Summer by Edith Wharton

If ‘Ethan Frome’ is winter, so this, its companion novel is ‘Summer’, though ironically there is less a sense of the season and its metaphoric meaning; perhaps ‘The End of the Summer’ might have been a more apt title.

Edith Wharton was worldly and wealthy, speaking four languages and entertaining future American heiresses in her Paris home, her latter years lived in France. Yet as the range of her works testify, from rural Ethan Frome’  small town New England ‘Summer’ to the more social aspiring ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Age of Innocence’ she understood and had empathy for those whose lives were lived at the opposite end of the spectrum of her own.

Charity Royall, an eighteen year old girl from the Mountain up there beyond, has been raised by a childless couple from town; she lives with her guardian Mr Royall, now a widow. She knows little and remembers nothing of her parents or that frowned upon community no one ever mentions.

Until the bold, young Architect Lucien Harnus appears, unafraid to ask questions. The more she learns while listening to Mr Royall respond to him, the more insecurity creeps into her being, though there is little outward sign of this change.

Initially we witness her wilful attitude, with which she succeeds in claiming the post of librarian against all other eligible girls in town, despite little interest in the actual job itself. She appears intelligent, adept at identifying opportunity, her questionable ancestry all but obliterated. However, she lacks a female role model and is barely on speaking terms with My Royall after his own near lapse with regard to the carnal instinct. In matters of love and the feminine, Charity is at a disadvantage. Her first experience with a young suitor is telling.

Her heart was ravaged by life’s cruellest discovery: the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy. She did not cry; tears came hard to her, and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly.

Without giving anything away of the story, the young man wins her over and she will have her summer of joy, but naïveté and a reluctance to assert herself in matters of the heart will compromise her position in this society that values and rewards tradition over love. She considers returning to her people:

There was no sense of guilt in her now, but only a desperate desire to defend her secret from irreverent eyes, and begin life again among people to whom the harsh code of the village was unknown.

It is a tragedy, as we have the impression that this is a young woman rescued from a life of little promise who could have made something of it, who should have, if she had been warned; she is as much a victim of the era she lives in as the lack of a female role model. I couldn’t help thinking about a possible sequel, one where she defies the odds and proves everyone wrong, because that is just the kind of girl she was.

In this respect the story differs from ‘Ethan Frome’ in which we are provided a glimpse into the future regarding what happens next, here Wharton has chosen to either leave that to the reader’s imagination, or her final act will be seen as sufficient evidence to predict a conventional outcome. You decide.

‘Summer’ has recently been adapted to the stage by Julia Stubbs Hughes and the play will focus on the three central characters of the novel, exploring the discovery of love and attraction in a society that restricts both.

It will be showing at the Jack Studio Theatre in South East London from 8 – 26 May 2012 if you happen to be in London. Further details can be found at ‘The Summer Project’.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The Cart, Snow Covered Road at Honfleur’ by Claude Monet

In a year when many are commemorating Dicken’s for his 200th year anniversary, I was prompted by a Dovegreyreader post to do the same for Edith Wharton, in homage to 150 years since her birth on 24th January 1862. A perfect winter read, this slim volume with its enticing cover featuring Claude Monet’s painting was confirmed as my choice when I spotted it in Book in Bar’s annual 50% sale.

Sainte Claire du Vieux Château

So I am making it an ‘Edith Wharton’ year which seems appropriate for many reasons, she is a woman after all, she left her country of birth and came to France which interests me (and I have just learned she had a house here in the south of France at Ste. Claire du Vieux Château) and lastly due to the timely association between Wharton’s novels and the popular Downton Abbey series, which prompted an interesting article in the NY Times discussing the era of wealthy American heiresses marrying into the English aristocracy to save them from financial ruin, some of whom are said to have been associated with Edith Wharton.

‘Ethan Frome’ is narrated by a short stay passer-by in Starkfield whom Frome transports to his place of work during heavy snows and is subsequently invited to seek refuge from a blizzard one evening in his home, an abode no one has entered or been invited to for many years. Upon hearing of his invitation, one of the villagers curious to learn more from the visitor, opens up and reveals much of the story of Ethan’s past to him.

Thus we hear how three people’s lives were paralysed by past events, simple lives complicated by forbidden love and a desperate act. It is a story of its time, an era when people of certain classes were restrained in their behaviours, though not in the intensity of their feelings, endeavouring to suppress them for the sake of saving face or fortune.

I found it interesting how Wharton portrayed the angst of the young would be lovers, drawing the reader into sympathising with them, while portraying Ethan’s wife Zeena in a shifty, calculating way, when she would have been reacting to her natural instinct to want to separate the two. Perhaps in another version of the story it may have been possible to sympathise with Zeena had her perspective been portrayed, it is easy to be lured and swayed by a writer’s deceptive tools when there is more emphasis on one side of a story or on certain characters. I also found it interesting that she decided to portray a husband suffering for having fallen in love with another woman, rather than that of a woman who falls for another man.

I can imagine reading this again, I enjoyed the writing and Wharton’s use of metaphor to depict the landscape and the barren living conditions and I look forward to reading another of her works soon.

So, do you have an Edith Wharton favourite? Have you read any of her books?