Edith Wharton, French Ways and Their Meanings (1919)

There is something endearing in reading a foreigner praise your nation and your own country people, especially when the foreigner is a talented woman writer. Yet, my empathy was soon replaced by some annoyance as the book proved to be a- rather boring, b- rather outdated, c- rather questionable in its analysis.

Edith Wharton loved France. She lived there for many years, didn’t leave when war broke out, and died there (it is one of my grand plans to locate her grave and her mansion in the suburbs of Paris, but I haven’t had time to do it yet). There’s no denying that France gave her a freedom that Old New York would never have allowed her if she had remained there. But what a country tolerates for a visiting (read: exotic) (and wealthy) foreigner, even as a woman, does not constitute the norm for the local women. I guess she loved an idea of France rather than the truth.

Her explanation of French ways, even if we are 100 years later, leaves me at best puzzled. Of course, she has some things right, and some of this didn’t change. She highlights that France is fond of tradition and afraid of change, contrary to the US. She highlights that French people prefer enjoying simple daily pleasures and work moderately rather than earning more money.

She highlights the difference in relations between men and women, stressing than both spheres were kept separate in the US at the time, when (adult, married) women and men freely intermingled in France. That’s the main reason, in her mind, that the French woman is so “grown up”, when the American woman is kept in a rather immature (childish) state:

First of all, she [the average Frenchwoman] is, in nearly all respects, as different as possible from the average American woman…Is it because she dresses better, or knows more about cooking, or is more “coquettish,” or more “feminine,” or more excitable, or more emotional, or more immoral? All these reasons have been often suggested, but none of them seems to furnish a complete answer… . It is simply that, like the men of her race, the Frenchwoman is grown up….For if Frenchman care too much about other things to care as much as we do about making money, the chief reason is largely because their relations with women are more interesting.

Of course, 100 years later, it’s hard to know if her portrait was right at that time. But the assumption that the Frenchwoman is the best in everything makes me smile (now, the Tiger mother has the honor 😉 !) and say that Wharton was rather blinded by her love for France. It sounds more like a rash, rather snobbish cliché (everything she says applies to the upper class). It’s not to say that there aren’t any more differences between American and French people (and women) nowadays, but the book struck out as a lot less nuanced and subtle in her analysis than most Wharton’s novels.

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2 thoughts on “Edith Wharton, French Ways and Their Meanings (1919)

  1. This sounds rather like the reaction of someone who has converted from one religion to another, rather over the top and not really able to see the faults of her new love because she hasn’t grown up in it. When we have a new enthusiasm I suspect we’re all a bit inclined to ignore the related problems.

  2. Wharton wrote so much! I’m glad of that, because I like her writing a lot. I’m not sure I’ll get to this one, though, unless I completely fall in love with her more than I have! It would be fascinating from a sociological perspective, though.

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