Reviewed by Harriet
I suppose most people who know about Edith Wharton think of her as a writer whose subject was the social elite – think of The House of Mirth, or The Age of Innocence, to name but two. But there was another side to Wharton’s work, which has remained rather in the shadows until recently – her two New England novels. The best known of these is Ethan Frome (1911) – if you haven’t read it, you may have seen the 1993 film starring Liam Neeson. Now, thanks to Oxford World Classics, we have a chance to read Summer. First published in 1917, this was, you may be surprised to hear, Wharton’s favourite of her own novels.
I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to talk sensibly about this novel without giving a lot of the plot away, so apologies in advance. Anyway, Summer tells the story of Charity Royall, a young girl who lives in North Dormer, a small village in New England. Brooding over the village, and ‘making a perpetual background of doom’, is the scarred cliff known simply as The Mountain. Charity has more reason than most to be aware of this, as, when a baby, she had been ‘brought down from the Mountain’ and taken into the household of Lawyer Royall, an ageing batchelor, whose ward she became.
Charity was not very clear about the Mountain; but she knew it was a bad place and a shame to have come from, and that, whatever befell her in North Dormer, she ought, as Miss Hatchard had once reminded her, to remember she had been brought down from there, and hold her tongue and be thankful.
Charity is bored and disaffected, hating her job in the local library. She ‘looks with abhorrence at the long, dingy row of books’, and so is rather astonished when a very beautiful young man comes in one day and asks if he can examine them, as they may be of historical value. Lucius Harney is an architect and is staying in the area to examine its remarkable old houses. Well, you can easily imagine what happens. Lucius is obviously attracted to Charity’s looks, and her innocence, and as her unawakened passionate nature emerges, the two embark on an intense and fully sexual affair. But though Lucius is happy to indulge in a relationship with a village girl, he leaves her at the end of the summer to marry a woman of his own class. And Charity finds herself in a situation that was, and still is, only too common in these circumstances.
Summer is a short novel, only 152 pages in this edition. But my goodness, Wharton packs so much into it. Charity is a wonderfully conceived character, dumbly rebellious at the start, awakening into an awareness of a sensory world that extends beyond her newly developing sexuality:
She was blind and insensible to many things, and dimly knew it; but to all that was light and air, perfume and colour, every drop in her responded. 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.
Later in the novel, her guilt and shame cause her to return to the mountain, to seek place of her origin and the mother who had abandoned her – she sees it as ‘the only answer to her questioning’. But her experiences there are shocking, as the lawless tribe that lives there is depicted as an almost sub-human race, living in unbelievable squalor and degradation. However, though the mother she finds seems utterly shocking, the effect on Chariy is perhaps unexpected, since she realises that giving her up was a noble gesture, a way of saving her baby from the life she herself was condemned to live.
Also of great interest in the novel is the character of Charity’s guardian, Lawyer Royall. He clearly has some fine qualities, not only demonstrated by his powerful public speaking, his education and intelligence, but also by his goodheartedness in rescuing Charity and taking care of her. But yes, he is only too human, often treating Charity cruelly and once actually trying to force his way into her bedroom. Charity sees him in the worst possible light, especially when she catches sight of him in the company of a prostitute, but in the end he is the one who rescues her a second time, and it’s not hard to believe that she will have a good life as a result.
So, there’s lots here to ponder, and lots to enjoy. This edition has an excellent and informative introduction by Laura Rattray, plus all the textual and explanatory notes, chronologies, and bibliographies any curious person could possibly want. But if you don’t care for all those extras, just read the novel. You’ll love it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Edith Wharton, Summer (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015). 9780198709985, 156pp., paperback.
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