Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"What the Cathedral Says: Edith Wharton’s Aesthetic Theory of Visual Arts in A Motor-Flight Through France" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:


As an author, Edith Wharton is best known for her novels of manners displaying her interest in European and American cultures. The changes of manners, the interaction of cultures provide her recurring fictional themes, and her representations often encode a preference for a European tradition of behaviour. For her, this means aristocratic French and Italian models of behaviour primarily. The very same focus on manners can be found in her travel books, where her interest lies not so much in listing sights but rather in assessing their cultural significance and history, and in pinpointing their value for an uncomprehending American audience. A Motor-Flight through France (MFTF) is an excellent example for this practice from before WW1.

What is the potential interest of travel pieces with the didactic aim of popularizing European manners for a US audience? Do these travelogues function as prescriptive codebooks treating “Europe as a more or less catalogued museum storehouse” (Decker 132)? I am inclined to say that Wharton’s travelogues actually achieve more than just provide a list of cultural valuables and values to note before the eclipse of WW1. I think Wharton shows an attitude for her readers, which includes skills for outsiders to understand trends in European cultural history with. The reason for this lies in the fact that Wharton’s chief interest lies in explicating European cultural continuity. For her, this historical continuity is constituted through the behaviour of the members of a given culture, it is the result of an attitude that triggers the personal experience of continuity. In this sense, Wharton is both an ethnographer and an individual who draws on her personal experience, a scholar and a woman at the same time. (Bassnett 231, 236) Traveling provides and ideal possibility for constituting this personal experience of continuity. — In this essay, my aim is to show how Wharton displays her experience of historical continuity while studying visual arts, esp. French architecture in her MFTF.

Wharton’s accounts of historical continuity also imply an idea of artistic understanding. Her descriptions of French art in MFTF rely on an active participation of the traveller in trying to assess the cultural significance of the sight in question. Wharton’s practice of constituting historical experience gains an almost spiritual dimension in her remarks about ways of relating to art. I claim that in this book she not only sketches the main characteristics of French art but also, and perhaps more importantly, displays the spiritual experience of continuity with the past through an active understanding of visual arts, including architecture. From this perspective, a cathedral is not simply a trace of a past far removed but an entity with a voice to be understood by the viewer-listener, and this voice has something to say about its past and its view of the present. For Wharton, the question is if there is anyone to listen to what the cathedral has to say.

For the sake of clarity, the paper is divided into three parts. The first, introductory part recounts French characteristics and the special French relation to history, historical continuity and it goes on to study historical continuity in the context of French art history. Then, the second part elaborates the idea of aesthetic understanding in the visual arts that will be related to a basically religious emotional experience. The third part actualizes this model on a secular example in order to expose the viewer’s work in the constitution of (French) historical continuity.


1. Historical continuity and French art

Despite all expectations, the France shown in the book is not a nation with unified characteristics. France does not equal Paris, the Île de France, or Normandy, for that matter. Rather, it has diverse regions which share characteristics with those of other nations and these regions make up the France to be shown. For the study of these cross-national characteristics, one needs to go to the country, not to the big cities. For these reasons, Wharton’s account targets the French countryside in order to display the plurality of the country itself. Yet, amidst the variety of actual characteristics, she finds the presence of historical continuity as a unifying conceptual frame.

The Introduction draws attention to the importance of historical continuity and the special way of seeing that is needed for appreciating it. In the Northern agricultural countryside one can glimpse the “higher beauty” (5) of cultivated land that is also in connection with history. This is a landscape that is cultured through its developments that have evolved through centuries. This is “land developed, humanized, brought into relation with history, as compared with the raw material with which the greater part of our hemisphere is still clothed.” (5) The counterpoint to this cultivated landscape is the agricultural landscape that evidences no trace of human interaction from the past, most probably US agricultural landscape falls into this category. In the Seine country this cultivated quality is identified with a characteristically French intelligence of life in general:

Never more vividly than in this Seine country does one feel the amenity of French manners, the long process of social adaptation which has produced so profound and general intelligence of life (29)

The intelligence of life results from the awareness of historical continuity in the form of social interaction. The motor car provides a chance for an intimate view of a landscape, of a town, out of the usual vistas of touristic travel, like railway lines and stations. (Smith 199) Thus one can take a fresh look at the special landscape and the towns dotting it.

Interestingly, Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad was not impressed by the same quality of the French landscape at all, as for him it was too artificial and neat, hedged, fenced, partitioned all over – a phenomenon incomparable to the free open spaces of the US West he much preferred. (Twain, ch. XII.) Twain’s general narrative strategy to mimic the tourists’ struggle to reconcile expectation with actual experience (Melton 85) surfaces in his mocking of the French landscape. In contrast, Wharton will be arguing for a pleasurable actual experience of sights that extends the viewer’s sense of historicity.

In MFTF the aim of travel lies in tracing historical continuity. While traveling, one can place encountered phenomena in the framework of one’s preexisting knowledge and experience historical continuity again and again. This is the sensation that makes it worth-while to leave one’s home:

… the truest invitation to travel, the sense of continuity, of relation between different districts, of familiarity with the unnamed, unhistoried region stretching between successive centers of human history exerting …, in deep unnoticed ways, so persistent an influence on the turn that history takes. (37)

In the US one can not sense this continuity, as the US is “the country where the last grain-elevator or office building is the only monument that receives homage from the surrounding architecture” (32). Therefore, a chronicle of French regions and country landscapes will have an educational purpose (Wright 79).

The “Cathedral’s word” is a metaphoric expression in the text used for the presence of historical continuity in France. If the traveler can hear this word and understand it, then he will benefit from his travels in that he will be able to experience historical continuity. What is needed for hearing the word? It is plainly: “the reverence for the accumulated experiences of the past, readiness to puzzle out their meaning, unwillingness to disturb rashly… the desire … to keep intact as many links as possible between yesterday and tomorrow … to lose the least .. of rich human heritage” (10). What is needed for understanding the voice of the past is a way of relating to objects from the past, an attitude that actively seeks and creates connections between past and present.

The area where the presence of historical continuity in France is displayed is Medieval French art, especially architecture. She traces the changes of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art, and she is mainly interested in transitions within and interactions between styles. She relies on a system of oppositions that make up both a typology and a chronicle of French art. However, her typologically based chronicle does not exist for its own sake, but serves to account for the presence of historical continuity. By interpreting the changes of typological features, Wharton would like to understand, place, and give a cultural significance to the disparate stylistic features. The result is that in the book she can, on the one hand, describe the most famous French cathedrals and cathedral towns, on the other hand, she can also assess them through the perspective of the art historian in order to pinpoint the presence of historical continuity in them.

She performs her analysis of continuity in elaborate oppositions. Pairs of towns, buildings, sculptures, paintings are compared according to their styles, functions, structures mainly to show mixed stylistic elements and their effects. Most obvious examples are the descriptions of the cathedrals themselves, in which Romanesque and Gothic elements are enumerated, relation of structure and ornament is considered, then the building in question is assessed, ie placed in an evolutionary and hierarchical list of cathedrals. (Amiens vs. Bourges, 72) Regions are also typologized, and their interferences are shown: the South is divided into the Mediterranean South, hot and delicate and Aquitanean South which is cooler, tempered by a sense of form. (Bordeaux, 90) This is also visible in, for instance, Notre dame de Grande at Laon which resembles Southern Romanesque churches in that ornament never crowds out structure in it, as Gothic ornament is wont to do – a meeting point of styles. (Laon, 89-90) This is the main reading at Comminges, too (115), with an addition of extra interest in mixed features.

Towns themselves are also contrasted: the fortresses of Cancy and Carcassone are linked as the opposite extremes of feudal secular architecture, a large walled town with small central castle vs. large predominating castle with small town around it (181). In French feudal architecture we also witness continuity, the transitional period when Italian style palaces began to be built on the basic, rugged, French military construction. (Murols, (60)). As for churches, lay churches (cathedrals) are contrasted to monastic churches: where townspeople built the church (cathedrals) the building is close to life, in the center of the city whereas monastic churches stand apart from life, preserving a life of their own – a life that eventually stopped in the French Revolution (Vézelay, 162). Pilgrimage towns show modified faces from different points in history as well: Bélharram the predecessor of Lourdes was a monastery with a small pilgrimage church, while Lourdes today is a town for tourists on the riverbank (in which every heart beat is itemized, tariffed and exploited) – which would surely benefit from some connection to its predecessor. (105-7)

Oppositions and similarities characterize the life of French artifacts, too. Brou sculpture versus Dijon sculpture attests to a difference between individual utterance and the use of stock formulas on the theme of medieval brooding over death (153). Such opposition is present in the devotional triptych and the frivolous tapestry from the same town, same time which represent the extreme points within which French art has vibrated, yet they are also similar in their decorative value and balanced use of line and color (127).

No wonder that border regions and mixed styles represent an added interest for the observer of oppositions. (108) Renaissance decorum on a Gothic framework as Aquitanean Southern effect (115 Comminges) is worth mentioning. So is the happy coexistence of styles undisturbed by purists: …. (19). At … St. Maximin is a Gothic cathedral never finished, but a 17th century renewal of devotion of Mary and Magdalen resulted in Baroque features: its wood carvings and Berniniesque altar. The round churches of Neuvy and Dijon and Cambridge are compared, their history explained, the Neuvy representative is shown in this context (85). In all these instances the mixture of features is motivated by a historical (and possibly geographical) reason that would place the objects of analysis into the wider frame of a continuous art history.

Radical historical change is reflected on only an passant. The effect of the French revolution on French churches and their continuity is rarely addressed. Only the example of the monastic church is an exception (see above). Apart from that there is no mention of the way the revolution interfered with historical continuity on the level of church architecture.


2. An aesthetic theory of experiencing the past

Wharton’s account of French art has appeared to be somewhat different from standard chronicles of art. One can notice that the text looks primarily at the French countryside for themes and not at the well known urban sights, hence the absence of Paris and her spectacles. Also, the text uses the idiosyncratic perspective of the motorist rather than the touristic perspective of the railway traveler as the basis of the descriptions. Yet the most challenging aspect of Wharton’s account is that she reflects on her own method of appreciating art objects. Susan Wright has called her way of appreciating scenes ‘imaginative reconstruction (Wright 80), which is right in that an imaginative involvement in the sights perceived is needed. Yet I think her observations about a specific order of the mind that is needed for experiencing historical continuity actually draw up an aesthetic theory of understanding visual arts. I also think that the critical skills she performs in her descriptions of actual sights are linked to this model of understanding history.

The Introduction starts out with a differentiation of two orders of the mind and explains how these orders understand what ‘the cathedral says,’ i.e. a message from art objects. The first order of the mind sees the cathedral as a piece of history, a sight, an aesthetic object. It “sees in the past expressions of faith, political, religious, or intellectual, only the bonds cast off by the spirit of man in its long invisible struggle for more light.” (10) The second order adds an extra dimension to the work of the previous order in that this also tries to listen to the cathedral’s word, because for this the past is linked to the present and the building is not so much a sight but a source of light for the observer-listener. For instance, in Amiens the cathedral can be seen, using the first order, as a unity of structure and composition, or using the second order, as a trace of something.

The second order of the mind works with the impressions produced by the art objects in the perceiver. Impressions form an important starting point for Wharton’s accounts. The term stands for the general emotional effect created in the perceiver of art. Reflecting on her impression of Bourges she admires the sight because it “carried us abruptly back to the Middle Ages, but to an exuberant Northern Medievalism far removed from the Gallo-roman tradition of central France” (68) which is “a different impression than the richer but perhaps less deeply Gothic impression produced by rival churches of the North.” (70) In other words, she talks about an emotional effect that she associates with the notion of the Gothic. For her, Gothic is not simply an umbrella term for a handful of stylistic features but an attitude to life in a given era represented/expressed by art for the perceiver. As she goes on with her account of Bourges cathedral, her point becomes more clear. The elements of the place are not special, because one by one they are not exceptional. The five portals, the ancient glass, the nave and the aisles produce the effect together as “a fortunate accidental mingling of many of the qualities that predominate in this or that more perfect structure.” (70) Again, there is more to the impression than the sum of stylistic detail.

What is the extra dimension then? She calls the emotional effect triggered by art “the spell of spiritual suggestion.” (70) This suggestion, still remaining with the example of the Gothic at Bourges, is connected to “mystical devotion which issues from the very heart of Christianity.” (ibid.) In Amiens, there is a harmony between conception and execution in the architecture that provides a concrete expression of Medieval creed. Suggestion, on the other hand, is less material: the problem with this “suggestion” is exactly the extent to which it is communicable. For Wharton, the impression at Bourges presents a “less expressible side of the influence of the Middle Ages, the power that built mighty monuments but also created other houses where the spirits of the saints might dwell.” (72) So the material, concrete expression does not equal to the spiritual suggestion that is to be experienced by the viewer on the spot, as a response, as a fleeing emotion.

She compares this experience to St Theresa’s account of “delight” in her Prayer of Quiet. Delight here is described as a scent coming from several things in one location at the same time, penetrating the observer. Its source is mysterious, its effect unmistakably positive, precious, quieting, all encompassing. Another term she uses for the emotional experience of delight outside the religious context later on is ‘pleasure’ in the observer. Pleasure comes into being at experiencing the “mystery of harmony and order no less secret and majestic than the curves of the stars in their orbits.” (179) Pleasure (and its synonym, enjoyment (178)) also serves to enrich the aesthetic consciousness, prepare it for fresh impressions, enlarge its sense of relations between art and life. (179) The process of suggestive experience seems to be circuitous: experiencing harmony result in delight and pleasure, and these emotions also serve to prepare the way for more delight in that they enlarge one’s sense of relations between art and life.

Let us return to the two orders of mind performing experience. If spiritual suggestion in the second order of the mind is an emotional experience, it is no wonder that later on she names the first and second orders of the mind as the technical way of feeling and the sentimental way of feeling in the visual arts, (emphasis mine). Firstly, the technical way of seeing involves a specialist who is interested in technical detail and cannot recognize the validity of the sentimental way of feeling at all. The sentimental way of feeling aims at taking in the total effect of art in indirectly stimulating sensations, in setting up a movement of associated ideas. (177) The movement of associated ideas experienced by the sentimental way of feeling leads to a deep assimilated experience, a vivid synthesis of the past. Wharton makes the point that a sense of the connection to the past is not technical knowledge. The movement of associated ideas in this case is linked to the Gothic spirit and a synthesis of the Gothic past. Naturally, this is performed not by the specialist but by an amateur, or to be more precise, the sentimental way of feeling is considered to be amateurish by specialists.

Wharton contends that despite the low opinion of specialists, visual arts are to be considered by the sentimental way of feeling. A technical way of considering it fails to understand the significance of technical detail in arts that lie between thought and sense. The technical appreciation starts out with the axiom that:

thought and its formulationare indivisible … therefore, the only critic capable of appreciating the beauty of a great work of architecture is he who can resolve it into its component parts, understand the relation they bear to each other and not only reconstruct them mentally but conceive of them in a different relation, and visualize the total result of such modifications.” (178)

Wharton’s preferred way of appreciation is more impressionistic and is related to the past:

An order of appreciation — for the kind of confused atavistic enjoyment that is made up of historical association, of a sense of mass and harmony, of the relation of the building to the sky above it, to the lights and shadows it created about it – deeper than all, of a blind sense in the blood of its old racial power, the things it meant to far off minds of which ours are the oft-dissolved and reconstituted fragments. (178)

There is no mistake about it, this appreciation or understanding presupposes an awareness of the past by the perceiver. The sensibility that the sentimental way of understanding art cultivates is connected to a sense of historical continuity in the perceiver.

an approximate acquaintance with the conditions producing the building, the structural theories that led up to it, their meaning, their evolution, their relation to the moral and mental growth of the builders – indeed, it may be affirmed that this amount of familiarity with the past is necessary for any genuine aesthetic enjoyment. (178-9)

For Wharton, the significance of technical detail in the visual arts lies in a connectedness to the past, which relation, in turn, can only be appreciated by the observer who can recreate the connections between present and past in pleasurable moments of experience.

The sentimental way of feeling prepares the way for Wharton’s general civilizing mission. Wharton sets out to defend the amateurish way of appreciating visual arts because for her this is also a model for understanding and appreciating the role of history in life in general. Let us recall her ideas about the historical sense in French life that is valuable and also a phenomenon the American general public is not open for. The pleasure derived from a sentimental way of appreciating art prepares observers to be open for the role of historical connectedness not only in art but in life as well.


3. Historical Continuity of Experience at George Sand’s House: A Shrine of Household Pieties

Wharton puts her theory of understanding visual art to test in her appreciation of George Sand’s house. She appreciates the house with a sentimental way of feeling: she incorporates her knowledge of Sand’s life and work into the account, is delighted and sensitivized by the impressions, and ties to link the experience into her general theories about visual arts.

A strong premise lies behind the description of Sand’s house at Nohant, the identification between the individual and the dwelling place (Goodwyn 30). It is taken for granted that the house will exhibit or illustrate the character and the life of the person who lived in it. Therefore the interest of Nohant is that “Sand’s spirit” can be found there “not in the graveyard but in the house and the garden” (49), the mystery of her life will be both deepened and elucidated. What is the mystery? There has been a dark disordered period in it (a separation from the husband and liaisons with a string of lovers). Yet, in her last years, around the age of 70, she devoted herself to household tasks and entertainments connected to her literary life. The house is supposed to bear witness to all the phases of Sand’s life.

A major surprise meets the visitor when she glimpses the respectable French country mansion. The house turns out to be much more dignified and decent than one would expect it to be. One would expect a “déclassé air,” some sort of dilapidation that would signify the lack of respect that surrounded the inhabitants of the house. Contrary to expectation, the house is an image of aristocratic well-being, sober, conscious of “its place in the social scale,” and also of its obligations and rights (47). To put the view of the house into context, it lives up to one’s expectations of an aristocratic French country mansion that can house and entertain a decent company of visitors.

The house at Nohant can be related to Sand as a possible influence. Sand’s unconventional “dark” period, her exotic lifestyle must have been shaped by the influence of the house. The house being the “image of those grave ideals to which George Sand conformed the passionate experiment of her life […] must have exerted a persistent influence giving her that centralizing weight of association and habit which is too often lacking in modern character” (47). The respectability, plainness, conformity of the house all serve this function. The spaces described (the cool drawing room, the salon, the dining room, the garden) (80-1) draw one straight into the life of Sand, whilst one can even hear the interminable dinnertalk, the typical expression of French sociability. The two little theatres (full size and marionette) are described as spaces of artistic entertainment, bringing “one close to that strange and unfathomable life” (83).

The description targets the expectations and impressions connected to the visit of the mansion. Sand’s Histoire de ma vie serves as the basis of the information about her life and relations, an image the house is to illustrate this with impressions. Yet, the house complements the viewer’s knowledge in an unexpected way, not as a déclassé illustration of a dark spell but as a persistent influence of conformity that ‘may have’ had a role in the consolidation of Sand’s later life. It is then perceived as the “shrine of household pieties to which the devotion of her last years were paid” (47). The house creates a positive impression in the viewer, its actual character is linked to Sand’s late years. In this way one gets close to the “unfathomable” life, and the house appears, metaphorically, as a shrine devoted not to household pieties but to Sand’s “soul” that dwells there and in the garden.

The acts of expectation, impression, association, delight all figure in the process of understanding Sand’s house. The eventual new perspective indicated by the sight of the house shows the mystery of Sand’s life as a delightful lesson in conforming to a centralizing habit. This is evaluated in a positive way by Wharton who misses this feature from Modern character, and who finds this story of conformity a link to French historical continuity.



MFTF perfoms a civilizing project directed at its American readers. Criticizing the (not only but mainly American) tourist’s lack of historical appreciation, it puts forward a practice and a theory of experiencing historical continuity during travel. The practical side of the project provides an account of historically and artistically noteworthy sights from the French countryside, mainly architectural ones from Romanesque to Baroque. The theoretical side of the project entails digressions into how visual art can be understood by its viewers and an argument in favor of a sentimental way of feeling visual art. A sentimental way of feeling is opposed to the technical way of feeling that considers art objects as isolated object from the past without relevance to the present. In contrast, the sentimental way of feeling links objects from the past to the present, aims at finding out their role today in an effort to link material traces of the past within the unity of civilization as such. A motor flight through the French countryside provides ideal examples from Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and material culture that form active parts of French historical continuity and civilization, and thereby prove the uses of sentimental appreciation. Also, this approach can be utilized for appreciating traces from the near past, as the experiences of visiting Sand’s house show.


Works Cited

  • Bassnett, Susan. 2002. “Travel Writing and Gender” in Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 225-241.
  • Decker, William Merrill. 2009. “Americans in Europe from Henry James to the present” in Alfred Bendixen and Judith Hamera, eds. The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 127-144.
  • Goodwyn, Janet Beer. 1990. Edith Wharton: Traveler in the Land of Letters. London: Macmillan.
  • Melton, Jeffrey A. 2002. Mark Twain, Travel Books and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.
  • Smith, Sidonie. 2001. Moving Lives: 20th-c. Women’s Travel Writing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. Available: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3176/3176-h/3176-h.htm Access: Oct. 24, 2012.
  • Wharton, Edith. 1908. A Motor-Flight Through France. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Wright, Sarah Bird. 1997. Edith Wharton’s Travel Writing. New York: St. Martin’s.