Tame by today’s standards, Summer, Edith Wharton’s most sexually explicit novel, probably shocked more than a few readers when it was first published almost 100 years ago. That it is also one of only two novels Wharton placed in a rural setting makes Summer even more unique among her novels.
Charity Royall is bored with her little North Dormer community and only works as the town librarian so she can save enough money to escape the life she endures there. She cares little for books and is perfectly willing to allow them to self-destruct on the shelves while she daydreams about a more exciting existence. But, as it turns out, her fate will be forever linked to the little library.
Lucius Harney, a young architect, has come to North Dormer to visit his aunt and to study and sketch some of the old homes in the area. When he wanders into the library one day in search of a book about the old houses, Charity is smitten with him and unknowingly sets the course that will alter the rest of her life. It is the start of a relationship that, even though it begins innocently, is best kept from the prying eyes of the town gossips. Charity knows that her guardian, Lawyer Royall, the man who did a better job of raising her before his wife died than after, would never approve the match – and that there are those in town who would relish the opportunity to tell him about it.
Secrecy, though, requires privacy, and privacy often leads to a degree of intimacy that results in tragic consequences for the unwed. Only after Harney returns to his life in New York, does Charity realize that she is pregnant - and on her own. As Wharton makes clear, a woman of this period facing Charity’s dilemma had few options: illegal abortion, being sent away to have the baby in secrecy, running away in shame, or perhaps the unlikely luck of finding a sympathetic man willing to marry her.
Charity moves from desperation to despair when she realizes how limited her choices have become and that the life she was already unhappy with has been forever changed, and that change being for the worse. As she moves from one poor decision to the next, at times risking her very life, one is reminded of how greatly American mores and values have changed in the last five decades.
Summer, even though it was governed by the stricter limits of its time on language and theme, is a memorable portrayal of what it was like for a woman to be “in trouble” during the first half of the 20th century. That it still can have a strong impact on the reader today leaves one wondering why it was not more of a sensation when first published. Edith Wharton fans should not overlook this fine novel.
Rated at: 4.0