Summer by Edith Wharton

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.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

First I have to say that I think that the previous reviews of this book have been great. I’m just hoping that I can add a few more things of interest.

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1921. She was the first woman ever to win it. However, her joy was short lived as she discovered that the judges had chosen it because in their opinion it was “the American novel which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood”.

She had written it to be a satirical and dark comedy of manners, but whichever way you take it, the fact is it is very well written and amazingly detailed, full of social history.

I think that Newland Archer underestimates his fiance May as he is under the impression that he will have to educate and mould her to resemble his married lady friend with whom he had had an affair.

In reality he gave up on her even before they were married.

When he meets May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left her husband, he is at first worried that he is going to be affiliated with a family which is about to have a scandalous divorce. However, in the course of his negotiations with Ellen, on behalf of the family who want to avoid the divorce and subsequent scandal, Newland falls in love (lust) with Ellen.

Status and family name is all important in this society and Ellen’s family can’t think why she would want to give up her title of countess and become a divorced woman.

It has been mentioned that people have found the names a bit confusing, with surnames cropping up as first names often. This still happens in Scotland with boys’ names. The women are reluctant to give up their maiden names completely and so they are given to the eldest boy as a first name or sometimes a middle name. In fact we have done this in our family, we have also used one grandmother’s maiden name. Obviously in 1870s New York society it was important to remind people that they were the product of two wealthy, influential families.

Newland had led a very narrow life compared with Ellen and when he tells her that he wants to go with her into another world where words such as ‘mistress’ won’t exist- where they will simply be two human beings who love each other. Ellen replies –
“Oh my dear- where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked, and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations at place like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo- and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”

I think if they had run off together then it would only have been about six months before Newland regarded Ellen as the trollope who had ruined his life. He would have been miserable living a life being ostracised by the only society that he had ever known.

The ever generous May would have welcomed him back though and he might have learned to appreciate her attributes, which he hadn’t managed to do in 26 years of marriage.

This was a re-read for me. I read it about 20 years ago when Gore Vidal (whose writing I love), waxed lyrical about Edith Wharton’s writing and I think he was correct.

The Classics Circuit

When I noticed that The Classics Circuit was doing an Edith Wharton Tour, I just had to join it. It’s ages since I’ve read any of her books but I remember that I really enjoyed them first time round. It’ll be interesting to see what I make of my re-read of The Age of Innocence.

I’ve been scheduled to participate in the tour on January, 23rd – so I’ll be posting my review then, I’m looking forward to it.

It looks like 2010 is going to be the year of the re-read for me. I’ve joined the Flashback Challenge too.