Our book today is a grim but charming little 1915 gem called A Hilltop on the Marne by Mildred Aldrich, an amplified collection of letters she wrote back to the United States after she moved to France and then specifically to Huiry, a little hamlet overlooking the Marne river. Aldrich had thought to “withdraw from Life” to Huiry and putter around her gorgeous flagstoned, thick-beamed country house in peace after a singularly hectic life.
She’d been for many years a hack journalist in the world of Boston letters, a marvelous book reviewer and cultural columnist, and by the time she withdrew to Huiry she was in her sixties and feeling a bit worn out. She’d always been guilt of idealizing peace and solitude (like most voracious readers tend to do), so when she took this lovely farmhouse and quickly acclimated herself to sleepy village ways, it felt almost like an ideological homecoming, a long-sought shelter from the fray of constantly getting a living.
But life doesn’t tend to work like that, especially for people like Aldrich; the last shipping-crate of her books had barely been pried open when the countryside began to rumble with the rumors of coming war. And those rumors disturbed even the quiet nights of La Creste; as she wrote at the time, “In the back of my mind – pushed back as hard as I could – stood the question, What was to become of all this?”
What became of all of it was war, and soon the fighting was happening underneath her own parlor windows. All her friends in Paris and back in Boston were alarmed when war was declared and their correspondent suddenly found herself on the front lines of a conflict everybody had dreaded but nobody had quite expected. Her response to these worried letters was always pretty much the same as the one she wrote on 10 August 1914: “I have your cable asking me to come ‘home’ as you call it. Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here. Thanks all the same.”
Her home became a makeshift way-station for detachments of the British Expeditionary Force, whose members shocked her both with their excessive youth and with their decorum which often seemed to border on folly. The sights and sounds of war became every-day parts of her world, and they found their way into her letters:
Yet, do you know, I went to bed, and what is more I slept well. I was physically tired. The last thing I saw as I closed up the house was the gleam of moonlight on the muskets of the picket pacing the road, and the first thing I heard, as I waked suddenly at about four, was the crunching of the gravel as they still marched there.
And inevitably, she herself became an object of curiosity for the men she was housing and feeding and caring for. Late in the book there’s a telling encounter, transcribed with all her usual flinty honesty:
The chef-major turned to me – caught me looking in the other direction – to the west where deserted Esbly climbed the hill.
I told him that he knew best.
“Well,” he said, “I want to know how it happens that you – a foreigner, and a woman – happen to be living in what looks like exile – all alone on the top of a hill – in war-time?”
I looked at him a moment – and – well, conditions like these make people friendly with one another at once. I was, you know, never very reticent, and in days like these even the ordinary reticences of ordinary times are swept away. So I answered frankly, as if these men were old friends, and not the acquaintances of an hour, that, as I was, as they could see, no longer young, very tired, and yet not weary with life, but more interested than my strength allowed. I had sought a pleasant retreat for my old age – not too far from the City of my Love – and that I had chosen this hilltop for the sake of the panorama spread out before me; that I had loved it every day more than the day before; and that exactly three months after I had sat down on this hilltop this awful war had marched to within sight of my gate, and banged its cannon and flung its deadly bombs right under my eyes.
Do you know, every mother’s son of them threw back his head and laughed aloud. I was startled. I knew that I had shown unnecessary feeling – but I knew it too late. I made a dash for the house, but the lieutenant blocked the way. I could not make a scene. I never felt so like it in my life.
“Come back, come back,” he said. “We all apologize. It was a shame to laugh. But you are so vicious and personal about it. After all, you know, the gods were kind to you – it did turn back – those waves of battle. You had better luck than Canute.”
“Besides,” said the chef-major, “you can always say that you had front row stage box.”
She made the only use she could of that front row stage box: she wrote about it. A Hilltop on the Marne became a bestseller – her very first – and its success threw her right back into the literary world she’d sought to escape, only this time as a star rather than a deadline drudge. She wrote other books, accepted generous speaking fees, almost needed to hire a secretary to handle her vastly increased correspondence. Certainly the bookstores in her native Boston couldn’t stay stocked with the slim green volume that had started it all, and A Hilltop on the Marne was by far her most popular book when she died in 1928. It isn’t quite her best book (that distinction goes to an utterly remarkable volume called Confessions of a Breadwinner, which circulated to admiring readers in samizdat but hasn’t ever been published and may now for all I know be lost), but it’s her most gripping. 2014 of course marks a century since she found herself in the crosshairs of history, but even in the shot of WWI-mania, it’s doubtful any major publisher will remember this little book. But that’s a shame, and I highly recommend it.