When I finished Edith Wharton’s Summer, I slammed the book shut and turned to the boy in a huff: “This ending sucks!” I’m not one of those types who always wants a happy ending, but this heroine seemed to deserve so much better. Wharton created a truly unique character, one who so perfectly reflects the imperfections of human beings, it’s hard to let go and allow her such an imperfect ending. You want, just once, for someone so realistically flawed to get the white horse and the prince and to ride off into the sunset. Especially since you’re so relieved the author didn’t just kill her off or something, as so many literary heroines in Charity Royall’s predicament were punished in the early twentieth century.
Marilyn French’s Introduction in this edition helped me get over my initial disappointment. The Introduction is one of those that most certainly should be read after the novel itself, but it’s well worth going back to. French’s reading of Charity Royall’s character, and the place of a character like this in fiction of the time, is insightful, and brought me a greater appreciation of Charity and her author.
Wharton has always been one of my favorite writers because she does capture women so wonderfully. She had a nuanced way of exploring the restrictions of womanhood, and the emotional life that was all women were allowed. Her novels also shine a light for the contemporary reader onto the places where those same restrictions still apply. Summer, which was quite scandalous for its time, felt out what it was like for a woman who wanted to embody her own sexuality without giving up her dignity and self-worth. And while Charity’s ending belongs in no romance novel, she does, at least, survive. In fact, I didn’t realize how ingrained the literary custom of killing off wayward heroines is until I started realizing that I expected it, even from Wharton.
So while I might have slammed the book shut in disappointment on reading that last word, I quickly came to the realization that Summer truly is one of Wharton’s best novels, and one that shows her courage and willingness to realistically explore the things very few people want to, even now: people who aren’t perfect.