Staff review by Chris Saliba
Edith Wharton's 1917 novella, Summer, takes a darkly witty look at ideal love.
Feisty eighteen-year-old Charity Royall knows her mind and takes no nonsense. Adopted by Lawyer Royall as a child, she was was brought down from “the Mountain” to the more respectable town of North Dormer. Her origins are kept partly veiled from her, but as the story progresses it’s revealed that her parents were unsavoury characters. Just the types you’d expect to find on the Mountain, a breeding ground for ignorance and superstition.
When Charity uncharacteristically takes a job running the local library (she’s dismissive of books, and often closes early), she meets the visiting architect Lucius Harney. He is handsome and a refreshing presence, almost a golden boy. There is a spark between the two and a satisfying courtship begins. It’s a pure love they enjoy, full of sunlight, blue skies and summer flowers. Charity’s past then comes to the fore. After some awkward disclosures are made by third parties, Charity is delighted to find that Lucius doesn’t care a fig for her Mountain origins.
All is going well. Despite her Mountain beginnings, it seems clear Charity is destined for better things. Problems loom, however. She can’t stand her protector, Lawyer Royall. He’s a drunk who once proposed marriage, a prospect that revolts her. Lawyer Royall also has a habit of turning up at happy moments, only to deliver bad news. He arrives unannounced at a secret meeting place for the young couple and confronts Lucius. Why hasn’t he proposed marriage yet? Is there a problem?
It appears there is, in the guise of a prior engagement. Lucius disappears to try and “sort things out”. Meanwhile, Charity starts experiencing dizzy spells. Could she be pregnant? She visits a sinister woman doctor, clearly intent on ripping her off. As Charity’s prospects get more and more dismal by the moment, with no sight of Lucius returning, the hated Lawyer Royall steps in with a possible solution to all her woes. But his solution is her worst nightmare.
Summer reads like a dark fairy tale. Charity is the young princess, blessed by her prince charming. It seems a cruel trick of nature that she was born of gross Mountain people. The ogre of the story is the barely contained lecher, Lawyer Royall. He is entirely revolting, especially when contrasted against the golden couple, Charity and Lucius. A wicked witch appears in the guise of the woman doctor, a horrid crone with artificial hair and teeth.
There is much humour in Summer. Charity Royall is a headstrong heroine who bumps up against town proprieties. But there is also a darker message. Perfect love affairs, pure and untouched, are things of fantasy, and sooner or later the grubby, oily hand of reality will reach out and tear down our illusions. Then we will have to make horrible bargains to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table and danger from the door.
An absolutely perfect novella from a master storyteller.
Summer, by Edith Wharton. Published by Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780140186796 RRP: $19.99
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