I decided to read Edith Wharton’s Summer right after I read George Eliot’s Silas Marner because Sandra Gilbert told me to. Ok, she didn’t really tell me to, at least not directly. But she has an interesting essay in Rereading Women a large portion of which is a compare and contrast between the two novels, and since I was planning on reading something by George Eliot this year I figured why not read Wharton too? I like Wharton quite a lot after all.
Summer isn’t a very long book but it is signature Wharton with it’s cool, crisp prose and keen social eye. The story starts in the late winter/ early spring and goes through the early fall with most of the events taking place during the summer. It is the story of Charity Royall, a young woman of about seventeen. She was adopted when she was a toddler by lawyer Royall and his wife. But,
Mrs. Royall died seven or eight years later; and by that time Charity had taken the measure of most things about her. She knew that Mrs. Royall was sad and timid and weak; she knew that lawyer Royall was harsh and violent, and still weaker. She knew that she had been christened Charity (in the white church at the other end of the village) to commemorate Mr. Royall’s disinterestedness in “bringing her down,” and to keep alive in her a becoming sense of her dependence; she knew that Mr. Royall was her guardian, but that he had not legally adopted her, though everybody spoke of her as Charity Royall; and she knew why he had come back to live at North Dormer, instead of practising at Nettleton, where he had begun his legal career.
Charity was “brought down” from The Mountain, a place where a small colony of “out-laws” live. These outlaws turn out later to be a rather poor lot of subsistence farmers living in squalid conditions. To be from The Mountain is rather a stain on one’s social standing in North Dormer. North Dormer is a small town where everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s business and where Miss Hatchard, a woman with some money and an ancestor who founded the town library, and lawyer Royall, a sad and lonely man whose law career is on the wane, are the town luminaries.
Charity has pretty much raised herself and rules lawyer Royall’s house. She does as she pleases and pretends to not care what the rest of the town thinks of her, except she does care. She longs to leave North Dormer and live in a city but she has no money of her own. So when a new librarian is needed for the town library she makes sure that lawyer Royall gets her the job. Charity doesn’t give a fig about books and because the library is rarely used anyway, doesn’t spend much time there.
Then lawyer Royall asks Charity to marry him. She refuses in a very mean and spiteful way. About the same time Miss Hatchard’s young cousin Harney comes to town. He is working on a book about the architecture of old houses in small New England towns. Charity falls for him in a big way. Harney likes Charity too, Charity is a beautiful and energetic girl, but she is just a flirtation for him and he neglects to mention he is engaged to another woman.
Since the story is told mostly through Charity’s eyes in a limited third person, it only gradually becomes clear how innocent Charity is and how Harney is using her. At the end of the summer Harney leaves to take care of some business, promising to come back. Of course he has no plans to come back, and of course Charity soon learns she is pregnant. I feared that the book would have an ending like House of Mirth but it doesn’t. Nonetheless it doesn’t exactly have a happy ending either.
There is quite a lot more that happens in the book than I mention here. I liked it very much even though it isn’t exactly uplifting. Gilbert’s essay I mentioned at the beginning discusses the father and daughter roles and relationships as portrayed in Wharton’s book and Eliot’s book. They make an interesting contrast since Eppie redeems Silas Marner and in Wharton, Charity is redeemed (if you could call it that) by lawyer Royall. Unfortunately I got Rereading Women from the library so I no longer have Gilbert’s essay to refer back to and elaborate on. Suffice it to say, Gilbert’s essay, Silas Marner and Summer are all excellent reading.