Summer by Edith Wharton ~ 1917. This edition: Berkley, 1981. Introduction by Marilyn French. Paperback. ISBN: 0-425-04610-9. 205 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
I couldn’t quite remember how many years ago I read this novel for the first time, but from the bookstore stamp (The Emporium – “New and Old” – Olds, Alberta) it must have been back in the late 1980s.
I have retained favorable memories of this rather Thomas Hardy-esque story right up until my re-reading this past week. There were a few gaps and blurring of details which I hadn’t remembered, but in essence my impressions of the book were identical this time around.
This was one of Edith Wharton’s favourites among her novels, according to Marilyn French’s Introduction, which I read, as is my habit – I prefer to come to my reading without too much prior analysis, as a rule – only after I’d finished the book. Summer nonetheless has not been viewed as one of Wharton’s major accomplishments. It is a slight thing compared to her masterworks such as The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but it shares with those the same elements of examining how characters are trapped within a closed society’s defined roles, and, even more deeply examined, their moral struggles surrounding surrender to romantic and sexual desires.
Summer’s heroine is Charity Royall, foster child of one of her small, rural New England village’s leading citizens, Lawyer Royall. Charity is just that, a charity-child, brought into the village from the nearby “Mountain”, a loose community of social outcasts. In the words of Lawyer Royall:
“The Mountain? The Mountain?… Why, the Mountain’s a blot… That scum up there ought to have been run in long ago—and would have, if the people down here hadn’t been clean scared of them… there’s a gang of thieves and outlaws living over there, in sight of us, defying the laws of their country. Why, there ain’t a sheriff or a tax-collector or a coroner’d durst go up there. When they hear of trouble on the Mountain the selectmen look the other way, and pass an appropriation to beautify the town pump…”
Charity is now nineteen years old, and has been living alone with her foster father since her foster mother’s death some years ago. She’s a dark-eyed, dark-haired, lushly lovely young thing, poised on the brink of womanhood; her main emotion is of frustration at the bleakness of her present life, and the absence of any sort of prospects. Since her foster father’s tentative advances one night some time ago, Charity has made a few changes in her life. She’s approached the town’s most prominent citizen (after Lawyer Royall), Miss Hatchard, and asked for a position as librarian in the dusty little library; Charity hopes to earn enough money to get out of town, though her actual plans are nebulous. An elderly woman has also been hired to live in and provide chaperonage; Lawyer Royall, notoriously tight-fisted, has been shamed into paying for this after his alcohol-fueled faux pas.
When a handsome young relative of Miss Hatchard’s unexpectedly shows up one bright June day, Charity falls hard. Her romance follows the course of the season, from innocently blushing June through the breathless days of July to full fruition in sultry August. And, predictably, to a anti-climactic close in the fall, when Lucius Harney, betrothed to another woman, must abandon his summer love to return to his real life; worlds away from Charity’s.
But Charity is, predictably, left in a decidedly compromised position. Though her foster father and neighbours are willing to turn a blind eye to her summer love affair, the souvenir her lover has left her will change her life completely. If, that is, she doesn’t take steps to rid herself of her liability.
What a fascinating glimpse of early 20th century women’s private lives this story gives! The discussion about young women “losing their virtue”, and the choices then open to them is frank and vivid, even though voiced only in Wharton’s veiled allusions. Charity visits an abortionist, a woman doctor who specializes in helping women deal with their indiscretions – for a price – and, once her pregnancy is confirmed, greatly surprises the doctor by her next decision.
This is a story that hangs greatly on a series of coincidences; it is abundantly obvious that the author has planned her narrative carefully; every incident has a connection to the whole. A brief meeting in chapter one, or a mention of a seemingly minor event or a character’s idiosyncrasy is invariably followed up later on. And much as I appreciated Wharton’s meticulous approach, after a while I started looking for those connections; I ended my reading with a strong sensation of having read something completely contrived and separated from any sort of organic flow.
This novel felt like the author deliberated every last word. Is this a good thing? Well, in my opinion, sort of. As a piece of literary art this sort of hyper-detail can certainly be appropriate, but as a reader I found myself becoming aware too often of the creative master hand; it did disturb the narrative flow as I increasingly mulled over the place of each incident in the broader web.
Summer is often referred to as Wharton’s “erotic novel”, and the description is apt, if one considers that the most powerful eroticism comes from one’s own mind, as the reader builds an emotional picture upon open-ended suggestion. We never get the actual details of what Charity and Lucius are up to, but it’s very obvious what is about to happen every time the curtain of propriety drops; Charity’s general state of being at the beginning of the novel can rightly be described as “ready for love”; her naturally sensuous nature (sensuous in the most genuine sense – she glories in every physical and emotional stimulus around her – the warmth of the sun, the feel of the wind, the fragrance of flowers, the sight and texture of a piece of lovely fabric) leaves her open to the experience of sensual (and ultimately sexual) pleasure when at last she has the opportunity in her more than sheltered life.
What Charity is not is any sort of an intellectual. Despite her librarianship, books leave her cold, and her foster father’s and lover’s lively shared conversations bemuse her completely; she escapes their verbal gymnastics by quiet emotional retreat into her own small inner world which is governed by feelings rather than ideas. But when ideas do start to form, Charity’s actions are gloriously individualistic. She becomes completely self-centered in her responses to the situations she finds herself in, moving by sure inner instinct rather than by “appropriate” societal response.
The novel’s ending (which I am not going to reveal in detail; I do think this is a novel which rewards a reader’s personal discovery) and Charity’s ultimate decision regarding herself and her unborn child is surprising, and could, to some, be easily seen as a failure on the author’s part to allow her character to continue on her path to personal self-fulfillment. This is, naturally, as seen by our 21st Century eyes. But Charity is not of our time; she is doing the best she can in the place she comes from; I don’t believe it is fair to judge her actions and decisions in light of the choices women have a century later. I came away feeling that Charity’s future might well be a reasonably content and fulfilling one, though doubtless many will not agree, seeing her fate as infinitely dreary, with regards to “happiness” as we might define it today.
A must-read for anyone who has dabbled in Edith Wharton’s more prominent pieces, and an excellent summer read (so appropriately titled!) for the connoisseur of vintage fiction.