Summer by Edith Wharton

4 January 2012 23:56

November's Autumn

I read this book as part of the November’s Autumn Classics Challenge. Although Summer is set in rural America, the Massachusetts Berkshires, rather than Wharton’s more usual setting of New York high society, she’s still writing about similar situations.

Charity Royall is a young girl who is living in the village of North Dormer which has nothing in it but a library which hasn’t had a new book in it for over twenty years. The books that are there are mouldering and damp and Charity gets the job of running it all. Charity is really a mountain girl but she was taken from her mother when she was a baby by the lawyer Royall and although he never adopted her he is the father figure in her life. Mrs Royall died seven years after Charity arrived from the mountain.

The mountain people live their lives completely separate from the rest of society and it’s a desperately hard and miserable existence for them. They don’t seem to want to help themselves and are portrayed as feckless, lawless drunks. Charity never hides the fact that she is really one of them and she never seems to realise that the snootier people of North Dormer and the larger nearby town of Nettleton look down their noses at her and she isn’t even able to get into the boarding school because of her background. Despite the fact that Charity has been brought up in the household of the most important man in town, her humble origins are held against her.

This is a recurring theme in Wharton’s writing where there are often young women who don’t quite fit in to society and will never be accepted by the ‘old’ families of the area. They teeter on the edge, just as the mountain people teetered on the edge of the law and starvation.

It’s a very quick read at just 190 pages and if you haven’t read anything by Edith Wharton before I think Summer would be a good place to begin.

Who was Edith Wharton?
She was born in New York City in 1862 and died in France in 1937. She’s buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles.

I didn’t know an awful lot about Edith Wharton before I read this book. I knew that she came from a very privileged and wealthy American background and that Henry James was a friend of hers. She must have made a lot of money from her writing and she moved to France as she seemed to be happier in European society. I also knew that she had won the Pulitzer prize for The Age of Innocence and was furious when she heard that she was given it because of its “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” She wondered if they had understood the book because she had been trying to highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of the society.

So I was really surprised when I discovered recently that she had worked very hard in France during World War I. She wrote a series of essays called Fighting France (1915) in an attempt to get America to join the war. She raised money for relief work and organized and ran American Hostels which helped shelter and feed the thousands of refugees who had been uprooted by the war. The whole experience was an exhausting and depressing one and she wrote to a friend at the time that she had a sense of waking “in the middle of the night with a black abyss where one’s heart ought to be.” She was very angry at the American government for refusing to join the war. Surprisingly it was at this time that she wrote Summer, and for all we know it might just have been the thing which got her through it all. Thankfully by the time Summer was published in 1917 the US government had joined the war.

Edith seems to have had a very bad relationship with her mother and although she had two brothers, they were 12 and 14 years older than Edith and I think this is why she often seems to write about abandonment and not being part of society. I think this is something which inevitably happens in families where there are large age gaps and the children don’t share the same experiences and schools. It certainly happened in mine. It also has to be said that there are a lot of women who really put their sons on a pedestal high above their daughters and Edith’s mother seems to have been one of those. She seems to have given Edith no help or support, and even when Edith asked her mother for some information and advice about sex just before she was married – none was forthcoming.

Well nobody has a perfect upbringing I’m sure and Edith’s experiences all contributed to her writing. I don’t know about your mother but mine didn’t even tell me about the birds and the bees! I should be a modern day Edith Wharton really. What went wrong?! Oh well, such is life.

Edith Wharton’s estate The Mount is in the Berkshires so it’s an area which she knew well. It looks a gorgeous place, I just wish that I could click my fingers, or wiggle my nose to get there. This year is the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth.

12 responses to “Summer by Edith Wharton”

  1. Evee says:

    Birds and the bees story: One of my late cousins, who had led rather a sheltered life, got engaged at rather an advanced age, and told her mother she was just a bit worried about the…. the….sex thing! Apparently her mother just told her to have a glass of gin beforehand, then lie back and enjoy it!! And no, I was never told about the birds and the bees by my mother either! Today kids know it all by the time they are three (according to my nursery nurse sister!)

    Oh yes, I can hirple to a tearoom no bother at all, but maybe we should wait and see what these storms are going to do before making any plans! A gallery would be good too! I’ll look forward to that!

    • Katrina says:

      Evee,
      Yes, today they know it all. I knew an old lady who told me that when she was in labour having her baby at home she couldn’t understand why the midwife wasn’t cutting the baby out. That was when the poor soul was told that the baby had to come out the way it went in! It’s a wonder she didn’t die from shock. Re your cousin – my mother would never have said enjoy it – sex was for babies only!

  2. I have this book on my list of books for November Autumns challenge also! I have never read Edith Wharton and am looking forward to it.

    An older neighbor girl told me about the birds and the bees and that my mom an dad did that to get me and I was mortified and ran right home to get my mom to tell me it wasn’t true:) Sadly she confirmed everything Rhodi had told me.

    • Katrina I was back visiting your post on Penny Plain this evening to see again how to pronounce Mhor and did a little research on the word Kailyard and came across The House with the Green Shutters’ which is not Kailyard but it looks interesting. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg, have you read it?

      • Katrina says:

        Peggy,
        I’m sure you’ll enjoy Summer. I had the horrific experience of being shown a film of a birth at school. I must have been about 11 at the time, that was when I realised the rumours were true!
        I haven’t read The House with the Green Shutters, although I should have especially as it apparently influenced Lewis Grassic Gibbon and I loved his Sunset Song books. I think I’ll try to get the actual book.

        • I have the Sunset Song Books on my shelf to get to one of these days. I have determined not to buy another book this year so I can concentrate on what is on my shelves being neglected!

          • Katrina says:

            Peggy,
            There have been a couple of TV adaptations of Sunset Song too. I tried not to buy any books last year but I failed miserably! We have so many unread books in the house, I’m sure I would never actually have to buy any!

  3. Joan Kyler says:

    Edith Wharton knew the Berkshires well because she had an estate there, The Mount. It’s a beautiful house with lovely gardens. The house underwent a major restoration several years ago. The Berkshires were, and are, a lovely place much loved by artists and writers, a place of great natural beauty.

    • Katrina says:

      Joan,
      Thanks for that. I’m going to stick a link in to the post. I knew she had lived there but didn’t realise that people are able to visit her house now. The Mount looks gorgeous, I wonder why she sold it after putting so much effort into designing it? I can’t imagine that France was so much better.

  4. Anbolyn says:

    The more I learn about Wharton the more fascinating I think she is! I love her writing style and remember adoring Summer when I read it many years ago. I need to reread it in light of the themes you’ve mentioned.

    • Katrina says:

      Anbolyn,
      I must say I was gobsmacked that she was doing war work in what must have been hellish circumstances. I had always imagined her as an Edwardian lady, living in luxury. It says an awful lot for her that she put herself in danger to help others, and it wasn’t even her country.

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