By: Edith Wharton
Format/Source: eBook; my copy
Charity Royall lives unhappily with her hard-drinking adoptive father in an isolated village, until a visiting architect awakens her sexual passion and the hope for escape. Exploring Charity’s relation to her father and her lover, Wharton delves into dark cultural territory: repressed sexuality, small-town prejudice, and, in subtle hints, incest.
Continuing along with getting around to all of Edith Wharton’s books (having already read The Age of Innocence (review), The House of Mirth (review) and Bunner Sisters (review)) is her short novel Summer. It seemed fitting to read it since summer officially started a week ago and I needed a break from Balzac’s Cousin Bette (a bit of a slow read, that one). And fancy that, this novel was pretty short too. Contains some spoilers ahead!
Someone on my friends list–I think it was on Livejournal–remarked that this novel was good, if not a little frustrating. Having read the book now, wow, no kidding it was a bit frustrating! Charity was not born into a very well social position, the daughter of a prostitute. Mr. Royall, a well-off lawyer, saves her from a desolate life by bringing her down from the mountain and he and his wife raising her until his wife passes away. She has her own streak of independence and ideas of what she wants out of her life but she is constrained by her situation. I sort of identified with this aspect about her and felt so bad that, although the period in which she lived in was different than, let’s say if this novel was set during the high Victorian or Regency period, her choices are still limited. Charity, of course, has her own faults; it took me a while to warm to her character. However, it was interesting to read her story and how she reacts to the situations that come her way.
Her love life was particularly frustrating as neither Royall or Lucius Harney proved to be good for/worthy of Charity. Lucius Harney came off as a wonderful, smart man at first, a man who was attentive and had a seemingly niceness of character but alas; I knew there was something rather off or wrong about the whole thing when they kept sneaking about…I felt just as betrayed as Charity when it was revealed why he went about their relationship the way they did. He was portrayed at the end as being torn between two different possibilities, two different worlds, but I didn’t really buy it, partly because we never really saw things from his perspective and partly because yeah, no, he should not have taken up with Charity as he was engaged to someone else–someone of a higher class, no less–the entire time. This book seems to be one of those reminders that there are those types of guys out there who do lead these sorts of double lives.
Mr. Royall is no better with his hard drinking. I also found him rather creepy given that he pretty much raised Charity and there was that one incident sometime after his wife’s death that also left Charity wary of him, avoiding him when she could (with good reason). I suppose on some level he partly redeemed his sense of character at the end of the novel by protecting Charity from the situation she found herself in but still, I found the arrangement rather icky (which I’m guessing constitutes the “incest” aspect that the blurb of the novel was referring to).
As always, I enjoyed Edith Wharton’s writing. I loved the detail that she put into describing what Charity was feeling towards Lucius, about her life and her surroundings. For the time that it was written, I can see it being a risque novel as it does touch on issues of sexual awakening. I do wonder if she purposely left the ending ambiguous as the reader is left closing the novel on a vague note as Charity is left reeling with the consequences about what happened. I wonder how much of what happened has actually sunk in by those last few paragraphs.
Overall, I enjoyed Summer enough. It’s obviously not on the same level as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth but I enjoyed it a lot more than the Bunner Sisters. If you’re a fan of Edith Wharton’s works or of Edwardian literature, you should check out this novel.