Publication Date: March 31, 1917
Considered by some to be her finest work, Edith Wharton’s Summer created a sensation when first published in 1917, as it was one of the first novels to deal honestly with a young woman’s sexual awakening.
Summer is the story of Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners adopted by a family in a poor New England town, who has a passionate love affair with Lucius Harney, an educated man from the city. Wharton broke the conventions of women’s romantic fiction by making Charity a thoroughly independent modern woman—in touch with her emotions and sexuality, yet kept from love and the larger world she craves by the overwhelming pressures of heredity and society.
Praised for its realism and honesty by such writers as Joseph Conrad and Henry James and compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Summer remains as fresh and powerful a novel today as when it was first written.
People refer to this as Wharton’s most erotic book. I disagree with that characterization – I think that The Age of Innocence, with its unrequited, simmering passion between Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is much more erotic. This one is sexier.
Charity Royall is a young woman who has been raised by Lawyer Royall in North Dormer, a small New England town. Her family comes from the mountain, a poverty-stricken area. At some point, Lawyer Royall finds himself attracted to the young woman and proposes to marry her. This is squicky as all hell, since he has basically been her father since she was a small child.
Charity understandably turns him down, being attracted to Lucius Harney, man about town, photographer, and the nephew of another one of New Dormer’s finest citizens. He is clearly above her in social position. Charity, recklessly, falls for him, and the two of them embark on a sexual relationship. This is a Wharton book, however, which means that the reader pretty much has to guess what has happened.
It isn’t just the lack of explicit sex that wasn’t erotic. It was the shallowness of the connection between Charity and Lucius Harney. There is no reason to believe that Harney wasn’t absolute rubbish as a lover, self-absorbed and concerned with neither Charity’s pleasure, nor her plight. (Did I just accuse a fictional character of being crap in bed. Why yes, yes I did. And I stand by the accusation. There is no chance that poor Charity had an orgasm. None at all.) It is easy to sympathize with Charity, and to deplore her poor choices, but it was so obvious that Harney was just exploiting her, and it made me want to shake her.
Wharton’s books explore the border between social expectation and human agency. I have read three of them – The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now Summer, and all of them describe and condemn the way in which individuals are oppressed by society. Honestly, I think that Wharton is at her best when she is writing about the upper classes – she came from wealth and extraordinary privilege, and was related to the Rensselaers, the most prestigious of the old patroon families – so she understood and was able to describe the suffocating constraints of that society on, in particular, women. She lived in a time when the social customs were confining and even subjugating, and her books reveal the airlessness and the arbitrary nature of many of those customs. They were a social cage, designed to separate classes and maintain distinctions lacking in substance or merit. Having an intellectual life was out of the question for most individuals, including most men, but definitely all women.
Wharton’s books explore what happens when the individual steps outside of those lines, seeking more for him or herself than that which birth has conferred.
Usually, it is pretty much a disaster. In this book, actually, Charity managed to pull out a win for herself. While the twenty-first-century independent romantic in me was pretty much completely grossed out by the way it ended, by 1917 standards, Charity does pretty well, with a solid, middle-class existence. She fared a lot better than Lily Bart, from The House of Mirth. Interestingly, she doesn’t share Lily Bart’s honorable qualities. That’s probably sort of the point – when hunger conflicts with honor, hunger must, and usually will, win. Or, you die.
Anyway, reading Edith Wharton is like opening a vein. She is depressing as hell, but always worth reading.