Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2019

‘Summer’, in Ethan Frome and Summer, by Edith Wharton

The Constable Edith Wharton edition that I’ve just read contains both Ethan Frome (which I’ve reviewed here) and Summer.  Summer fits nicely into Novellas in November and I’ll be adding it to my Twitter feed with #NovNov.

As the excellent Introduction by Michael Millgate tells us, Summer and Ethan Frome are both set in the moribund back blocks of New England, apparently part of Edith Wharton’s purpose deliberately to challenge the established literary image of the New England countryside, and he quotes from her autobiography A Backward Glance:

For years I had wanted to draw life as it really was in the derelict mountain villages of New England, a life even in my time, and a thousandfold more a generation earlier, utterly unlike that seen through the rose-coloured spectacles of my predecessors, Mary Wilkins and Sarah Orne Jewett. In those days the snow-bound villages of Western Massachusetts were still grim places, morally and physically: insanity, incest and slow mental and moral starvation were hidden away behind the paintless wooden house-fronts of the long village streets, or in the isolated farmhouses on the neighbouring hills; and Emily Brontë would have found as savage tragedies in our remoter valleys as on her Yorkshire moors.  (Introduction, p.13)

What Millgate doesn’t explain is how the wealthy and fashionable wife of a conventional man came to know this.  Yes, Wharton got her hands dirty in her voluntary work during WW1, but that was literally a world away from the setting of this novella.  What on earth could she have known about life as it really was?  Who, living that life, was going to tell this rich, elegant stranger about it?  Was it what’s called ‘common knowledge’? or not spoken about because it conflicted with America’s view of itself? or was it demonising of poor and disadvantaged people, what we might call ‘othering’ today? I couldn’t find anything specific about the mountain people of New England, but I found in a Wikipedia article about hillbillies, that stereotyping of rural Appalachians causes feelings of shame, self-hatred, and detachment […] as a result of “culturally transmitted traumatic stress syndrome” and that they are blamed for their own economic hardships because of labelling as moonshiners and welfare cheats.

[After I’d finished my review, I found Simon’s at Tredynas Days, and he says that Wharton set her story in the area similar to the Berkshires where the author had built a house and got to know the locality and its dour rural inhabitants.  But he also goes on to question what kind of ‘knowing’ that might be, characterising it as passing through these places in her large car with Henry James.  I think many contemporary readers might also feel a bit uneasy about the judgements Wharton passes on these people. What kind of ‘knowing’ takes place when a wealthy woman builds a house, presumably insulated from the fading town and its mountain inhabitants by extensive gardens and servants? Did she ‘know’?  Or did she absorb gossip, stereotyping and suspicion at some remove?]

Whatever about that, the central character in Summer is constantly reminded that she is well out of it when brought down from the mountain as a child, by the lawyer Royall.  She is renamed as Charity, and she takes his surname, but everyone in the town of North Dormer knows more about her antecedents than she does and they won’t forget it. All she knows is that she has been lucky to escape a sordid life among sordid people.  And as you’d expect in a small town in an era where girls had only two options, marriage or spinsterhood, her prospects were compromised by her dubious personal history.

Two complications arise: as she enters adolescence Lawyer Royall is attracted to Charity and she also attracts the attention of Lucius Harney from out of town.   1001 Books says that Royall’s tentative approach raises the spectre of incest, but I can’t see it.  Royall might be her unofficial guardian, but they are not related at all, and the horror of incest in this context of a closed rural community implies inbreeding with all the problems that ensue—it’s an implication that does not apply, not unless the reader draws a long bow and perceives a biological relationship between Royall and the client who asks him to rescue his child or alternatively with Charity’s mother.  IMO, reading this in the 21st century, it seems to me to be more of a #MeToo situation… Obviously, any relationship between them while Charity is underage is inappropriate given the age and power differences between them, and it’s morally dubious to express desire to a vulnerable young woman who has nowhere else to go, even if Royall does back off when she has the courage to reject him.  We might well judge Royall for his behaviour, but that’s not IMO to say it’s incest.

Lucius Harney, OTOH, is closer to Charity in age, the attraction is mutual, and the slow dalliance hints at male respect to some extent.  Harney’s character is not entirely what 19th century British novelists would call a ‘cad’ or a ‘bounder’.  It would be a dull and predictable story if he were.  However, what Charity takes too long to realise is that the social gulf between them makes a future impossible, even if he’s not just enjoying himself with a naïve young girl during his sojourn.  Wharton’s coyness about sexuality leaves it open to the reader to interpret what happens as the expression of mutual sexual passion rather than the act of a more sophisticated male taking advantage of an innocent girl.  Whichever way the reader perceives their romance, the stark reality of Charity’s choices are vividly depicted when Harney leaves town and she flees to what she thinks is her real ‘home’ where in her misery she feels that she ‘belongs’.

Millgate thinks Summer is superior to Ethan Frome about which he says it could be argued that it is lacking in genuine emotional depth and that its most striking effects are achieved by shock tactics most suited to the ghost story.  He thinks Summer is more humane and that the frankness and directness of the presentation of the passionate Charity Royall and the subtle treatment of her relationship with Lawyer Royall […] gives a broader range of relevance. 

I’m not so sure about that.  The sense of entrapment and a wasted life is much stronger in Ethan Frome: we see the tragedy of it in the unforgettable final chapter.  Summer hints that Charity’s future is not as bleak, and while far from a fairy tale ending to a Cinderella story, it’s not as powerful IMO as Ethan Frome. 

The citation in 1001 Books has this to say:

The ending is ambiguous, and continues to mystify and divide readers: does it represent capitulation to the conformism of a small-minded and parochial community, or is it to be interpreted as a genuine resolution of the conflicts it has so convincingly dramatised?

Female despair, or making the best of things when choices are limited? What do other readers think?

PS See Simon’s review at Tredynas Days here.

Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Title: ‘Summer’ in Ethan Frome and Summer
Publisher: Constable & Co, London, 1965, 272 pages, first published 1917
ISBN: none
Source: Port Phillip Library


  1. Now I need to read ‘Summer’ …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, I just wrote one of those long comments and lost it! Darn! I don’t think I could face writing it out again, but one comment concerned the “incest” issue, and the fact that I suspect the critic is not talking about biological incest but a sort of familial one, like Woody Allen and his step-daughter. There’s a discomfort when people in a seeming parental or other familial relationship then develop a romantic or sexual one. (The idea has even been levelled at times about Mr Knightley and Emma – the arguing being that for a long long time he was very much like an older brother to her.)

    Another point related to how she “knew” about other lives. I think there are many ways a person interested could find out (by doing “good works”, by talking to those who did “good works”, by reading the newspapers, by observing, by talking to house-servants/staff). Her knowledge may have been imperfect, and it may have been seen (and perhaps judged) through her educated class eyes – how many of us can remove ourselves completely from our own world views – but I applaud her for wanting to open the eyes of the literary and social elites she moved amongst.


    • I had that happen to me the other day on another blog: I did my best to write a thoughtful comment about something, and then when I pressed send, up popped the error message saying my comment couldn’t be posted. I was livid because I was just about to go out and just didn’t have time to do it all over again.
      I see what you say about a familial ‘incest’ but I think we need to be careful about the choice of words here. Biological incest is among the most heinous of crimes for all sorts of reasons that I don’t need to articulate, and while we might disapprove of what you’re describing as familial incest, it is not the same thing at all IMO legally or morally. In this story Royall is not fatherly, and he’s not taking advantage of a father-daughter relationship to seduce her. I think this is different to the Woody Allen situation which of course I don’t approve of either.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s really interesting to see your perspective on this, especially regarding the context and themes. I think I agree with whisperinggums’ observations on the incest issue. It’s the day-to-day closeness, living alongside one another as guardian and ward (or effectively father and daughter), that makes any suggestion of a sexual relationship seem very disturbing.

    I’ve also written about this novella (albeit very briefly and nowhere as incisively – it may have been part of a round-up). There’s a post at mine, if it’s of interest.


  4. I enjoyed your reviews of the two books. I have been in the Berkshires (Massachusetts hill country) and in Appalachia, and Appalachia is poorer, more backward. Much of New England was never optimal for farming, ok for subsistence farms but not suited to modern industrial agriculture. As the better farm country of the Midwest and West opened up and especially after the coming of the railroads, many New England farms were depopulated, as the more able and enterprising and better off went west. Those who remained tended to feel somewhat neglected and bitter. It is these attitudes that Wharton is picking up on more than the actual circumstances of their lives.


    • Hello Nancy, it’s lovely to hear from you, I hope you are well and enjoying your retirement from book blogging! (Though I do miss your reviews…)
      What you say is interesting, here in Australia, we are hearing about the resentment of rural people who feel ‘left behind’. And from what I’ve seen in Europe, depopulation of the countryside is a problem everywhere.


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