“A girl came out of lawyer Royall’s house, at the end of one street of North Dormer, and stood on the doorstep.” This is the first line of Edith Wharton’s 1917 novel Summer, a line that suggests something new and interesting is about to happen to that girl who’s about to venture out into the world. She sees a young man, a stranger, whose straw hat is lifted by the wind and blown into the duck-pond, and it’s easy to guess her encounter with this young man will change her life.
She goes out into the world, but only as far as the town library where she works, and where she’ll meet the handsome stranger when he enters to look for books on the history of houses in the area. This library is not the gateway to knowledge about architecture or anything else, however, but a “prison-house,” a “vault-like room” with “rows of rusty bindings” and “tall cobwebby bindings” – and no card catalogue.
The library in North Dormer is in disrepair, but even so, it reminds me of the grand library in Undine Spragg’s hôtel in Paris at the end of The Custom of the Country, in which the bookcases are all locked because “the books were too valuable to be taken down.” I wrote a blog post about that passage a couple of years ago because I was fascinated by Wharton’s vision of hell as a library in which no one is able to read or write.
When the girl in Summer, Charity Royall, thinks about the founder of the “queer little brick temple” called “The Honorius Hatchard Memorial Library,” she wonders “if he felt any deader in his grave than she felt in his library.” Twice in the first few pages of the novel, Charity says to herself, “How I hate everything!” Yet she can’t help being interested in the stranger – and “The fact that, in discovering her, he lost the thread of his remark, did not escape her attention.”
Summer and Ethan Frome, the two short novels Wharton set in western Massachusetts, were both more controversial than any of her other books (according to Candace Waid in Edith Wharton’s Letters from the Underworld). Known as “the hot Ethan,” Summer is the story of a passionate love affair and its consequences. Wharton, says Marilyn French in her introduction to the Scribner edition, “has written a novel that is a clamorous and ecstatic affirmation of the joy of sexual love no matter what it costs.” And, she adds, “It does cost.”
The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, MA, is hosting a marathon reading of Summer tomorrow, August 12th, and I wish I could be there. “Summer afternoon – summer afternoon.” As Wharton’s good friend Henry James said, “those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language” (quoted in Chapter 10 of Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance). Wouldn’t it be lovely to spend a summer afternoon reading Summer in the Berkshires?
Edith Wharton died on this date, August 11th, in 1937.