A Motor-Flight Through France, Edith Wharton's first French travel book, has been termed by her biographer R. W. B. Lewis "perhaps the best of Edith Wharton's always superior and original travel books." Based on three automobile journeys taken in 1906 and 1907, the book points up the perfections of France during the Belle Époque. Their journeys were probably one of the chief pleasures of the remaining years of their marriage, which ended in 1913. The years 1906-7 are regarded by Wharton's biographers Shari Benstock and R. W. B. Lewis as the decisive time of Wharton's final expatriation. Her physical residence in the elite Faubourg section of Paris began in 1907, when she and her husband, Teddy, sublet the apartment of the George Vanderbilts in a stately town house at 58 rue de Varenne. In January 1910, the Whartons moved into their own apartment at 53 Rue de Varenne; she was to live in this apartment there until 1920, when she acquired the Pavillon Colombe just outside Paris. Benstock offers a penetrating analysis of Wharton's efforts to find acceptance within the exclusive intellectual and social circles of the Faubourg (Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940, 37-38). Wharton wrote several essays for the Atlantic Monthly that appeared in 1906, 1907, and 1908; according to Mary Suzanne Schriber they were expanded for book publication ("Note on the Text," A Motor-Flight Through France, ed. Mary Suzanne Schriber, xvi). The third section of the book was not published in the Atlantic Monthly and may have been written to round out the volume for Scribner's. Wharton was delighted when Henry James took her to call on the elderly English novelist George Meredith in 1908 and learned that he was "flying through France" in her motor at that very moment.
Between Italian Backgrounds (1905) and A Motor-Flight Through France (1908), Wharton crosses a Rubicon; leisurely exploration gives way to rapid visitation and Italy succumbs to France. Her travel writing becomes less a compilation of heuristic essays than a chronicle of sites and routes. The three separate journeys described in A Motor-Flight Through France represent, in the words of Mary Suzanne Schriber, "a record of the twilight of the long-standing American romance with Europe that World War I was destined to alter forever" ("Introduction" to A Motor-Flight Through France, ed. Mary Suzanne Schriber, xl). Wharton's first book of motor travel and her first about France, Motor-Flight seems, in contrast to Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904) and Italian Backgrounds (1905), uncharacteristically concerned with routes and speed; villages and towns are sighted but ruled out for lack of time. On reflection, however, we may see that Wharton is accommodating herself to the new realities of transport: the motor car that had been a stunning innovation in 1903, when she visited many of the villas that were to figure in Italian Villas and their Gardens, is now a staple of transport. A Motor-Flight Through France embodies new perspectives and new values; Wharton still seeks "by-ways," in the sense of little-known places, but her journeys are more rapid and free of the "bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track" that have characterized railway travel (MFF 1). The motor car, she states, has restored the "adventure and the novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grandparents," but she is not slowly re-enacting and refining the grand tours and pilgrimages of Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper, and Emerson. Mobility has also eroded leisure: she is forced to overlook many tempting "by-ways" and, agonizingly, "take as a mere parenthesis" towns that once would have merited a lengthy stay.
Part I of Motor-Flight chronicles a journey the Whartons, accompanied by Edith's brother Harry Jones, made in May 1906 from Boulogne to Bourges. It contains 7 short chapters: "Boulogne to Amiens," "Beauvais and Rouen," "From Rouen to Fontainebleau," "The Loire and the Indre," "Nohant to Clermont," "In Auvergne," and "Royat to Bourges." Wharton described their expedition to Mrs. Alfred Austin, wife of the British poet laureate, as a "giro" around portions of France. Picking up their car at Boulogne, they went via Arras to Amiens, on to Beauvais and Rouen, down the Seine to Les Andelys, to Nantes, Versailles, Fontainebleau, Orleans, Tours, and into Auvergne, visiting George Sand's home at Nohant.
"From Rouen to Fontainebleau": The third chapter traces their route from Rouen past the small towns of the Seine to Les Andelys ("two of the quaintest towns of France," Great and Little Andelys). Here Wharton again makes a case for ruins as opposed to restoration that eradicates the original state of a structure. She praises the twelfth-century Norman Chateau Gaillard, erected by Richard Coeur de Lion, in Le Petit Andely (Little Andely), in a bend of the river. It is a "poor fluttering rag of a ruin," yet, in a "hoarse, cracked whisper" it speaks more eloquently and plaintively of feudalism than such restored castles as Pierrefonds, from which the "growths of time" have been "stripped." They stop in Dourdan for an outdoor meal in the courtyard of an old inn of the type that the "demands of the motorist" is making obsolete, one where "Manon and des Grieux" (characters in the eighteenth-century novel L'Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost) might have dined on their way to Paris. Etampes, the next significant town on the approach to Fontainebleau, is "dry, compact, and sentimental," but strikes Wharton as "hoarding a long rich past" (MFF 33). In a rare acknowledgment that her authorial eye is making active use of her travels, she remarks that "its one grey street and squat old church will hereafter always serve for the ville de province background in my staging of French fiction."
Part II is a record of a motor tour the Whartons made in March 1907, accompanied by Henry James. It has 4 chapters: "Paris to Poitiers," "Poitiers to the Pyrenees," "The Pyrenees to Provence," and "The Rhone to the Seine." Teddy Wharton had closed in their touring car, the Panhard-Levassor, and added an electric light, along with "every known accessorie and comfort," as he wrote Sara Norton (Wharton's close friend, daughter of the Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton). He took pleasure in catering to her "nice, to me, worldly side," even though he was admittedly "no good on Puss's high plain of thought" (EW 177). Benstock observes that "Teddy proved a resilient and good-humored companion" whose "spirits seemed to soar at the prospect of motor-flights." (NGC 170). Their second "flight" took them on an itinerary of over two thousand miles, from Paris to Poitiers, the Pyrenees, and Provence. Among the places they visited were Bordeaux, Cadillac, Pau, Lourdes, Bayonne, Biarritz, Albi, Carcassonne, Aix, Avignon, Orange, Valence, Brou, Dijon, Vézelay, Auxerre, and Sens. Wharton published four articles describing this journey in the Atlantic Monthly.
"Paris to Poitiers": This chapter is the first in the second part of A Motor-Flight Through France, based on the Whartons' second "Motor-Flight," in March 1907, accompanied by Henry James (E.W., 177). As usual, Wharton does not indicate the identities of her companions. She perceives, as in Italy, little-recognized aspects of "show towns" such as Chartres and Blois. Chartres has "Balzacian gables," and, in the Cathedral, "waves of unearthly red and blue" flowing in rivers from the famous rose window until they are "gathered up at last into the mystical heart of the apse." At Blois she sees the "poetry of old roofs."
They visit George Sand's home at Nohant, where Wharton is particularly fascinated by the small theater, which includes two stages, one with life-size scenery for actors and actresses, and the other a marionette theater recalling the commedia dell'arte as it was incorporated by Goethe in his fiction: "just such a "Puppen-theatre as Wilhelm Meister described to Marianne." At the back of the room are a troupe of marionettes dressed by George Sand herself, including stock characters from the commedia dell'arte: Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, and others. Goethe and George Sand were among the writers she most admired; their acknowledgement of the imaginative power of this form of theater must have validated her own attachment to it.
Part III describes the final "flight" made by the Whartons, accompanied by Henry James, during the Whitsuntide weekend in 1907. This was a tour of the northeast section of France, including Vincennes, Meaux, Rheims, Coucy, Noyon, St. Quentin, Laon, Soissons, Senlis, Chantilly, St. Leu d'Esserent, through the valley of the Oise to Pontoise and on to Paris. There is only one chapter, "A Flight to the North-East."
"A Flight to the North-East": The third part of Motor-Flight offers a cheerful look at the Bois de Vincennes as the party leaves Paris, and of the countryside from Meaux to Rheims. Wharton compares the fortress of Coucy with Carcassonne, and recommends Coucy as a touring center. She records the towers of Noyon "rising above a girdle of orchards and meadows" as "the most English impression in France" (MFF 183). She praises the Gothic Hôtel de Ville at St. Quentin, the cathedral at Laon, and the Gallo-Roman city of Soissons. The section is a poignant reminder of pre-World War I France; only seven years after this journey Wharton would return to the Marne and to Rheims, recording the horrors of the war-torn countryside in Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
1. Compare the peacetime atmosphere and sights Wharton describes in A Motor-Flight Through France with the devastated landscape of Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort.
2. In French Ways and Their Meaning Wharton analyses many French mores that may seem inexplicable to Americans. What parallels do you see between this volume and Motor-Flight?
3. What use do you believe Wharton made of her travels in France, as described in Motor-Flight, when writing her fiction set in France? Consider one or more of these works: The Custom of the Country, The Reef, Madame de Treymes, The Marne, A Son at the Front.
4. Discuss Edith Wharton's aversion to ordinary tourism, with special reference to her description of Rouen in Part I, Ch. II.
5. Which of the French towns described in the book would you most like to visit, and why?
6. Evaluate Wharton's competence in describing landscape and such topographical features as rivers and mountains.
7. As in Italian Villas and Their Gardens and Italian Backgrounds, Wharton proves herself a connoisseur of art and architecture. Which of the works of art or buildings described in the book would you most like to see and what is there, in her description, that shapes your answer?
Bell, Millicent. Edith Wharton and Henry James: The Story of Their Friendship. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton's Argument with America. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Auchincloss, Louis. Edith Wharton: A Woman In Her Time. New York: Viking, 1971.
Bellringer, Alan. "Edith Wharton's Use of France." The Yearbook of English Studies, 15 (1985), 109-24.
Shari Benstock. No Gifts from Chance: A Biography of Edith Wharton. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1994.
-------. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Edel, Leon. "Summers in an Age of Innocence: In France with Edith Wharton." New York Times Book Review, June 9, 1991, 3, 44, 46.
Goodwyn, Janet. Traveller in the Land of Letters. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Joslin, Katherine and Alan Price (eds). Wretched Exotic: Essays on Edith Wharton in Europe. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. See especially Millicent Bell, "Edith Wharton in France" and Maureen St. Laurent, "Pathways to a Personal Aesthetic: Edith Wharton's Travels in Italy and France."
Lewis, R. W. B. Edith Wharton: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.
Lewis, R. W. B., and Nancy. The Letters of Edith Wharton. New York: Scribner's, 1988.
Lubbock, Percy. Portrait of Edith Wharton. New York: Appleton, 1947.
Sapora, Carol Baker. "Motor Flights through France." Edith Wharton Review, 4:2 (Fall 1987), 1-2.
Mary Suzanne Schriber, "Introduction" to A Motor-Flight Through France, ed. Mary Suzanne Schriber. DeKalb, Il: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991.
-------. "Edith Wharton and the French Critics, 1906-1937." American Literary Realism 13 (Spring 1980), 61-72.
-------. "Edith Wharton and Travel Writing as Self-Discovery." American Literature 59 (May 1987), 257-267.
Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner's, 1934.
-------. The Custom of the Country. New York: Scribner's, 1913.
-------. Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort. New York: Scribner's, 1915.
-------. French Ways and Their Meaning. New York: Appleton, 1919.
-------. Madame de Treymes. New York: Scribner's, 1906.
-------. The Marne. New York: Appleton, 1918.
-------. The Reef. New York: Appleton, 1912.
-------. A Son at the Front. New York: Scribner's, 1923.
Wright, Sarah Bird. Edith Wharton A to Z: The Essential Guide to the Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998.
-------. Edith Wharton's Travel Writing: The Making of a Connoisseur. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.
--Contributed by Sarah Bird Wright, Midlothian, VA