This week we welcome a blog post by Sarah Scott, a summer guide at The Mount, who is currently living in Strasbourg, France and working as an English teaching assistant in an elementary school.
On a cold, overcast day in early November, I found myself lost in Versailles. Unlike the other tourists who were braving the weather, I was not in this Parisian suburb to visit Louis XIV’s gilded château; I was making a pilgrimage to Edith Wharton’s gravesite in the Cimetière des Gonards.
My first stop was the cemetery in Versailles, which is not very well known and hence the reason why I was lost. The woman at the information desk in the train station made it very plain that she had no idea what I was talking about and when I stopped people on the street to ask for directions, most looked bewildered and shook their heads in response.
Finally, I saw a sign for the Cimetière des Gonards and followed it to a street behind Versailles’ second train station. There were shops selling headstones and other funerary monuments, so I knew I had found the right place. I walked through the archway of a little gatehouse, past a gardener who was taking care of the brightly colored flowers and stately bushes lining the drive, and found the gatekeeper’s office. I went inside to ask for directions to Wharton’s gravesite and the man entered “WHARTON, Edith” into his computer. No results. My heart stopped for a second as I contemplated the possibility that I was at the wrong cemetery. The gatekeeper tried a second search before going over to a filing cabinet in the corner and rifling through a collection of index cards. He took out a yellowed index card with the name Wharton, Jones Edith written in beautiful script and my heart stopped for a second time, but this time out of excitement instead of panic.
With a map in hand, I walked past the meticulously kept plots and up a little hill towards the back of the cemetery. I was having a hard time finding the name “Wharton,” but suddenly I saw the name “Berry” out of the corner of my eye. There he was: Walter V.R. Berry Born July 29th, 1859 Died October 12, 1927. I scanned his neighbors’ headstones and found, three plots down, Edith Wharton Née Edith Newbold Jones 24 janvier 1862-11 août 1937. I smiled when I saw that she had chosen her adopted language of French, rather than her native language of English, to mark the dates of her birth and death.
I was surprised at first that their sites are so plain and understated. Wharton and Berry’s gravesites are identical with the exception of an inscription on the horizontal piece of Wharton’s cross that reads, “O Crux Ave Spes Unica,” or “Hail to the cross, our only hope.”
I had impolitely not thought to buy flowers, so in lieu of leaving a token for Edith, I recited one of my favorite quotes, a quote I had memorized after mentioning it on each of my tours:
“I have sometimes thought that a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms. There is the hall, through which everyone passes; the drawing room, where one receives formal visits; the sitting room, where members of the family come and go…But beyond that are other rooms, the handles of whose doors are never turned. No one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead. And in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes.”
And with that, I bid Wharton and Berry adieu.
A day later, I was walking down the rue de Varenne after having visited the Musée Rodin and remembered that it was the street where Wharton had lived during World War I. Dragging my two friends along, I searched for building number 53. Appropriately, it is a grand and stately building with an imposing, tall, green door marking the entrance. As I gazed up at the big windows, trying to imagine which one Wharton would have looked out of, I felt a bit like Newland Archer looking at Ellen Olenska’s Parisian apartment. This was the closest I would get to going inside and that was closure enough for me.
I spent the rest of my time in Paris content with my mini pilgrimage; however, I am tempted to visit Wharton’s former villa in Hyères, on the French Riviera. I’ve already started dreaming up a trip to the South in early May and I have a feeling that, once again, I’ll find my way to Wharton.