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Edith Wharton: Summer

This is my favorite Wharton novel. While The House of Mirth and Age of Innocence may be better books, I found this the most enjoyable. Edith called it the Hot Ethan as it is set in the same locale as Ethan Frome but, as the title makes clear, at a different season of the year. The plot is relatively simple and commonplace. Charity Royall, a small-town girl who, at the beginning of the story has just had her first taste of”big city” life in the neighbouring town of Nettleton where she for the first and only time, experienced railway-travel, looked into shops with plate-glass fronts, tasted cocoanut pie, sat in a theatre, and listened to a gentleman saying unintelligible things before pictures that she would have enjoyed looking at if his explanations had not prevented her from understanding them. This experience is important, as it gives her the taste for things beyond the little village of North Dormer, where she has spent all her life. That taste is assuaged in the form of Lucius Harney. Charity is the librarian and it is in the library (with mouldy, out of date books) that she meets Lucius who is staying in the village with his cousin. Lucius seduces her, gets her pregnant and then goes off to marry his well-to-do lady friend, leaving Charity pregnant. She considers an abortion but, eventually, ends up marrying her guardian, Lawyer Royall.

A plot summary does not begin to convey the beauty of this book. The small town life of New England is superbly conveyed – its charms but, at the same time, the limitations ( It had no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no”business block”; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed on the damp shelves.) Wharton paints a picture of the town which is masterful in showing how it hems Charity in, while at the same time seeming outwardly charming. Charity has come from the”Mountain”, a menacing hill behind the village, which not only represents Charity’s grim origins but also the unpleasantness that North Dormer likes to keep hidden away. It’s apparently the home of outlaws though Charity knows little about her birthplace. And it is this undercurrent that Wharton so skilfully exploits, whether it is the mountain or the seedy place she now calls home or Lucius’ smooth ways that conceal his true nature. And the victim in these cases is always the one who is somewhat different, the Mountain girl, the one who wants to escape. For she is condemned at the end to spend her life in the cold autumn moonlight. Summer is over.

Publishing history

First published 1917 by Appleton and Company