Summer by Edith Wharton (1917)
By Francis Booth | On July 30, 2021 | Updated February 28, 2022 | Comments (0)
This analysis of Summer by Edith Wharton, a 1917 novella of the coming of age of Charity Royall, a small-town girl, is excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-20th Century Woman’s Novel by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
The slim novel was one of Wharton’s personal favorites. She called it the “hot Ethan,” referring to her 1911 novella, Ethan Frome. It’s unclear if she was speaking of the book’s setting in the summer season, Charity’s sexual awakening, or both.
Unusually for Edith Wharton (1862–1937), best known for her novels of patrician Gilded-Age New York like The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, this novella is set in a tiny New England town close to ‘the Mountain,’ from which Charity Royall has been brought down as a baby by lawyer Royall, as he is universally known, and his wife, who is dead before the story begins.
Charity and Mr. Royall now live alone together in what’s known as the red house. ‘Charity was not very clear about the Mountain; but she knew it was a bad place, and a shame to have come from;’ she knows that she should be grateful to lawyer Royall for saving her.
Still, Charity, like many other adolescent girls in fiction, feels trapped in her small and small-minded remote town; ‘How I hate everything!’ she thinks regularly to herself. She has only once in her life been to even a medium-sized town, and that only for one day.
In the course of that incredible day Charity Royall had, for the first and only time, experienced railway-travel, looked into shops with plate-glass fronts, tasted cocoanut pie, sat in a theatre, and listened to a gentleman saying unintelligible things before pictures that she would have enjoyed looking at if his explanations had not prevented her from understanding them. This initiation had shown her that North Dormer was a small place, and developed in her a thirst for information that her position as custodian of the village library had previously failed to excite.
Two afternoons a week, Charity sits at her desk in the library, ‘her prison-house,’ which was founded by a long dead author, ‘and wondered if he felt any deader in his grave than she did in his library.’
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A dreadfully lonesome man
When Mrs. Royall had died, there had been talk of sending Charity to a boarding school, initiated by the kindly Miss Hatchard, but lawyer Royall will not let her go. Charity understands that this is because he does not want to let her go and be on his own.
He was a dreadfully ‘lonesome’ man; she had made that out because she was so ‘lonesome’ herself. He and she, face-to-face in that sad house, had sounded the depths of isolation; and though she felt no particular affection for him, and not the slightest gratitude, she pitied him because she was conscious that he was superior to the people about him, and that she was the only being between him and solitude.
Miss Hatchard seems to understand that Royall’s feelings for his teenage ward may be other than what they seem. She tells Charity that she is too young to understand; Charity replies, ‘Oh no, I ain’t,’ but in fact she is. It is only later that she realizes that her guardian wants to become something like Mr. Rochester to her Jane Eyre.
She was awakened by a rattling at her door and jumped out of bed. She heard Mr. Royall’s voice, low and peremptory, and opened the door, fearing an accident. No other thought had occurred to her; but when she saw him in the doorway, a ray from the autumn moon falling on his discomposed face, she understood.
For a moment they looked at each other in silence; then, as he put his foot across the threshold, she stretched out her arm and stopped him.
‘You go right back from here,’ she said, in a shrill voice that startled her; ‘you ain’t going to have that key tonight.’
‘Charity, let me in. I don’t want the key. I’m a lonesome man,’ he began, in the deep voice that sometimes moved her.
Her heart gave a startled plunge, but she continued to hold him back contemptuously. ‘Well, I guess you made a mistake, then. This ain’t your wife’s room any longer.’
She was not frightened, she simply felt a deep disgust; and perhaps he divined it or read it in her face, for after staring at her a moment he drew back and turned slowly away from the door.
An unwelcome proposal
In the cold light of day he asks her to marry him. ‘As he stood there before her, unwieldy, shabby, disordered, the purple veins distorting the hands he pressed against the desk, and his long orator’s jaw trembling with the effort of his avowal, he seemed like a hideous parody of the fatherly old man she had always known.’
She mocks him. ‘How long is it since you’ve looked at yourself in the glass?’ She tells him she assumes, miser that he is, that he only wants to marry her because ‘it would be cheaper to marry me that to keep a hired girl’. Charity insists that if she is to stay in the house there must be another woman; Royall gives in to her and brings in an old woman from the poorhouse as a kind of maid.
Charity knew that what had happened on that hateful night would not happen again. She understood that, profoundly as she had despised Mr. Royall ever since, he despised himself still more profoundly. If she had asked for a woman in the house it was far less for her own defense than for his humiliation. She needed no one to defend her; his humbled pride was her surest protection … Nothing now would ever shake her rule in the red house.
Soon after this, a young man comes to the village: Miss Hatchard’s cousin Lucius Harney, an architect come to write a booklet on the local abandoned houses. He comes into the library and dazzles Charity with his knowledge.
‘Never had her ignorance of life and literature so weighed on her as in reliving the short scene of her discomfiture.’ That night she sees herself marrying him. ‘A clumsy band and button fastened her unbleached night-gown about the throat. She undid it, freed her thin shoulders, and saw herself a bride in low-necked satin, walking down an aisle with Lucius Harney. He would kiss her as they left the church.’
But Lucius tells Miss Hatchard what a mess the library is in; Charity takes it as a personal insult and is devastated that ‘the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy.’ But soon he makes up with her and they start to spend time together, he seeming genuinely affectionate towards her.
Royall is of course jealous and tells Lucius what Charity herself has never known: she is ‘the child of a drunken convict and of a mother who wasn’t “half human,” and was glad to have her go.’ This does not seem to put Lucius off and they start to spend most of their time together until suddenly Lucius says he is leaving town.
Charity decides she will not beg him, and that if he wants her he must come to her, but the night before he is due to leave she sits outside his bedroom. She does not go in. But Harney does not go at this time and she does eventually give way.
‘With sudden vehemence he wound his arms about her, holding her head against his breast while she gave him back his kisses. An unknown Harney had revealed himself, a Harney who dominated her and yet over whom she felt herself possessed of a new mysterious power.’
Lawyer Royall comes around
Royall realizes what has happened. ‘You – damn – whore!’ he calls her. But Charity does not see things that way. ‘She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air.’ But Harney has been deceiving her and soon after, he really does go, leaving her on a very weak pretext; she later finds out that he prefers one of her friends.
‘She had given him all 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.’
Naturally, Charity is pregnant.
‘Charity, till then, had been conscious only of a vague self-disgust and a frightening physical distress; now, all of a sudden, there came to her the grave surprise of motherhood.’
Everyone has abandoned her; even the doctor to whom she goes for a pregnancy test tricks her. She journeys by herself up the Mountain and meets her mother who, in a melodramatic twist untypical of Wharton, is dying. Charity thinks for a while that she might go to live there but it turns out to be far too wild for her. When she comes down from the Mountain, the repentant Mr. Royall turns out to be an ally and comes to take her home.
‘Mr. Royall seldom spoke, but his silent presence gave her, for the first time, a sense of peace and security. She knew that where he was there would be warmth rest, silence; and for the moment they were all she wanted.’
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Summer on Amazon*
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More about Summer by Edith Wharton
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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