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On the Bookstand: Edith Wharton


Ever since I read The House of Mirth for my women's lit class in college, I have been a Wharton fan. I'm drawn to her work for a number of reasons. For one thing, her books successfully bridged the commercial and the literary, bringing her both fame and money in her lifetime (much to the dismay of her friend Henry James, who tended to look down his literary nose at her popular work, while envying her financial success.) And Wharton's restless, doomed heroines reveal truths about women's lives that still resonate a century later. 

I have just finished Summer, a short novel Wharton deemed her favorite work, and according to the back copy on my Dover Thrift Edition, "liked to refer to it as ‘the Hot Ethan.' " (School districts everywhere, please take note.) And while the novel is not "hot" in the twenty-first century sense, this passage must certainly have set hearts fluttering in 1917:

"He came close and caught her to him as though he were snatching her from some imminent peril: his impetuous eyes were in hers, and she could feel the hard beat of his heart as he held her against it.

            ‘Kiss me again-like last night,' he said, pushing her hair back as if to draw her whole face up into his kiss."

Take that, Henry James.

In the novel, the young woman about to be kissed into oblivion is Charity Royall, an aptly named orphan who was "brought down from the Mountains" of  her tiny New England village into the home of wealthy Lawyer Royall, who adopted her after her poverty-stricken mother supposedly dies.  Charity is often reminded by the good people of North Dormer how lucky she is to have such a life, but Charity chafes against her stultifying existence. She's provided a job in the town's dusty and outdated library, named for a minor writer in their town, who is:

"the sole link between North Dormer and literature, a link piously commemorated by the erection of the monument where Charity Royall, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, sat at her desk under a freckled steel engraving of the deceased author, and wondered if he felt any deader in his grave than she felt in his library."

That line--"if he felt any deader in his grave than she felt in the library"--made me sit straight up in my comfy bed as I was reading, and from there I was hooked.

Into the library and Charity's bleak life comes Lucius Harney, he of the suggestive first name, fair hair, hazel eyes, and a manly physique not lost on Charity, who notices "the vigorous lines of his young throat, and the root of muscles where they joined the chest." Is there any doubt where this is going? And given that Charity is young, innocent, ignorant and untutored--and that Harney is upper-class, educated, and completely outside Charity's sphere--where it will end up?

Where Charity does end up at Summer's end, is a bit of a surprise. It's hardly a satisfying one, but unlike poor Lily Bart, at least she survives. As does Wharton's influence, even one hundred years down the line.