“I know I am but summer to your heart,
And not the full four seasons of the year.”
~ Edna St. Vincent Millay
Lately I’ve been on an Edith Wharton reading spree. Let me begin by saying that she is now one of my favorite novelists. I’m just discovering her and I’m enthralled! Her stories are rich, complex and thought-provoking and her style of writing is poetic and exquisite. Where was she all these years of my life? Alas! The years I could have spent drowning in her delicious prose are now irretrievably lost. She is most known for The Age of Innocence, her brilliant masterpiece about the upper class milieu of New York city during the Gilded Age. This summer I read two of her novellas, Summer and Ethan Frome, which are quite different in tone. Beautiful and achingly sad, they are both set in New England to the rhythm of its seasons and deal with the middle and working classes and not the usual elite echelons of society depicted in Wharton’s other works.
Summer is the coming of age story of Charity Royall, an 18 year old naïve and uneducated girl, set in North Dormer, a fictitious town in Massachusetts. When still a small child, Charity was brought down from the “mountain” ( a region in the Berkshires) and raised by Mr.Royall the lawyer and his wife who are prominent citizens of the town. The mountain is inhabited by dissolute people living in squalor and depravity and the town residents don’t mingle with them. The prudish and gossipy town people never make Charity forget her dubious roots. Interestingly, the Royalls raise her but do not legally adopt her. Her name Charity reflects the fact that a great favor was bestowed on her by her benefactors. After the death of his wife, Mr. Royall’s feelings become romantic towards his charge and he even proposes to her. You wonder why he decided to raise her. Honestly, I found him to be quite creepy and disgusting. More on that later.
Charity is a feisty and impetuous girl who wants to earn money in order to escape her stifling provincial environment. She manages to wheedle her way into getting a job as a town librarian in spite of having no interest in books. In walks the charming Lucius Harney, in her dull and boring life. He is a young architect who has come from NYC to study old houses in the area. He represents everything Charity lacks in her confined life.- freedom, youth, adventure, breeding and wealth. The two are irresistibly drawn to each other and have a whirlwind romance. At the time of its publication in 1917, Summer created a sensation for its eroticism. By today’s standards there is nothing remotely erotic about this novel. The two youngsters exchange a kiss while the July 4th fireworks are set off in the nearby town of Nettleton. That’s about as far as the action goes. However the theme of the sexual awakening of a young woman was bold for its times. Charity and Lucius succumb to the passion of first love made more ardent by the summer heat so evocatively described by Wharton. There is a sense of foreboding and we know this torrid sexual interlude will be as evanescent as the New England summer. Charity knows that she has no future with Lucius as he belongs to a higher social class but she still carries on with the affair and lives for the moment:
She had given him all that she had-but what was it compared to the other gifts life held for him? She understood now the case of girls like herself to whom this kind of thing happened. They gave all they had, but their all was not enough; it could not buy more than a few moments….
The inevitable happens and Charity is pregnant. In Wharton’s world, people behave according to their station in life and if they step out of their boundaries, their outcome can be very tragic. What choices does Charity have? Lucius is now engaged to Annabel Balch, his social equal and is not aware of the pregnancy. Nor does Charity reveal it to him as she knows it will be to no avail. Does she keep the baby or abort it? Will she return to the mountain and be with her own ilk? Or will she accept the proposal of marriage by the seedy Mr. Royall who once tried to force himself into her room? In many ways the theme of the jilted unwed mother is a timeless one and Charity’s predicament anticipates the issues many modern women face.
Charity has a disastrous visit with a mean and mercenary lady abortionist and ultimately decides to keep the baby. She seeks one last escape to the mountain only to see her mother’s dead body and is promptly rescued again by Mr. Royall who brings her down to the village and to reality. He takes advantage of her helplessness when he realizes she’s pregnant with Lucius’ child. She is left with no choice but to accept the proposal of marriage from a man who once accused her of being a whore. Of course the irony is that it is Mr. Royall who has the habit of frequenting prostitutes but that doesn’t smear his reputation in town. She is the whore for enjoying an evening in town with her boyfriend but he is not labeled as a whoremonger. The hypocrisy and double standards of society are still the same in many ways. The story changes quickly from romance to reality and from reality to full-blown horror.
The plot takes a horrific turn when Mr. Royall succeeds in getting what he wants. We know that he lusted after Charity who tried her best to repel his advances. It’s quite sickening to think that someone who is a father figure and has raised her since the time she was a child would suddenly develop sexual feelings for her. How much more appalling would be the thought that she could even be his biological daughter? We know that Charity was born of an unknown woman from the mountain, a place known for its promiscuity. Royall claims that she had been given to him by her father, a man whom he had convicted of manslaughter after her mother had refused to raise her. He had once accused Charity of being a promiscuous woman like her mother. You wonder if he had had a relationship with her mother as he had a habit of visiting prostitutes. There are hints of incest throughout the story. In spite of the contempt Charity has for Royall, she also feels a strange affinity to him “as if she had his blood in her veins”. Whether he is the adoptive or real father, his incestuous impulses are revolting.
The novel ends with the image of Mr. Royall sleeping on a rocking chair on their wedding night. We have a feeling that this is going to be a marriage devoid of passion. Some readers have interpreted it as the best outcome for Charity and have made Mr. Royall out to be a hero for saving her name and reputation and providing a future for her and her baby. I found the story to be dark and depressing. Charity is broken, beaten down by life and has lost her spunk. Her romantic illusions are shattered as she settles for a loveless marriage. The wild promiscuous woman has been tamed. Her wings have been clipped. “ For an instant the old impulse of flight swept through her; but it was only the lift of a broken wing.” Charity tried to rebel against a patriarchal society represented by the self-absorbed Lucius and the controlling Mr. Royall but failed miserably. Nothing has changed for the girl who so desperately craved independence. She continues living in the same town with the same residents, in the same house with the same guardian and with the same last name.
END OF SPOILER
I was thinking about Summer long after I finished the last sentence. What is left unsaid by the author can haunt us forever. I spent considerable time thinking about the characters and wondering what my own choices would have been in their situation. Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence making her the first woman to get the recognition. She was also nominated three times for the Nobel Prize. I wish she had received the honor, for in my opinion, if anyone deserved the Nobel Prize, it was Edith Wharton. All I can say is this is simply literature at its best.