Summer (Edith Wharton)

Posted: December 16, 2014 in fiction
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Yeah, I should have seen this coming. I know that Edith Wharton writes endings that are right, satisfying because you can’t imagine her stories ending any other way, but not happy. I often wish things could have happened differently, but no. They never do.

In some ways, this story felt a lot like it was written by William Faulkner. No stream-of-consciousness or insanity, that losing of one’s grip on the passage of time that is so important for him, but the plot and characters could be his, if he had been writing fifteen years earlier. Wharton generally gives us a view of wealthy society in New York around the turn of the century, but in Summer New York is only ever mentioned once, as too far away to be imagined. We’re dealing with very small towns in rural New England; Springfield, Massachusetts is the height of splendor in their world, a place that is important in the town imagination but that we never reach. The protagonist’s rich rival Annabel Balch lives there, and she and the town represent everything that Charity wants in her life but cannot have.

Once upon a time, a loose woman named Mary went on off up the Mountain with one of them, a criminal named Hyatt. (They’re all named Hyatt up there.) She lived out the rest of her life in poverty and squalor with the Mountain people. When her lover gets sent to jail, the lawyer decides to take their daughter and raise her in the town. Thus Charity Royall grows up with all the comforts of one of the best houses in town, and the acute knowledge that she doesn’t belong there. She’s one of the shiftless heathens from up the Mountain, and she’ll never be anything else because she lives in a gossipy small town with a long memory.

The story begins (as love stories should) in a library.

Suddenly the door opened, and before she had raised her eyes she knew that the young man she had seen going in at the Hatchard gate had entered the library.

Without taking any notice of her he began to move slowly about the long vault-like room, his hands behind his back, his short-sighted eyes peering up and down the rows of rusty bindings. At length he reached the desk and stood before her.

“Have you a card-catalogue?” he asked in a pleasant abrupt voice; and the oddness of the question caused her to drop her work.

“A what?

“Why, you know –“ He broke off, and she became conscious that he was looking at her for the first time, having apparently, on his entrance, included her in the general short-sighted survey as part of the furniture of the library.

The fact that, in discovering her, he lost the thread of his remark, did not escape her attention, and she looked down and smiled. He smiled also.

Back in the day when card catalogues represented the newest information technology, Charity reluctantly keeps the local library so that she can earn enough money to get out of her little town. Instead, she falls in love. Rumors fly, nothing stays secret, and at the end of the summer he leaves again. The story is simple enough, told many times, but Wharton uses it for a frank representation of attitudes toward sex. She’s writing in 1917, so we don’t get to watch like we did in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but her characters’ thoughts and actions seem rather contemporary. Everyone does it. Everyone knows that everyone does it. No one really feels bad about it. But they feel like they ought to make everyone else feel bad for doing it. The culture creates a situation where a man can sexually abuse the girl living in his house and still remain a pillar of the community, but if she has consensual sex with a boy she loves, then she becomes a pariah. The abortion clinic in the next town over seems pretty successful, financially speaking.

There are three kinds of women: bad women who do it shamelessly, decent women who do it privately, and old maids who don’t do it at all. But there’s only one kind of man: they take their opportunities where they find them without any thought for consequences.

Charity among her own people on the Mountain makes me think of Temple Drake at the Old Frenchman’s place. She has the same fish-out-of-water feeling that would become disdain if it could overcome its own shock. Isolated mountain communities are pretty much the same, whether they’re out in Yoknapatawpha County or up by the border with New Hampshire. They provide a cautionary tale, but like Annabel Balch, they’re more important in their effect on Charity than for anything they actually do.

This story interests me personally because I used to live there. I try to remember that period of my life sometimes, but I never come up with much. That was the last time we lived in a house that was really large enough for all of us, and I really feel as if I ought to remember when my youngest brother was born, but all I get is an image of looking down on what seems like twelve feet of snow from an upper-story window. When you’re little, everything looks big, and I was smaller than average until high school.

My parents are both from the Baltimore-Washington area, but in 1983 my dad was working for the Marriott hotel chain and they transferred him to Springfield. Less than a year later, we skedaddled back down to the South, but somehow my pronunciation got stuck. My family tells me that I had a real thick Boston accent at first; it’s calmed down to regular New England (I’ve learned to pronounce the letter R), but I’ve never picked up the Southernness that almost all the rest of them have. In 2008 I worked briefly with someone from Boston, and I could feel my pronunciation changing to match his, like iron filings shaping themselves around an electromagnet. I hear it in words like dog or talk, when in my mouth they become dowag or towak instead of dawg and tawk. But I do use a lot of Southern words for things, so in the end I don’t feel as if my speech belongs here or there. I try to place myself on a dialect map of the United States, and only come to the conclusion that no one talks like I do.

Summer is a nice little book, a bit sad but nice. It’ll do to while away a few hours in the tub, away from the nearly omnipotent social pressure that Charity has to deal with. I don’t think she makes good choices, but then, she doesn’t actually read the books in her library, does she?

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