Author: Edith Wharton
Device: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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.