In 1921, Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937) was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1923, she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University. In 1925, she became a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago.
She writes in her autobiography, A Backward Glance, “After A Son at the Front (published, 1923), I intended to take a long holiday — perhaps to cease from writing altogether. It was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914, and I felt myself incapable of transmuting the raw material of the after-war world into a work of art. Gardening, reading and travel seemed the only solace left; and during the first years after the war I did a good deal of all three.”
“Perhaps to cease from writing altogether.” She was, after all, 63 years old in 1925. The life she knew in New York as a child of the Gilded Age was gone and the life she knew in Paris was changed, as she says, by WWI. She was clearly describing a moment at the crossroads of her life.
How did she first connect with Camino de Santiago? She claims that her initial inspiration was a massive work by her contemporary, the French medievalist Jacques Bedier, and his Legendes Epiques. Bedier’s work follows the route of the troubadours and the epic poems and songs that were written along the pilgrimage roads. His discussion of the evolution of the stories of Roland and Charlemagne is captivating, and he lists every town along the French Way. Four volumes published 1908-13 serve both as a treatise on medieval literature and a bucket list of fascinating, literature-rich places for his readers to discover.
Bedier would also inspire two American professors to pick up the thread and make their own contributions to our understanding of the Camino: Georgiana Goddard King in 1920 followed by Arthur Kingsley Porter in 1923, and shortly after that, Kenneth Conant who wrote the first definitive study of the successive architecture programs that produced the Romanesque Cathedral standing today. Bryn Mawr Professor King, allied with the Hispanic Society of America, wrote a three volume travel guidebook to the Camino, and Yale Professor Porter published in 1923 the premise that would define his career as an art historian: he believed that artisans, sculptors, and architects traveled alongside the troubadours and pilgrims, stopping long enough to create the many important churches that mark the Way. By September of 1925, Edith Wharton was drained from years of writing first hand about the destruction caused by WWI, hooked on the notion of visiting Romanesque sites in Northern Spain, and ready to start her pilgrim’s journey – with King’s guidebook packed in her luggage.
Edith set off on her Camino with the love of her life, Walter Berry; her driver, Franklin; her Pekingese, Coonie; and her maid, Elise. They started their journey in Paris, but did not simply follow the Camino Frances to Santiago. It is noted in Back to Compostela, by Patricia Fra Lopez that Edith and Walter had sent her driver on ahead to Bayonne from Paris in her car while they covered the same distance by train.
Edith was clearly inspired and focused on a detailed, specific pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. She writes in A Backward Glance, “We were resolved to miss no stage of the ancient way, and from Jaca we went to Eunate, Logrono, Estella, Puenta de la Reina and Burgos, and thence, by way of Fromista, Carrion de los Condes and Sahagun, to Leon, and across the Cantabrian Mountains to Oviedo.” Making “pious pauses,” she writes in her journal, they stopped “again and again, to pick up and follow the tired foot-prints of medieval early travellers.”
From Oviedo, they drive to Finisterre and pass through Padron on their roundabout way back to Santiago. They drive most of the way, stopping for picnics and churches, which Edith loved, and on at least one occasion, she traveled out to a site on horseback, while Walter did a stretch of his own on a mule.
Upon arriving in Santiago, they check into the Hotel Suizo, now closed, situated in the Plaza Mazarelos. A plaque reminds visitors today that Ernest Hemingway stayed there in 1929. And she visits the Cathedral in order to hear what she calls the “Ave Maria.” The brief note in her travel journal, labeled Last Spanish Journey with W. Spain 1925, says only, “Sunset light on the portico de la Gloria.”
If you stand just inside the doors to the Plaza Obradoiro, you will be standing were Edith Wharton viewed the Portico de la Gloria at sunset.
She mentions visiting several other sites in Santiago, including the old Pilgrim’s Hospital, now the Parador Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, the Palacio Gelmirez (now a part of the Cathedral Museum), and the Church of Santa Maria a Real do Sar. She writes a simple note from the end of that day, after visiting so many other places: “Finally, back to cathedral to hear the Ave Maria again. Sunset on Portico.” Again the next day, September 17, after visiting the Church of San Francisco in the morning, “finally back to Portico with book to puzzle out symbolism.”
Wharton would make another journey to Santiago de Compostela three years later, after the death of Walter Berry. Instead of the detailed stops at every Romanesque church along the Camino, her pious pauses, she moves quickly toward Galicia in a rush to return to Santiago: Madrid to Leon, Leon to Santiago. On arriving at the Cathedral once again, it is the Portico de la Gloria she writes about first: “Hallelujah! Jubilee! Lhassa! (translation: the place of gods. Also the name of a “forbidden” city in Tibet). I saw eternity the other night – applied to the Portico. There entertain him all the saints above in solemn troops and sweet societies.” She is quoting Henry Vaughn’s The World (eternity the other night) and John Milton’s Lycidas (solemn troops) as if viewing the Portico again provoked a kind of poetic rapture, a spiritual lift. Later in her notes, she writes: “This is the pavement of the court of heaven.”
Edith Wharton died in 1937. Her Massachusetts home, The Mount, is open as a museum now. She is buried in the Cimetière des Gonards in Versailles, only a few graves away from the love of her life, Walter Berry. The inscription on her tomb: Ave Crux Spes Unica. Hail to the Cross, our only hope. She and her ex-husband Teddy Wharton were founding members of the New York Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
For further reading:
We can read about Edith Wharton’s journeys to Santiago through her notebooks and her autobiography. There are notebooks specific to these two trips (1925 and 1929): one housed in the Yale Library (Last Spanish Journey with W. Spain 1925), the other at Indiana University in Bloomington (Back to Compostela). Both are reproduced in Edith Wharton: Back to Compostela, The Woman, the Writer, the Way. Edith Wharton and the Way to St. James, Patricia Fra Lopez, Literary Edition, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, 2011.
A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton, Vintage Books Kindle Edition, 2020.
Les légendes épiques. Recherches sur la formation des chansons de geste. Joseph Bedier, Champion, 1908-1913.
The Way of Saint James, Georgiana Goddard King, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920.
Romanesque Sculpture of the Pilgrimage Roads, Arthur Kingsley Porter, Yale, 1923.
The Early Architectural History of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Kenneth John Conant, Harvard University Press, 1926.
L’architecture Religieuse en France a L’époque Romane, Robert de Lasteyrie, A. Picard, 1912.