The 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge was created and is hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. You can find my full TBR here, and keep reading for my thoughts on Summer by Edith Wharton. I do reveal details about the main characters and the plot that are not present in the summary, so my discussion does contain spoilers.
Content Warning: Misogyny, discriminatory attitudes based on social class and social norms (particularly in relation to women’s “roles”), allusions to abortion and scenes at an early 20th century American abortion ‘clinic’, prejudice towards escorts and prostitution
- One of the first books I added to my shelves this year
- Published in 1917; Bantam Classic edition printed in 1993
- 205 pages
Considered by some to be her finest work, Edith Wharton’s Summer created a sensation when first published in 1917, as it was one of the first novels to deal honestly with a young woman’s sexual awakening.
Summer is the story of proud and independent Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners adopted by a family in a poor New England town, who has a passionate love affair with Lucius Harney, an educated young man from the city. Wharton broke the conventions of women’s romantic fiction by making Charity a thoroughly contemporary woman—in touch with her feelings and sexuality, yet kept from love and the larger world she craves by the overwhelming pressures of environment and heredity.
I feel the need to write this disclaimer, because this is the internet after all, and I know the subjects covered in Summer are still considered controversial/taboo to some people using the internet today. So please be aware that this post is not an opportunity to debate abortion, promiscuity, and everything else that falls under women’s rights and agency—because a woman’s right to have agency over her own body is not a debatable matter here on There’s Something About KM. Thanks for reading this disclaimer; now we can move on to my discussion of the book.
Before finding Summer at a local used bookstore, I was not familiar with it at all. I am, however, a fan of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth (for any Edith Wharton fans wondering: The Age of Innocence is still on my TBR), and after reading the synopsis, I knew it was a novel I wanted on my shelves. Adding it to my 20 Books of Summer TBR seemed an obvious move because of the title and because of its relatively short length (205 pages), and I am so glad I did.
Like with many classic novels that contain an introduction (this one by Susan Minot), I skipped right past it to read the story. My habit of doing this (and how I choose whether or not to go back to an introduction) could be a topic for another post, but after reading Summer I decided to return to see how Susan Minot introduced and talked about the book. In the ten and a half pages she covers major points of Edith Wharton’s life, including twenty-eight year marriage with Teddy Wharton: “a sexless, loveless match with nervous collapses on both sides, and drinking and infidelity on Teddy’s,” as well as key points in Edith Wharton’s life in relationship to the publication of her novels. Susan Minot completes the introduction by listing the five books Edith Wharton herself was most proud of (Minot notes that most of her biographical information about Edith Wharton comes from R.W.B. Lewis’s Edith Wharton: A Life): “[Wharton] chose four of the big novels, some more popularly received than others—The Custom of the Country (1913), The Children (1928), Hudson River Bracketed (1929), and The Gods Arrive (1932). Only one of her shorter writings made the list: Summer.”
As is typically the case, I’m glad I did not read the introduction before the novel; it’s difficult enough these days to go into an older piece of literature spoiler-free, and while context is important, the introduction really gives more than is necessary to understand or appreciate the novel. I’m glad I went back to read the introduction, however, because it does address Edith Wharton’s possible/likely perspective on love and sex, which certainly inspired the plot and characters of Summer – whether you know a lot or nothing at all about Edith Wharton, I think this particular introduction is an adequate companion to the story (when read afterwards 😉).
And now that I’ve dedicated a lot of space to the introduction, let’s discuss the story itself.
The emphasis on social class is present right from the beginning of Summer, when our protagonist Charity Royall is reflecting on her life so far in North Dormer, Massachusetts:
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 reminder her, to remember that she had been brought down from there, and hold her tongue and be thankful. She looked up at the Mountain, thinking of these things, and tried as usual to be thankful. But the sight of the young man turning in at Miss Hatchard’s gate had brought back the vision of the glittering streets of Nettleton, and she felt ashamed of her old sun-hat, and sick of North Dormer, and jealously aware of Annabel Balch of Springfield, opening her blue eyes somewhere far off on glories greater than the glories of Nettleton.
“How I hate everything!” she said again.
This very paragraph really sets up every point of conflict throughout the novel – a fact that was not wholly obvious when I first read it, but is totally clear now that I’ve finished reading the book. Charity is constantly reminded of where she comes from—by Miss Hatchard, other village residents, her guardian Mr. Royall, and even herself. The “young man turning in at Miss Hatchard’s gate” ends up being Miss Hatchard’s cousin, Lucius Harney, with whom Charity begins a summer affair. The mention of Nettleton and “somewhere far off” points to Charity’s dream of leaving small village life behind to move onto something better, and Annabel Balch is a socialite-type who symbolizes the social standing and opportunity Charity could only hope to have, but again, is constantly reminded of how she never will because of where she comes from.
The next scene takes us to The Honorius Hatchard Memorial Library, where Charity works in the afternoons and where she is first acquainted with Lucius Harney. The latter is an architect, and happens to be doing research on old houses in the area. Charity is quite brusque towards him, and Lucius comes off as self-absorbed and careless, although he is also the dirtiest of dirty literary character descriptors: charming. It’s truly his forthrightness and the fact that he is a relative stranger/newcomer to North Dormer, that puts Charity in a mild trance.
Slow-burn is how I think about their romance, but in the early-twentieth century, how-scandalous-for-women-to-have-their-own-sexual-agency sort of way. The summary is not necessarily inaccurate, but it does embellish the specific way Edith Wharton writes Charity and Lucius’s affair—in relation to the expectations of the 21st century woman writing this blog post. There is a lot of reading between the lines; Charity and Lucius are having sex, but it is completely off page. The transitional moments where they are somewhere together and then the next chapter or paragraph starts in a different place reminded me of old movies where two lovers would kiss, and then the screen would go black as a hint to how much further the lovers went. Most of the affection and lust is presented as their sweet notes back and forth, the language Edith Wharton uses when they spent time together, and as told by Charity in her inner monologues. I enjoyed these details immensely because I enjoy Edith Wharton’s writing – just dramatic and realistic enough to be convincing yet also satisfy the reader’s imagination.
But to Charity the heat was a stimulant: it enveloped the whole world in the same glow that burned at her heart. Now and then a lurch of the train flung her against Harney, and through her thin muslin, she felt the touch of his sleeve. She steadied herself, their eyes met, and the flaming breath of the day seemed to enclose them.
Mr. Royall (or Lawyer Royall) is another major character in the novel. As the man who brought Charity down from the mountain as a baby—we learn later Charity’s mother was quite promiscuous, and as such, Mr. Royall is seen by the residents of North Dormer as a savior to Charity—he is her guardian. Mr. Royall’s wife died when Charity was young, and so for most of her life it has been just her, Mr. Royall, and a housekeeper living in the house. And perhaps Mr. Royall could have been a selfless savior for Charity, revered by her and by the readers of this book. Unfortunately, Mr. Royall makes it clear numerous times throughout the novel that he expects Charity to become his new wife. There is a scene in which he drunkenly goes to her room at night to try to convince her to sleep with him (he stands in the doorway), but she is able to get him to go back to his own room [with a verbal fight]. There is also a scene in which Mr. Royall sees Charity out with Harney, and he [again, drunkely] berates her by repeatedly calling her a whore.
Not only does this latter event happen in public, in “society”, but it exacerbates Charity’s doubt in her her own self-worth and belonging in the world. This is compounded by a following scene in which Mr. Royall finds Charity and Harney’s secret meeting spot (a run down cabin away from the village), and tries to pressure Harney into promising to do the so-called right thing and marry Charity. Harney’s reaction to this makes it clear that he never thought of doing such a thing, and although Charity seems slightly crestfallen by this, she had not up to this point thought specifically about marrying Harney. This of course, presents a conflict in the face of Mr. Royall’s (and general society’s) disdain for premarital or casual sex (the following paragraphs are consecutive; the ellipsis at the ends are part of the text/were not added by me).
Since the fanciful vision of the future that had flitted through her imagination at their first meeting she had hardly ever thought of his marrying her. She had not had to put the thought from her mind; it had not been there. If ever she looked ahead she felt instinctively that the gulf between them was too deep, and that the bridge their passion had flung across it was as insubstantial as a rainbow. But she seldom looked ahead; each day was so rich that it absorbed her….
Now her first feeling was that everything would be different, and that she herself would be a different being to Harney. Instead of remaining separate and absolute, she would be compared with other people, and unknown things would be expected of her. She was too proud to be afraid, but the freedom of her spirit drooped….
This part of the novel signals the end of the affair, and it is exposed that Harney is actually set to be married to Annabel Balch of Springfield – the very woman Charity jealously admires. Charity also finds out that she is pregnant, and makes a couple of visits to what is essentially an abortion clinic that also gives young women cast out by their families opportunities in prostitution (Charity ends up being able to afford the monetary price of an abortion, but ultimately decides she wants to continue her pregnancy). Charity learns about this clinic through her friend Ally; Ally’s sister Julia was a ‘client’— and as a matter of fact, Julia happened to be in the company of Mr. Royall back when he was yelling at Charity for being a whore. Benefiting from promiscuity while criticizing another woman for her promiscuity—aaahhh, misogyny.
The final chapters of the book contain Charity’s quick journey back up the mountain, which in the story serves the purpose of Charity meeting her family members during her mother’s funeral (I didn’t say it was a happy meeting). This is also a critical moment in Charity’s life, because she also thought she would return to the mountain to live and to raise her child; after all, she has always been seen as that girl from the mountain who—Charity finds out—is the daughter of a prostitute. During her few hours on the mountain, which are comprised of the funeral and trying to fall asleep on the floor of a relative’s shack, Charity comes to the decision that she will do whatever it takes for her own child not to be brought up in poverty. This decision inspires her to make her way back down the mountain (at night in the snow), during which she meets Mr. Royall coming up to fetch her. For those of you still here reading this, Charity ends up marrying Mr. Royall (who knows she is pregnant) in order to avoid suspicion of Charity’s affair and give her child a more privileged life than Charity could have imagined doing so by herself.
I finished this book in one sitting, and—I’m sorry to diminish the worth of anything I’ve said previously—after reading the last lines I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding. So much anticipation mounts in the last few chapters of this novel that it’s easy to forget to breathe and instead just focus every part of yourself on finding out what Charity will do. Did I want her and Lucius Harney to fall in love and devote themselves to each other? Yes, but just as much as I wanted their relationship to remain a summer affair. I really hoped she would not end up with Mr. Royall, but as much as I believe he could never make Charity romantically happy, I can understand how much security he can give Charity and her child in his position as a lawyer and respected member of North Dormer (and surrounding communities). Thus I cannot label Summer simply as a straightforward romance that also challenges the social norms and expectations of women as I thought I would be able to do by the end—it does more than that. My idealistic and romantic heart shielded by rose-colored glasses made me forget that this is a story written by Edith Wharton, who has perfected the art of making any possibly sanguine feeling of the reader break apart into a million pieces. She also knows how to develop and construct resiliency in her female heroines, and Charity is no exception to this. Charity does not express or hold any regrets about her affair, she only thinks about where her life will go from here. She is not an opportunist because she is not calculating; she holds consistent ideals no matter what townspeople may think of her history and regardless of what men shout at her in public. She does not shield her feelings from people who expect her to, and for all of this, I admire her.
In just 205 pages Edith Wharton created an unforgettable story, and I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already.