EDITH WHARTON ABROAD: Selected Travel Writings, 1888-1920 edited by Sarah Bird Wright with a Preface by Shari Benstock. (St. Martin’s Press: $22.95; 216 pp.) Wharton’s first trip, writes Benstock in the Preface, was in 1866, at age 4, when she “accompanied her parents on a six-year tour of Europe that included extended residence in Rome and Paris.” Raised in a wealthy New York family, Wharton’s well-cushioned travels, on yachts, accompanied by servants, inspired seven works excerpted here. Wharton moved to France in 1906, and after 1911, returned to the United States only twice before her death in 1937.
The earliest of the travel works is “The Cruise of the Vanadis,” through northern Africa: “We walked under avenues of India-rubber trees as large as oaks, and between trellises of tea-roses in bloom, and high clumps of Arundo donax. . . .” Here her observations are plain and fresh, very different from her later crisp pronouncements on the cultures of Europe, whose architectures and artifice, vegetation and customs were more familiar to her. “We were oppressed,” she writes of the Rhine Valley, “by the aggressive salubrity and repose of this bergerie de Florian . We seemed to be living in the landscape of a sanatorium prospectus. It was all pleasant enough, according to Schopenhauer’s definition of pleasure.”
My favorite in this rich display of the authoritative aesthetic of privilege are the excerpts from “Fighting France,” written in 1915, some for Scribner’s magazine. In these Wharton at least seems ever so slightly unsettled and disoriented: “I stood there in the pitch-black night, suddenly unable to believe that I was I, or Chalons Chalons, or that a young man who in Paris drops in to dine with me and talk over new books and plays, had been whispering a password in my ear to carry me unchallenged to a house a few streets away!”