Summer, Edith Wharton (1917)

My Edition:summer
Title: Summer
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam
Device: Mass Market Paperback
Year: 1917
Pages: 205
For a plot summary

 

“She loved the roughness of the dry mountain grass under her palms, the smell of the thyme into which she crushed her face, the fingering of the wind in her hair and through her cotton blouse, and the creak of the larches as they swayed to it.”[i]
Charity Royall was born into extreme poverty on the wrong side of the tracks, or in this case, Mountain, from which she is “brought down” by Lawyer Royall to be a companion for his wife. When she dies, he eyes Charity for his next wife. She is told she should always be grateful that Royall rescued her but she is smart, rebellious and itching to get out of this very small town. To that end, she secures a part time job in the town’s library, though she has no heart for it and spends most of her days bored and angry.

When a young man wanders into the library one afternoon, the course of her life is changed. Lucius Harney is the cousin of the town’s matriarch, Miss Hatchard, with whom he is staying while conducting an architectural survey on old buildings in the vicinity. Since Charity knows the area well, she volunteers to guide him to various dwellings. As the weeks of exploration go by, they fall into a sexual relationship and pledge their future life to each other. At the same time Royall is pressuring Charity to marry him and one frightening night Charity has to physically restrain him from forcing his way into her bedroom.

Throughout Charity’s life, the Mountain has constantly loomed in her thoughts. And she is plagued, too, by the fact she never knew her mother, who may still be alive. When she becomes pregnant, she cannot tell anyone and in a fit of resignation believes the Mountain is her fate, so she goes in search of her mother and her “true life.” When she arrives she discovers her mother has just died. She sees the devastating poverty of the family. There is so little food, children are in torn clothes, everyone sleeps in the same room, the filth is pervasive and the suggestion of violence permeates the air. Afterwards, as she lays down on the stone floor Mr. Royall’s words come to mind, “Yes, there was a mother; but she was glad to have the child go. She’d have given her to anybody…”[ii]

Charity does not tell Harney she is pregnant, but in this small town their closeness has been noticed and to diffuse the situation he leaves, though he swears he will come back and marry her. But there is no communication on his part and his marriage to someone else is announced.

Pregnant and with no money, Charity has no financial future with which to make choices for her life and once pregnancy enters the picture her chance to leave North Dormer or have any sort of independence is diminished. Royall’s pressure to marry him wears her down and in fact, though she doesn’t realize it at the time, he knows she is pregnant with Harney’s child. In his desire to save Charity’s reputation (and his own, as she is his ward) and to have her for his wife, he is not deterred. Charity and Royall marry.

 

My thoughts:

Charity’s relationship with Harney develops realistically without fear or guilt, just pure attraction and affection. When Summer was released in 1917, though nothing explicit is described, the subject matter concerning a young woman’s sexual experiences caused quite a stir. Critics say the book was somewhat autobiographical in portraying Wharton’s own sexual awakening at 43 after a long and loveless marriage.

Wharton lived in France when Summer was written coinciding with her involvement with the war effort during WWI. She organized seamstresses to sew for soldiers, established day care centers, visited the front lines, toured hospitals, and raised money for war-related works. During a break in the action she wrote, Summer “at a high pitch of creative joy, but amid a thousand interruptions, while the rest of my being was steeped in the tragic realities of war; yet I do not remember ever visualizing with more intensity the inner scene, or the creatures peopling it.”[iii]

It has been a long time since I pulled so hard for a character to overcome their circumstances and change their life! While I admit to wishing things worked out differently for Charity, Wharton’s realistic portrayal of her plight has an impact even though she does not give her a ‘happy ending.’ She gives Charity a solution and she must make of it what she will; that society is unfair to the poor and to women in minimizing their choices is for the reader to decide.

 

[i] P. 12.
[ii] P. 184.
[iii] P. vi.

This book qualifies for the Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club list.

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Summer, Edith Wharton (1917)

  1. Wharton is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read The House of Mirth, Summer, & The Age of Innocence. All are exquisite. I think The House of Mirth is my personal favorite though. I love her ability with pacing, and the beauty in her writing. So gentle and delicate. 🙂

    Like

  2. Great commentary on this book Laurie.

    I have read House of Mirth and Age of Innocence but not this book. Based on your commentary this one sounds well worth it.

    I have found that in regards to the Wharton books that I have read, there is a tendency to root for the characters. I guess that Wharton was not a writer who commonly wrote happy endings.

    Like

    • Thank you, Brian.

      That is a interesting observation about Wharton’s work. She writes about Charity and a few of the other dramatic events in the book with some dispassion, more matter of fact this-is-what-happened-to-you now deal with it. So I wondered if if my reaction was more of a 21st century “poor Charity” point of view?

      Wharton herself invites more reading about, as well as her work for me, I think.

      Like

  3. Haven’t read this one, but I loved Ethan Frome. I also enjoyed The House of Mirth, but not to the same degree because I found the heroine so annoyingly useless! However, she’s an author I’d like to gradually explore more – The Age of Innocence is somewhere on my wishlist…

    Like

  4. Thank you for the fascinating review. I have read a lot of Edith Wharton—I love “The House of Mirth” but have not yet read “Summer”. You have me intrigued.

    And, by the way, good luck tomorrow with Dewey’s Readathon! Chouette!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been meaning to read this in the edition I have pairing it with Ethan Frome. It does sound like a daring story for its time — and that is an interesting backstory about Wharton being involved in the war effort at the time of writing. I’ll get to it sooner or later!

    Like

  6. That sounds really interesting! Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors and I devoured “The Age of Innocence”, “Twilight Sleep” and especially “Glimpses of the Moon”. “Summer” is now definitely on my reading list 🙂

    Like

Let me know what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s