Archive for the ‘Edith Wharton’ Category

summer edith whartonSummer 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.

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glimpses of the moon edith wharton 001The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton ~ 1922. This edition: Signet, 2000. Introduction by Regina Barreca. Paperback. ISBN: 0-451-52668-6. 252 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

This one started out very well, but I felt it lost steam as it went on, and the ending was, in my opinion, more than slightly weak. But it’s decidedly readable, especially if one is interested in comparing it to the much stronger The House of Mirth, with which it shares some common themes, though the author takes her characters in a different direction, and the tone of The Glimpses of the Moon frequently approaches farce.

I’m going to give you a transcription of the opening page and a general overview – SPOILER ALERT: the ending is divulged – before sending you off to visit several other more thoughtful reviews, both of which much more fully reference The Glimpses of the Moon in relation to The House of Mirth.

*****

It’s been many years since I read Edith Wharton’s tragic American Lit classic, The House of Mirth, but I retain enough memory of it to be able to say that The Glimpses of the Moon is, in comparison, one of Wharton’s minor novels. Coming to it with that initial expectation, I asked myself how it appealed to me as a stand-alone novel. If I had never read any of Edith Wharton’s Big Important Novels, and had picked this one up cold, what would I think? So I won’t be comparing Susy Lansing to Lily Bart, obvious counterparts though they may be.

Here’s the set-up. A young couple is on their honeymoon, and as they linger in the moonlight reflecting off Lake Como, their thoughts are not so much on each other as on their great good fortune in being there at all…

It rose for them—their honey-moon—over the waters of a lake so famed as the scene of romantic raptures that they were rather proud of not having been afraid to choose it as the setting of their own.

“It required a total lack of humour, or as great a gift for it as ours, to risk the experiment,” Susy Lansing opined, as they hung over the inevitable marble balustrade and watched their tutelary orb roll its magic carpet across the waters to their feet.

“Yes—or the loan of Strefford’s villa,” her husband emended, glancing upward through the branches at a long low patch of paleness to which the moonlight was beginning to give the form of a white house-front.

“Oh, come – when we’d five to choose from. At least if you count the Chicago flat.”

“So we had—you wonder!” He laid his hand on hers, and his touch renewed the sense of marvelling exultation which the deliberate survey of their adventure always roused in her…. It was characteristic that she merely added, in her steady laughing tone: “Or, not counting the flat—for I hate to brag—just consider the others: Violet Melrose’s place at Versailles, your aunt’s villa at Monte Carlo—and a moor!”

She was conscious of throwing in the moor tentatively, and yet with a somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as if to make sure that he shouldn’t accuse her of slurring it over. But he seemed to have no desire to do so. “Poor old Fred!” he merely remarked; and she breathed out carelessly: “Oh, well—”

His hand still lay on hers, and for a long interval, while they stood silent in the enveloping loveliness of the night, she was aware only of the warm current running from palm to palm, as the moonlight below them drew its line of magic from shore to shore.

Nick Lansing spoke at last. “Versailles in May would have been impossible: all our Paris crowd would have run us down within twenty-four hours. And Monte Carlo is ruled out because it’s exactly the kind of place everybody expected us to go. So—with all respect to you—it wasn’t much of a mental strain to decide on Como.”

His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. “It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!”

“Well, I should have preferred something in a lower key; at least I thought I should till we got here. Now I see that this place is idiotic unless one is perfectly happy; and that then it’s – as good as any other.”

She sighed out a blissful assent. “And I must say that Streffy has done things to a turn. Even the cigars—who do you suppose gave him those cigars?” She added thoughtfully: “You’ll miss them when we have to go.”

“Oh, I say, don’t let’s talk to-night about going. Aren’t we outside of time and space…? Smell that guinea-a-bottle stuff over there: what is it? Stephanotis?”

“Y-yes…. I suppose so. Or gardenias…. Oh, the fire-flies! Look…there, against that splash of moonlight on the water. Apples of silver in a net-work of gold….” They leaned together, one flesh from shoulder to finger-tips, their eyes held by the snared glitter of the ripples.

“I could bear,” Lansing remarked, “even a nightingale at this moment….”

A faint gurgle shook the magnolias behind them, and a long liquid whisper answered it from the thicket of laurel above their heads.

“It’s a little late in the year for them: they’re ending just as we begin.”

Susy laughed. “I hope when our turn comes we shall say good-bye to each other as sweetly.”

It was in her husband’s mind to answer: “They’re not saying good-bye, but only settling down to family cares.” But as this did not happen to be in his plan, or in Susy’s, he merely echoed her laugh and pressed her closer.

The spring night drew them into its deepening embrace. The ripples of the lake had gradually widened and faded into a silken smoothness, and high above the mountains the moon was turning from gold to white in a sky powdered with vanishing stars. Across the lake the lights of a little town went out, one after another, and the distant shore became a floating blackness. A breeze that rose and sank brushed their faces with the scents of the garden; once it blew out over the water a great white moth like a drifting magnolia petal. The nightingales had paused and the trickle of the fountain behind the house grew suddenly insistent.

When Susy spoke it was in a voice languid with visions. “I have been thinking,” she said, “that we ought to be able to make it last at least a year longer.”

Her husband received the remark without any sign of surprise or disapprobation; his answer showed that he not only understood her, but had been inwardly following the same train of thought.

“You mean,” he enquired after a pause, “without counting your grandmother’s pearls?”

“Yes—without the pearls.”

He pondered a while, and then rejoined in a tender whisper: “Tell me again just how.”

the glimpses of the moon edith wharton 2For Nick and Susy are wallowing in borrowed luxury, on borrowed time, and their future consists of one big question mark. Both of them are as poor as church mice, and the last person each should have married was the other, according to the mores of the wealthy social circle they have been delicately moving in, charming parasites tolerated because of their physical attractiveness and gift for amusing repartee. But Susy and Nick have, most unwisely, fallen in love with each other, and when Susy comes up with a plan to enjoy the best of both worlds – to marry her impoverished counterpart and to continue to enjoy the decadent lifestyle which her wealthier contacts have accustomed her to – they take the leap together. And for a while it seems to be working…

Charming her rich friends with the novelty of a poor marriage, Susy has asked outright for cash in lieu of wedding presents, and has let it be known that she and Nick will be most grateful for loaned accommodation. They are set up for a good year or so, if they’re very careful, thinks Susy, with their main expenses being the tips on departure from each borrowed villa or chalet to their borrowed servants – whose salaries are, of course, paid by the owners of these lavish residences. And during that year they will indulge themselves in the luxury of each other’s most desirable company. Nick, an aspiring writer, will perhaps be able to finish the manuscript which will launch him on a successful and lucrative authorial career, and if this works as planned the two will be set. If the worst happens, and Nick’s plans go awry, the two have agreed that they will take whatever better opportunities arise – ie. a new (and, as it goes without saying, wealthier) romantic partner – and amicably part ways to allow each other to take advantage of the new situation.

Though Nick comes across as being the more passive partner in this sophisticated relationship, he is as complicit as Susy in viewing their joint reliance on the generosity of others as his due, so his moral qualms when Susy pops a few things into her luggage on departure from the Italian villa – such as the marvelous cigars mentioned in the excerpt – seem rather ingenious. But Nick insists on maintaining a moral high ground just a little more elevated than Susy’s, and, when Susy allows herself to be part of a marital deception at their next place of residence, the fragile marriage disintegrates, and Nick and Susy go their separate ways, each finding a convenient patron-slash-potential new spouse to sponge off of while their lawyers start the separation proceedings.

But absence does, in this case, make the heart grow fonder, and the two find themselves yearning for what they briefly experienced, a meeting of minds and a true affection for each other. After various heart rendings the two come together again, this time with much more likelihood of making it work, after Nick’s book has been accepted (for he’s been working on it all this time, in his bedroom on the yacht on which he’s been cruising) and Susy’s surprising embrace of domestic life (she’s bizarrely ended up as the temporary caretaker of five lovable children).

I just couldn’t quite swallow Susy’s about face, from self-indulgent, entitled, and materialistic to meek and domestically minded, all in the space of a few months. And the ending chapter, well, it was pure sentimental dribble. Susy, Nick, and the five children Susy is still shepherding around, off for a second honeymoon. Too cute for words, and almost toss-it-across-the-room disappointing. (But I didn’t, because the majority of the book was rather captivating, and Susy’s scheming kept me interested, to see what she would come up with next.)

There are a few little twists and kinks which display the reliably cynical Edith Wharton hand, but by and large this is simply a mildly melodramatic and slightly farcical relationship drama. If updated from the jazz-age Europe of the perennially cruising American expatriates – the jetsetters of their time – it could well be one of those lavish Rich People summer bestsellers so popular in their stereotyped glory today. The Glimpses of the Moon has also been recently (2010) turned into a “comedic romantic musical”, so there you go! Can’t quite imagine the iconic The House of Mirth being so treated…

Still, an interesting read, which kept me amused for several summer afternoons. I did just unearth my copy of The House of Mirth, but I’m not sure if I’m quite in the mood to face the tragedy of poor, self-doomed Lily Bart quite yet; I need to rest a bit, mentally speaking, from this other aspect of Edith Wharton’s authorial oeuvre.

Here are the other reviews promised at the beginning of the post, each rather more scholarly and wise than mine. Enjoy!

His Futile Preoccupations – Guy Savage Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

Seeing the World Through Books –  Mary Whipple Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

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