A Season of New Beginnings: 1914

  • Alan Price


edith wharton started the year 1914 poised for new beginnings. she had recently divorced Teddy Wharton after twenty-eight years of an increasingly painful marriage. Teddy’s mood swings between manic highs and depressive lows became more pronounced after 1910. Wharton’s attempts to distract her husband with travel became less and less successful after their move to Paris in 1907. She arranged for Teddy to be treated at a sanitarium in Switzerland, but he returned to her Paris doorstep little improved. The final break came after Wharton discovered that her husband had been speculating with money from her trust funds.


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  1. 3.
    Wharton to Bernard Berenson, April 16, 1914, The Letters of Edith Wharton, eds. R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 317. Hereafter cited as Letters.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Ibid, 318.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Percy Lubbock, Portrait of Edith Wharton (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1947), 123.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1934), 337.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    Henry James to Wharton, June 5, 1914, Henry James and Edith Wharton, Letters: 1900–1915, ed. Lyall H. Powers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), 287.Google Scholar
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    John Sutherland, Mrs. Humphry Ward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
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    For a description of Berry’s background and his friendships with Wharton, James, and Proust, see Leon Edel, “Walter Berry and the Novelists,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 38 (March 1984): 514–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    James R. Mellow, The Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company (New York: Avon Books, 1974), 265–274.Google Scholar
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    Patricia R. Plante writes of Wharton’s expatriation and her determination that the German invasion should be repelled: “Her problem was not merely one of escaping the plutocrats, but of finding another brownstone atmosphere. Hence, having once discovered it among the French, she was not prepared to lose it again. Every sacrifice had to be made for its preservation. The German invasion of France, therefore, was for Wharton a re-enactment of the vulgar attack of the nouveaux-riches upon New York society. The latter had lacked the strength to ward off the barbarians, and this renewal of the struggle was an opportunity—a second chance—to defeat the ‘Goths.’” “Edith Wharton and the Invading Goths,” Midcontinent American Studies Journal 5 (Fall 1964): 19.Google Scholar
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    Paul Fussell observes: “No one can calculate the number of Jews who died in the Second War because of the ridicule during the twenties and thirties of Allied propaganda about Belgian nuns violated and children sadistically used. In a climate of widespread skepticism about any further atrocity stories, most people refused fully to credit reports of the concentration camps until ocular evidence compelled belief and it was too late.” The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 316. On the appetite for atrocity stories and the unreliability of the Bryce Report, Peter Buitenhuis writes: The Bryce Report continued to exert a powerful influence on American public opinion throughout the war. And yet the report, as is now generally acknowledged, was largely a tissue of invention, unsubstantiated observations by unnamed witnesses and second-hand eyewitness reports, depending far more on imagination than any other factor. The witnesses were not put on oath, nor were they cross-examined. There was no attempt at scholarly investigation and evaluation of this evidence. Most significant of all, the documents and testimony of the witnesses disappeared from British records at the end of the war, so it has been impossible to make a subsequent check of the evidence. The Bryce Report was the origin of most of the gruesome stories which had such effective currency throughout the war—stories of mass rapes, the spitting of babies on bayonets, the cutting off of children’s hands and women’s breasts, hostage murders, Germans excreting on private possessions, and so forth. The Great War of Words: British, American, and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914–1933. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1987), 27. Wharton’s friends were clearly influenced by the report. Daisy Chanler noted in her autobiography: “We all read Lord Bryce’s report on the German atrocities in Belgium. Coming from him, the distinguished historian, the kindly and hospitable English gentleman whom we had known as Ambassador in Washington, this Report carried conviction and filled us with zealous indignation.” Chanler, Autumn in the Valley, 160.Google Scholar
  27. 119.
    Referred to in Plante, “Edith Wharton and the Invading Goths,” 20, drawing on a quotation in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Political and Social Growth of the American People 1865–1940 (New York: Macmillan Company, 1941), 400–401. Charles A. Fenton has described World War I as “a literary fracture” between Wharton’s generation, as exemplified by the members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1914, and the generation that followed: Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. See Fenton, “A Literary Fracture of World War I,” American Quarterly 12 (1960): 119–132.Google Scholar
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    Wharton to Beatrix Farrand, c. December 1914, quoted in Eleanor Dwight, Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life (New York: Abrams, 1994), p. 287.Google Scholar

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© Alan Price 1996

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  • Alan Price

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