Summer turns into fall

I finished reading Edith Wharton's Summer. We read this novel together through the warm months, like a soundtrack to summer days, and while it is already mid-October the change in seasons had not registered with me up until now. I still remember selecting the book at the used-book shop around the end of May and how the cashier, when opening the cover to look for the price marked in pencil on the top right corner of the first page, was excited to tell me the introduction is written by a professor whose class she had taken in college. 

We read Summer at the beach under the shade of my green polka dot umbrella. During that time I was getting to know Charity and felt inspired by her connection to nature. When we read on the cliff by the sea, we were giddy when her hands met with Lucious Harney's. The budding romance followed us on our journeys, on train, bicycle, and ferry trips. I felt as though Charity became a friend who came along with us, who we read bit by bit, prolonging and savoring each segment.

This short and lively book is a romance, and moreover, a story of a young girl discovering herself and her place in the world through her first love. It was first published in 1917 and its subject of premarital sex and a woman's social standing was considered so scandalous at the time that it was out of print for nearly 50 years. What a shame! This book is a beautiful and cautionary tale that should be on the required reading list in schools.

Charity is often described as a "wild" girl whose caretaker, Mr. Royall, is attempting to tame. She finds joy in simple pleasures, but is also simple minded.

"She often climbed up the hill and lay there alone for the mere pleasure of feeling the wind and of rubbing her cheeks in the grass. Generally at such times she did not think of anything, but lay immersed in an inarticulate well-being." (p. 10)

Mr. Royall goes through a great deal of trouble to secure her a place in a boarding school, but she refuses to go and instead spends her time working in the town library. She spend her days in the stuffy library full of ancient books and shows no interest in dusting them, never mind reading them. The library is described as her "prison-house" where she serves time. 

She feels like a bird under Mr. Royall's watch in his house. I like the way the author personifies buildings and scenes in nature, giving them a pulse in tune with Charity's inner world. Through her eyes, the red house is "cheerless and unattended" but equipped with all the essentials and more, representing security.

Her mother's shed on the Mountain is on a "clearing where two or three low houses lay in stony fields, crouching among the rocks as if to brace themselves against the wind." (p. 140) Witnessing the poverty there, she develops an appreciation for the comforts she took for granted at the red house. 

The "deserted house" where she meets Harney is in between the two worlds, a place of passion and escape; however, a dream that is unsustainable. The author foreshadows this towards the second part of the book.

"Charity's heart contracted. The first fall of night after a day of radiance often gave her a sense of hidden menace: it was like looking out over the world as it would be when love had gone from it. She wondered if some day she would sit in that same place and watch in vain for her lover..." (p. 103)

I often questioned whether Charity was meant to be a likeable character. She is impulsive because she is young and naive. Despite these perceived setbacks, her certainty in her emotions is admirable. No matter how fleeting they are, she follows her instincts at all times. Falling in love is like being under an enchanting spell, it is not everlasting but transformative. The memory stays forever while seasons change.


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