I suddenly came across Geoffrey. There was so little trace in his strong erect figure and smiling face of the worn unquiet being I had parted from three years earlier that at first I hardly recognized him. He had taken an unexpected holiday from his work, and as he was not to be in England more than a fortnight he had notified no one in advance. He told me he was to sail in two days for America, where he intended to settle down again to a year’s work, with the hope, after that, of continuing his labours in England. We spent the afternoon together, wandering from one picture gallery to another in happy talk — the happiest I ever had with him. He had found his work, and himself. The old irony, the old mockery and subtlety were there, but tempered by a new and confident hope in the future. He felt his strength equal to his task, and was happy with that best happiness, the sense of mastery over one’s work. We parted full of plans for the future, and the next morning he sailed for New York — and ten days later lay there dead.

But he had felt his hand on the wheel, had guided Fortune where he chose; and his friends, when they remember him, must think of that.

14.7.

The world is a welter and has always been one; but though all the cranks and the theorists cannot master the old floundering monster, or force it for long into any of their neat plans of readjustment, here and there a saint or a genius suddenly sends a little ray through the fog, and helps humanity to stumble on, and perhaps up.

The welter is always there, and the present generation hears close underfoot the growling of the volcano on which ours danced so long; but in our individual lives, though the years are sad, the days have a way of being jubilant. Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death; yet there are always new countries to see, new books to read (and, I hope, to write), a thousand little daily wonders to marvel at and rejoice in, and those magical moments when the mere discovery that “the woodspurge has a cup of three” brings not despair but delight. The visible world is a daily miracle for those who have eyes and ears; and I still warm my hands thankfully at the old fire, though every year it is fed with the dry wood of more old memories.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wharton/edith/backward_glance/chapter14.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30