Summer by Edith Wharton

If ‘Ethan Frome’ is winter, so this, its companion novel is ‘Summer’, though ironically there is less a sense of the season and its metaphoric meaning; perhaps ‘The End of the Summer’ might have been a more apt title.

Edith Wharton was worldly and wealthy, speaking four languages and entertaining future American heiresses in her Paris home, her latter years lived in France. Yet as the range of her works testify, from rural Ethan Frome’  small town New England ‘Summer’ to the more social aspiring ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Age of Innocence’ she understood and had empathy for those whose lives were lived at the opposite end of the spectrum of her own.

Charity Royall, an eighteen year old girl from the Mountain up there beyond, has been raised by a childless couple from town; she lives with her guardian Mr Royall, now a widow. She knows little and remembers nothing of her parents or that frowned upon community no one ever mentions.

Until the bold, young Architect Lucien Harnus appears, unafraid to ask questions. The more she learns while listening to Mr Royall respond to him, the more insecurity creeps into her being, though there is little outward sign of this change.

Initially we witness her wilful attitude, with which she succeeds in claiming the post of librarian against all other eligible girls in town, despite little interest in the actual job itself. She appears intelligent, adept at identifying opportunity, her questionable ancestry all but obliterated. However, she lacks a female role model and is barely on speaking terms with My Royall after his own near lapse with regard to the carnal instinct. In matters of love and the feminine, Charity is at a disadvantage. Her first experience with a young suitor is telling.

Her heart was ravaged by life’s cruellest discovery: the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy. She did not cry; tears came hard to her, and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly.

Without giving anything away of the story, the young man wins her over and she will have her summer of joy, but naïveté and a reluctance to assert herself in matters of the heart will compromise her position in this society that values and rewards tradition over love. She considers returning to her people:

There was no sense of guilt in her now, but only a desperate desire to defend her secret from irreverent eyes, and begin life again among people to whom the harsh code of the village was unknown.

It is a tragedy, as we have the impression that this is a young woman rescued from a life of little promise who could have made something of it, who should have, if she had been warned; she is as much a victim of the era she lives in as the lack of a female role model. I couldn’t help thinking about a possible sequel, one where she defies the odds and proves everyone wrong, because that is just the kind of girl she was.

In this respect the story differs from ‘Ethan Frome’ in which we are provided a glimpse into the future regarding what happens next, here Wharton has chosen to either leave that to the reader’s imagination, or her final act will be seen as sufficient evidence to predict a conventional outcome. You decide.

‘Summer’ has recently been adapted to the stage by Julia Stubbs Hughes and the play will focus on the three central characters of the novel, exploring the discovery of love and attraction in a society that restricts both.

It will be showing at the Jack Studio Theatre in South East London from 8 – 26 May 2012 if you happen to be in London. Further details can be found at ‘The Summer Project’.

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19 thoughts on “Summer by Edith Wharton

  1. Pingback: Summer by Edith Wharton « Word by Word | Summer by Julia Stubbs Hughes

  2. I wondered if Wharton associated with Natalie Clifford Barney, but it turns out Wharton avoided Barney out of homophobia. Interesting their colliding worlds, especially given Barney’s prominence in Parisian social life 100 years ago.

    Good review, as always.

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    • Now there’s an interesting woman, unlikely to be writing about the same subjects as Wharton, what a pity not more of her work was translated, I guess she found the french literary scene more open to her ideas and creative form. Have you read any of her work Nelle? It would be interesting to read a biography, she sounds like she lead a fascinating life and mixed with an interesting crowd. Thanks for bringing her to my attention.

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  3. Your review caught my attention as I’m about to revisit Wharton after a 25-year hiatus (read House of Mirth in school, and will soon be reading Age of Innocence). The way you describe Summer is the way I remember House of Mirth–rather hard to take, because it’s an uncompromising look at her society and how it grinds the defenseless under.

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  4. I loved your review, as I always do… As I said before, this one is also on my TBR-list. I wasn’t planning to read it very soon, but your review has put it closer to the top of the list. It seems, again, a great read. Thanks, Claire!

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  5. Great review, love this post. Don’t u just love wharton’s prose, especially fond of the line, “tears came hard to her and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly.”

    Makes me want to read it and Ethan Frome. May have to add them to my growing list 🙂

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    • Love it absolutely, I highlighted that line and others like it, one of the things I adore about the kindle, its so easy to call up the favoutite words, phrases, paragraphs and get an overall picture of prose that moved the reader. Small compensation for not having the physical book, but I needed this book asap and so easy to download.

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  6. I love Edith Wharton – took a seminar on her in college – and I didn’t know Summer existed! I can’t wait to pick up a copy and read it.

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    • Wonderful, I am happy you came across it here, it is possibly the least talked about I have noticed since I decided to start reading her this year, but the perfect companion to ‘Ethan Frome’ and before her longer and more sophisticated society novels.

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  7. Pingback: Top Reads 2012 | Word by Word

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