A Celebration of Women Writers

"The Tone of France." by Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
From: Fighting France. by Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918, Volume III of The War on All Fronts Series; copyright 1915. pp. 217-238.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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NOBODY now asks the question that so often, at the beginning of the war, came to me from the other side of the world: "What is France like? " Every one knows what France has proved to be like: from being a difficult problem she has long since become a luminous instance.

Nevertheless, to those on whom that illumination has shone only from far off, there may still be something to learn about its component elements; for it has come to consist of many separate rays, and the weary strain of the last year has been the spectroscope to decompose them. From the very beginning, when one felt the effulgence as the mere pale brightness before dawn, the attempt to define it was irresistible. "There is a tone–" the tingling sense of it was in the air from the first days, the [Page 220]  first hours–"but what does it consist in? And just how is one aware of it?" In those days the answer was comparatively easy. The tone of France after the declaration of war was the white glow of dedication: a great nation's collective impulse (since there is no English equivalent for that winged word, élan ) to resist destruction. But at that time no one knew what the resistance was to cost, how long it would have to last, what sacrifices, material and moral, it would necessitate. And for the moment baser sentiments were silenced: greed, self-interest, pusillanimity seemed to have been purged from the race. The great sitting of the Chamber, that almost religious celebration of defensive union, really expressed the opinion of the whole people. It is fairly easy to soar to the empyrean when one is carried on the wings of such an impulse, and when one does not know how long one is to be kept suspended at the breathing-limit. [Page 221] 

But there is a term to the flight of the most soaring élan. It is likely, after a while, to come back broken-winged and resign itself to barn-yard bounds. National judgments cannot remain for long above individual feelings; and you cannot get a national "tone" out of anything less than a whole nation. The really interesting thing, therefore, was to see, as the war went on, and grew into a calamity unheard of in human annals, how the French spirit would meet it, and what virtues extract from it.

The war has been a calamity unheard of; but France has never been afraid of the unheard of. No race has ever yet so audaciously dispensed with old precedents; as none has ever so revered their relics. It is a great strength to be able to walk without the support of analogies; and France has always shown that strength in times of crisis. The absorbing question, as the war went on, was to discover how far down into the people this intellectual audacity [Page 222]  penetrated, how instinctive it had become, and how it would endure the strain of prolonged inaction.

There was never much doubt about the army. When a warlike race has an invader on its soil, the men holding back the invader can never be said to be inactive. But behind the army were the waiting millions to whom that long motionless line in the trenches might gradually have become a mere condition of thought, an accepted limitation to all sorts of activities and pleasures. The danger was that such a war–static, dogged, uneventful–might gradually cramp instead of enlarging the mood of the lookers-on. Conscription, of course, was there to minimize this danger. Every one was sharing alike in the glory and the woe. But the glory was not of a kind to penetrate or dazzle. It requires more imagination to see the halo around tenacity than around dash; and the French still cling to the view that they are, so to [Page 223]  speak, the patentees and proprietors of dash, and much less at home with his dull drudge of a partner. So there was reason to fear, in the long run, a gradual but irresistible disintegration, not of public opinion, but of something subtler and more fundamental: public sentiment. It was possible that civilian France, while collectively seeming to remain at the same height, might individually deteriorate and diminish in its attitude toward the war.

The French would not be human, and therefore would not be interesting, if one had not perceived in them occasional symptoms of such a peril. There has not been a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman–save a few harmless and perhaps nervous theorizers–who has wavered about the military policy of the country; but there have naturally been some who have found it less easy than they could have foreseen to live up to the sacrifices it has necessitated. Of course there have been such people: one [Page 224]  would have had to postulate them if they had not come within one's experience. There have been some to whom it was harder than they imagined to give up a certain way of living, or a certain kind of breakfast-roll; though the French, being fundamentally temperate, are far less the slaves of the luxuries they have invented than are the other races who have adopted these luxuries.

There have been many more who found the sacrifice of personal happiness–of all that made life livable, or one's country worth fighting for–infinitely harder than the most apprehensive imagination could have pictured. There have been mothers and widows for whom a single grave, or the appearance of one name on the missing list, has turned the whole conflict into an idiot's tale. There have been many such; but there have apparently not been enough to deflect by a hair's breadth the subtle current of public sentiment; unless it is [Page 225]  truer, as it is infinitely more inspiring, to suppose that, of this company of blinded baffled sufferers, almost all have had the strength to hide their despair and to say of the great national effort which has lost most of its meaning to them: "Though it slay me, yet will I trust in it." That is probably the finest triumph of the tone of France: that its myriad fiery currents flow from so many hearts made insensible by suffering, that so many dead hands feed its undying lamp.

This does not in the least imply that resignation is the prevailing note in the tone of France. The attitude of the French people, after fourteen months of trial, is not one of submission to unparalleled calamity. It is one of exaltation, energy, the hot resolve to dominate the disaster. In all classes the feeling is the same: every word and every act is based on the resolute ignoring of any alternative to victory. The French people no more think of a compromise [Page 226]  than people would think of facing a flood or an earthquake with a white flag.

Two questions are likely to be put to any observer of the struggle who risks such assertions. What, one may be asked, are the proofs of this national tone? And what conditions and qualities seem to minister to it?

The proofs, now that "the tumult and the shouting dies," and civilian life has dropped back into something like its usual routine, are naturally less definable than at the outset. One of the most evident is the spirit in which all kinds of privations are accepted. No one who has come in contact with the work-people and small shop-keepers of Paris in the last year can fail to be struck by the extreme dignity and grace with which doing without things is practised. The Frenchwoman leaning in the door of her empty boutique still wears the smile with which she used to calm the impatience of crowding shoppers. The seam- [Page 227]  stress living on the meagre pay of a charity work-room gives her day's sewing as faithfully as if she were working for full wages in a fashionable atelier,and never tries, by the least hint of private difficulties, to extract additional help. The habitual cheerfulness of the Parisian workwoman rises, in moments of sorrow, to the finest fortitude. In a work-room where many women have been employed since the beginning of the war, a young girl of sixteen heard late one afternoon that her only brother had been killed. She had a moment of desperate distress; but there was a big family to be helped by her small earnings, and the next morning punctually she was back at work. In this same work-room the women have one half-holiday in the week, without reduction of pay; yet if an order has to be rushed through for a hospital they give up that one afternoon as gaily as if they were doing it for their pleasure. But if any one who has lived for the last year among the [Page 228]  workers and small tradesmen of Paris should begin to cite instances of endurance, self-denial and secret charity, the list would have no end. The essential of it all is the spirit in which these acts are accomplished.

The second question: What are the conditions and qualities that have produced such results? is less easy to answer. The door is so largely open to conjecture that every explanation must depend largely on the answerer's personal bias. But one thing is certain. France has not achieved her present tone by the sacrifice of any of her national traits, but rather by their extreme keying up; therefore the surest way of finding a clue to that tone is to try to single out whatever distinctively "French" characteristics–or those that appear such to the envious alien–have a direct bearing on the present attitude of France. Which (one must ask) of all their multiple gifts most help the French today to be what they are in just the way they are? [Page 229] 

Intelligence! is the first and instantaneous answer. Many French people seem unaware of this. They are sincerely persuaded that the curbing of their critical activity has been one of the most important and useful results of the war. One is told that, in a spirit of patriotism, this fault-finding people has learned not to find fault. Nothing could be more untrue. The French, when they have a grievance, do not air it in the Times: their forum is the café and not the newspaper. But in the café they are talking as freely as ever, discriminating as keenly and judging as passionately. The difference is that the very exercise of their intelligence on a problem larger and more difficult than any they have hitherto faced has freed them from the dominion of most of the prejudices, catch-words and conventions that directed opinion before the war. Then their intelligence ran in fixed channels; now it has overflowed its banks. [Page 230] 

This release has produced an immediate readjusting of all the elements of national life. In great trials a race is tested by its values; and the war has shown the world what are the real values of France. Never for an instant has this people, so expert in the great art of living, imagined that life consisted in being alive. Enamoured of pleasure and beauty, dwelling freely and frankly in the present, they have yet kept their sense of larger meanings, have understood life to be made up of many things past and to come, of renunciation as well as satisfaction, of traditions as well as experiments, of dying as much as of living. Never have they considered life as a thing to be cherished in itself, apart from its reactions and its relations.

Intelligence first, then, has helped France to be what she is; and next, perhaps, one of its corollaries, expression. The French are the first to laugh at themselves for running to words: they seem to regard their gift [Page 231]  for expression as a weakness, a possible deterrent to action. The last year has not confirmed that view. It has rather shown that eloquence is a supplementary weapon. By "eloquence" I naturally do not mean public speaking, nor yet the rhetorical writing too often associated with the word. Rhetoric is the dressing-up of conventional sentiment, eloquence the fearless expression of real emotion. And this gift of the fearless expression of emotion–fearless, that is, of ridicule, or of indifference in the hearer–has been an inestimable strength to France. It is a sign of the high average of French intelligence that feeling well-worded can stir and uplift it; that "words" are not half shamefacedly regarded as something separate from, and extraneous to, emotion, or even as a mere vent for it, but as actually animating and forming it. Every additional faculty for exteriorizing states of feeling, giving them a face and a language, is a moral as well as an artistic [Page 232]  asset, and Goethe was never wiser than when he wrote:

"A god gave me the voice to speak my pain."

It is not too much to say that the French are at this moment drawing a part of their national strength from their language. The piety with which they have cherished and cultivated it has made it a precious instrument in their hands. It can say so beautifully what they feel that they find strength and renovation in using it; and the word once uttered is passed on, and carries the same help to others. Countless instances of such happy expression could be cited by any one who has lived the last year in France. On the bodies of young soldiers have been found letters of farewell to their parents that made one think of some heroic Elizabethan verse; and the mothers robbed of these sons have sent them an answering cry of courage.

"Thank you," such a mourner wrote me [Page 233]  the other day, "for having understood the cruelty of our fate, and having pitied us. Thank you also for having exalted the pride that is mingled with our unutterable sorrow." Simply that, and no more; but she might have been speaking for all the mothers of France.

When the eloquent expression of feeling does not issue in action–or at least in a state of mind equivalent to action–it sinks to the level of rhetoric; but in France at this moment expression and conduct supplement and reflect each other. And this brings me to the other great attribute which goes to making up the tone of France: the quality of courage. It is not unintentionally that it comes last on my list. French courage is courage rationalized, courage thought out, and found necessary to some special end; it is, as much as any other quality of the French temperament, the result of French intelligence.

No people so sensitive to beauty, so [Page 234]  penetrated with a passionate interest in life, so endowed with the power to express and immortalize that interest, can ever really enjoy destruction for its own sake. The French hate "militarism." It is stupid, inartistic, unimaginative and enslaving; there could not be four better French reasons for detesting it. Nor have the French ever enjoyed the savage forms of sport which stimulate the blood of more apathetic or more brutal races. Neither prize-fighting nor bull-fighting is of the soil in France, and Frenchmen do not settle their private differences impromptu with their fists: they do it, logically and with deliberation, on the duelling-ground. But when a national danger threatens, they instantly become what they proudly and justly call themselves–"a warlike nation"–and apply to the business in hand the ardour, the imagination, the perseverance that have made them for centuries the great creative force of civilization. Every French [Page 235]  soldier knows why he is fighting, and why, at this moment, physical courage is the first quality demanded of him; every Frenchwoman knows why war is being waged, and why her moral courage is needed to supplement the soldier's contempt of death.

The women of France are supplying this moral courage in act as well as in word. Frenchwomen, as a rule, are perhaps less instinctively "courageous," in the elementary sense, than their Anglo-Saxon sisters. They are afraid of more things, and are less ashamed of showing their fear. The French mother coddles her children, the boys as well as the girls: when they tumble and bark their knees they are expected to cry, and not taught to control themselves as English and American children are. I have seen big French boys bawling over a cut or a bruise that an Anglo-Saxon girl of the same age would have felt compelled to bear without a tear. Frenchwomen are timid for themselves as well as for their [Page 236]  children. They are afraid of the unexpected, the unknown, the experimental. It is not part of the Frenchwoman's training to pretend to have physical courage. She has not the advantage of our discipline in the hypocrisies of "good form" when she is called on to be brave, she must draw her courage from her brains. She must first be convinced of the necessity of heroism; after that she is fit to go bridle to bridle with Jeanne d'Arc.

The same display of reasoned courage is visible in the hasty adaptation of the Frenchwoman to all kinds of uncongenial jobs. Almost every kind of service she has been called to render since the war began has been fundamentally uncongenial. A French doctor once remarked to me that Frenchwomen never make really good sick-nurses except when they are nursing their own people. They are too personal, too emotional, and too much interested in more interesting things, to take to the [Page 237]  fussy details of good nursing, except when it can help some one they care for. Even then, as a rule, they are not systematic or tidy; but they make up for these deficiencies by inexhaustible willingness and sympathy. And it has been easy for them to become good war-nurses, because every Frenchwoman who nurses a French soldier feels that she is caring for her kin. The French war-nurse sometimes mislays an instrument or forgets to sterilize a dressing; but she almost always finds the consoling word to say and the right tone to take with her wounded soldiers. That profound solidarity which is one of the results of conscription flowers, in war-time, in an exquisite and impartial devotion.

This, then, is what "France is like." The whole civilian part of the nation seems merged in one symbolic figure, carrying help and hope to the fighters or passionately bent above the wounded. The devotion, the self-denial, seem instinctive; [Page 238]  but they are really based on a reasoned knowledge of the situation and on an unflinching estimate of values. All France knows today that real "life" consists in the things that make it worth living, and that these things, for France, depend on the free expression of her national genius. If France perishes as an intellectual light and as a moral force every Frenchman perishes with her; and the only death that Frenchmen fear is not death in the trenches but death by the extinction of their national ideal. It is against this death that the whole nation is fighting; and it is the reasoned recognition of their peril which, at this moment, is making the most intelligent people in the world the most sublime.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Anne L. Kosvanec.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom