Described as her ‘hot Ethan’ Summer was written by Edith Wharton in a burst of feverish creativity during a holiday she took from her WW1 relief work. In style and tone Summer is certainly similar to Ethan Frome, here too, we have a rural setting among people far removed from the protagonists of Wharton’s novels of upper class society.
In this exquisite novel, small town prejudices meet the sudden awakening of passions in a young woman whose life has been one of lonely, unhappiness in her isolated village home. Charity Royall lives with her hard-drinking adoptive father; a small town lawyer. Charity has taken a part time job at the town’s memorial library, a job that serves only to earn her money of her own, money that she might one day be able to use to make her escape. The town of North Dormer is a place of small minds, sharp tongues, pettiness and watchfulness. Wharton portrays the claustrophobia of this town and the restlessness of a young woman longing to be free of its confines, perfectly.
As a small child Charity was ‘rescued’ from the mountain and the uncouth, hard living up there, the people from the mountain never come down to the town, and the town people never go up the mountain, except when the preacher has to go up to bury someone. Charity has been made to feel ashamed of where she comes from, is expected to feel gratitude for the life she has lived away from it. The mountain people are portrayed as being outside the norms of society, they are talked about as creatures from another world, a world Charity can’t quite forget she is part of, although she has no memories of it. As the adopted daughter of the town lawyer, Charity falls somewhere between the two sections of town society. Charity is bright enough, though not formally educated, she is not ladylike enough or acceptable enough for the high society, but has been taught to raise herself above the rougher village boys and girls who might have been her friends. The relationship between Charity and the man whose name she has taken has changed, Lawyer Royall is lonely too, and one day he begins to see Charity in an entirely new light. Alarmed, and disgusted, Charity insists a local woman is brought into the house as servant. Charity sees her guardian as responsible for her imprisonment in North Dormer, and she starts to hate him.
One day, as Charity sits behind her desk at the library, young architect Lucius Harney appears out of the blue, sophisticated, educated and hailing from far beyond North Dormer. Visiting the area, making a study of some local buildings, Lucius is related to one of the key figures of the community, he is a young man of some standing, and someone a little beyond Charity’s reach. Lucius almost immediately awakens in Charity, passions she had never experienced before. He represents a possible escape from the life she is finding more and more unendurable.
“Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils. She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use; and more wonderful, at first, than Harney’s endearments were the words that were a part of them. She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air”
Soon, Charity and Lucius are spending more and more time together. Charity drives him around the area in a hired trap – relishing the time with Lucius, Charity takes to hiding her involvement with him. Their time together is often spent in a small abandoned hut on the road to the mountain, Wharton only hints at the nature of their relationship,(though it’s easy enough to guess) but the whole atmosphere is one of awakened passions and intense infatuations. Lucius and Charity attend a dance together, where Charity is humiliated by her guardian. This dance feels like the beginning of the end – Charity clings fast to every last bit of hope she has for the glittering prize of her dream future – unable, however in her heart to believe in it as a reality.
“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.”
Charity must soon face up to the consequences of her summer she has hard lessons to learn and disappointments to contend with, as she makes as a rash trip up the mountain.
I liked the ending of Summer – but I can imagine being disappointed in it had I been younger and possibly more romantic, I can’t help but feel though (no spoilers) that the ending we get, might not be quite the whole story. For me, there is a delicious untold story of what happens next – I like that. Summer is suffused with subtlety – there is a delicacy in the relationship between Charity and Lucius – the writing is sublime – no surprise there I suppose, this novel is quite easily one of the highlights of my reading month.