A Son at the Front was one of four novels written by Edith Wharton in the 1920’s after she had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for her book Age of Innocence. These novels focussed on the growing sense that World War I had brought about irreparable damage that left an indelible mark on society.
A Son at the Front, as its title implies was set during WWI, and opens in Paris in 1914 just before war was announced.
Edith Wharton was involved in relief work in France and this novel was inspired by a young man she met during that time.
American artist, John Campton, resided in Paris and was looking forward to his a holiday with his son George who had finished his studies in America and was returning to France to visit before taking up work in a bank n New York.
By a twist of fate, George was born in Paris and not in America. His parents divorced early in his life and his mother, Julia, had remarried a millionaire banker, Anderson Brand, who provided for George and brought him up.
‘It was almost impossible to Campton to picture what it would be like to have the boy with him. For so long he had seen his son only in snatches, hurriedly, incompletely, uncomprehendingly: it was only in the last three years that their intimacy had had a chance to develop. And they had never travelled together, except for hasty dashes, two or three times, to seashore or mountains; had never gone off on a long solitary journey such as this. Campton, tired, disenchanted, and nearing sixty, found himself looking forward to the adventure with an eagerness as great as the different sort of ardour with which, in his youth, he had imagined flights of another kind with the woman who was to fulfill every dream.
Life had perpetually knocked him down just as he had his hand on her gifts; nothing had ever succeeded with him but his work. But he was as sure as ever that peace of mind and contentment of heart were waiting for him round the next corner; and this time, it was clear, they were to come to him through his wonderful son.’
Before father and son could begin their holiday together, George was called up to join the French army and the trip could not take place.
All three parents were desperate for their son not to go to the front and used every means they could to prevent it happening.
As the war progressed it touched the lives of everyone around them. More and more families they knew received the news that their sons had died, gone missing or had been severely wounded in action and Campton struggled with the morality of pulling strings to have his son relegated to an office job.
George had seemed ambivalent about war service and this gave a false sense of security to his father, although subconsciously he wished his son to do the honourable thing.
This novel is more about the families left behind than the sons at the front. Julia had remarried and George’s rich stepfather, Mr Brant, had brought him up and loved him dearly. There is much tension between the three parents and Campton had a huge chip on his shoulder because of his lack of success in life, generally.
I thought Wharton had good insight into the relationships involved and her treatment of the effects of the war on the different characters throughout the novel were brilliant.
I’ve been reading the author’s lesser known novels and short stories and I’m surprised that they aren’t as popular as her longer works. She had a profound insight into human nature, her writing is just beautiful and her vocabulary is rich. I occasionally come across words I’ve never seen before and often can’t find them in my Oxford dictionary. I think they must be peculiar to America but not words in regular use.
That she wrote from personal experience is obvious and her work is realistic, portraying some of the senseless crimes the war had perpetrated- describing it as a monster whose daily meal was made up of ‘an incalculable sum of gifts and virtues.’
The Library of America has published the four novels of the 1920’s in a hardback edition that is very nicely done. ISBN: 9781598534535
I don’t know how I did it but I found a new copy for $12 on Amazon. It’s normal price is nearly five times that.
I loved this reflection by Campton when he discovered his son’s love of literature:
‘Campton perceived that the millionaire’s taste for owning books had awakened in his stepson a taste for reading them. “I couldn’t have done that for him,” the father had reflected with secret bitterness. It was not that a bibliophile’s library was necessary to develop a taste for letters; but that Campton himself, being a small reader, had few books about him, and usually borrowed those few. If George had lived with him he might never have guessed the boy’s latent hunger, for the need of books as part of one’s daily food would scarcely have presented itself to him.