Edith Wharton’s Paris, and The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton must be the most French of American writers. Not only did she live in France and use it as a setting for her novels, she understood the country.
Have you seen this piece by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times? Make sure you don’t miss the slide show, though I wish the gentleman in shorts and T-shirt had stepped out of the way to let us admire the gorgeous statue of Diane de Poitiers… And don’t be scared away by the rates quoted for the Hôtel de Crillon. For the price of two nights in Madame Wharton’s suite, I rent my Paris apartment nearby for a year.
And about the ending of The Age of Innocence, set in the Invalides district, I can’t help reproduce this excerpt of the last chapter, when an aging Archer comes to Paris with his son Dallas to not visit his long lost love Madame Olenska:.
Suddenly Dallas stopped short, grasping his father’s arm. “Oh, by Jove,” he exclaimed.
They had come out into the great tree-planted space before the Invalides. The dome of Mansart floated ethereally above the budding trees and the long grey front of the building: drawing up into itself all the rays of afternoon light, it hung there like the visible symbol of the race’s glory.
Archer knew that Madame Olenska lived in a square near one of the avenues radiating from the Invalides; and he had pictured the quarter as quiet and almost obscure, forgetting the central splendour that lit it up. Now, by some queer process of association, that golden light became for him the pervading illumination in which she lived. For nearly thirty years, her life — of which he knew so strangely little — had been spent in this rich atmosphere that he already felt to be too dense and yet too stimulating for his lungs. He thought of the theatres she must have been to, the pictures she must have looked at, the sober and splendid old houses she must have frequented, the people she must have talked with, the incessant stir of ideas, curiosities, images and associations thrown out by an intensely social race in a setting of immemorial manners; and suddenly he remembered the young Frenchman who had once said to him: “Ah, good conversation–there is nothing like it, is there?”
Archer had not seen M. Riviere, or heard of him, for nearly thirty years; and that fact gave the measure of his ignorance of Madame Olenska’s existence. More than half a lifetime divided them, and she had spent the long interval among people he did not know, in a society he but faintly guessed at, in conditions he would never wholly understand. During that time he had been living with his youthful memory of her; but she had doubtless had other and more tangible companionship. Perhaps she too had kept her memory of him as something apart; but if she had, it must have been like a relic in a small dim chapel, where there was not time to pray every day. . . They had crossed the Place des Invalides, and were walking down one of the thoroughfares flanking the building. It was a quiet quarter, after all, in spite of its splendour and its history; and the fact gave one an idea of the riches Paris had to draw on, since such scenes as this were left to the few and the indifferent.
Photograph of Saint-Louis des Invalides by Willtron