Edith Wharton, Summer

Edith Wharton, Summer. First published 1917. Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1993.

There are only two major works of Edith Wharton’s that aren’t set in her own world – high society, affluent New York and Europe. Last time I wrote about the winter-set Ethan Frome. Summer, published six years later, is its counterpart, her ‘hot Ethan’ she called it. Gone is the bleak iciness of the earlier story – this short novel begins with scenes full of the warmth of this season. Until later, when autumn comes and events take a darker, chillier turn.

Wharton Summer cover

Now that’s a better cover: from a painting also called ‘Summer’ by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

It opens with a seventeen-year-old girl emerging from lawyer Royall’s house in North Dormer, Massachussetts (again it’s set 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), and the lyrical description sets the tone for the first part of the novel:

The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulder of the hills…

She shrinks away from the figure of a young man in the street, a stranger with a ‘holiday face’, and looks critically at her ‘swarthy face’ in the hall mirror, wishing she had blue eyes like Annabel Balch – a society girl who sometimes visits.

“How I hate everything!” she murmured.

She repeats this statement more than once in this opening chapter: clearly she is discontented. We soon find out why:

North Dormer is at all times an empty place, and at three o’clock on a June afternoon its few able-bodied men are off in the fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid household drudgery.

So there’s her reason: drudgery is her lot, and all she has to look forward to in this torpid, desolate, repressed place. There’s more:

There it lay, a weather-beaten, sunburnt village of the hills, abandoned of men, left apart by railway, trolley, telegraph, and the forces that link life to life in modern communities. It had no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no “business block”; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed on the damp shelves.

Soon we learn that this is Charity Royall, adopted daughter of the burnt-out, hard-drinking lawyer who’d “brought her down from the Mountain” – a wild, lawless region nearby where no respectable person ever goes. Her ‘tainted origin’ adds to her sense of estrangement; ‘she was the child of a drunken convict and of a mother who wasn’t “half human” and was glad to have her go.’

She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilization.

The young man she’d glimpsed in that opening page turns out to be Lucius Harney, a rare sight in this village, for he’s from the city, educated and artistic. He’s an architect who while visiting his cousin is researching and sketching the old houses in the area; these were once grand and imposing, but were not valued by the locals, and have fallen into disrepair or been abandoned. This is the moral and cultural void which has inspired in Charity such dismal feelings of ennui and longing for escape – a theme prevalent also in Ethan Frome.

All seems set for a romance that will enable her to find fulfilment and escape to a fuller life, one with love and prospects. Sadly, as in Ethan Frome, dreams shatter, love brings pain and humiliation.

So what’s its significance? Elizabeth Ammons in her introduction sets out in detail the historical and biographical context: Wharton had been working with refugees in war-torn France as she wrote the novel, hence perhaps some of the key motifs and situations in it. She’d found passionate love at last after an arid marriage – which would explain the passionate sexual and emotional awakening that Charity experiences – and the misery that tends to accompany such cataclysmic changes when the loved one is fickle or flawed.

But is it, as Ammons suggests, a sort of allegory for the colonial oppression and racism of the white European nations blowing themselves apart in WWI? Or of the shameful racism and xenophobia of early 20C America in its dealings with former slaves and later with the huge numbers of immigrants? Both are plausible readings.

How then to interpret the Mountain? The ‘savage misery of the Mountain farmers’ which made the impoverished crudity of North Dormer’s villagers seem comparatively affluent and desirable? Near the end of the novel the girl travels there, vaguely in search of her mother and some new connection, and experiences instead a ‘tragic initiation’:

Charity vainly tried to think herself into the life about her. But she could not even make out what relationship these people bore to each other, or to her…mother; they seemed to be herded together in a sort of passive promiscuity in which their common misery was the strongest link. [my ellipsis to avoid spoilers]

She tries to picture what her life would have been if she’d stayed in this purgatorial place, ‘turning into a fierce bewildered creature’ like the wild girl she’d encountered on arrival – yet she feels a weird ‘secret affinity’ with that girl – who may even be a relative of hers.

Wharton seems also to be appraising the ahistorical, amoral underbelly of rural America at that time, the capacity of the uneducated, alienated, indifferent villagers like those of “dormant” North Dormer, to be surpassed in their primitivism and state of socio-cultural atrophy by these inbred hillbilly close cousins. The theme of incest that Ammons discusses is clearly a feature in this Mountain world. It’s as if the rural poor that Wharton had seen in the Berkshires and discussed as she passed such places with Henry James in her large car had impressed her with the bleakness and animality of their lives.

Is this snobbish elitism? In some ways, yes. But the richness and empathetic warmth of Wharton’s portrayal of Charity, and the growth and changes she undergoes, the exploration of life’s constraints and barriers for most women at the time it was written, lifts the novel into a higher artistic realm, where we learn what it is to be fully human, even when all around us humanity (and sexual and marital relations in a dysfunctional patriarchal  world) seems absent, selfish, cruel, even obscene.

It lacks the visceral punch of Ethan Frome, but is still a powerful, moving depiction of a strange but recognisable, dying world.

 

 

 

The Chaucer of Monaghan: Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1975; first published 1938)

This is I suppose an autobiography, but it reads like a novel or loosely linked sequence of short stories or vignettes about the growth of a young poet in rural Ireland.

The frontispiece gives this account of the ‘facts’ about him (in this post-truth world that translates as ‘opinions’):

PK was born in Enniskeen, Co. Monaghan in 1904, the son of a cobbler-cum-small farmer. He left school at the age of thirteen, apparently destined to plough the ‘stony-grey soil’ rather than write about it, but ‘I dabbled in verse’, he said, ‘and it became my life.’ He was ‘discovered’ by the Literary Revival veteran AE (George Russell) in 1929 and his poems began to appear in Irish and English journals. In 1936 his first book of verse, Ploughman and Other Poems, was published.

The Green Fool followed in 1938. He published several more volumes of poetry and prose before his death in 1967.Kavanagh, The Green Fool

So what does his autobiography add to these bald facts? A great deal. We are given an intimate view of what it was like to be raised in relative poverty, from his infancy in a cradle made from an onion box through childhood learning (badly) his father’s trade as cobbler-farmer, to young adulthood as an aspiring poet.

Each of the 32 short chapters relates a different anecdote, building up a sort of collage portrait of the artist as a young man. Unlike Joyce, Kavanagh is intent on doing so with more wry humour and quirky character sketches than socio-cultural perspectives.

This means the account often veers too close to whimsy. But the warmth and charm of the narrative voice just about prevented me from giving up on it. I liked ch. 6, ‘Pilgrimage’, about Paddy’s first trip to the Lady Well, a sacred pilgrim site for ‘the people of Monaghan and Cavan and Louth. It was one of the many holy wells of Ireland.’ Every year all his neighbours made the journey and returned with bottles of its holy water:

These waters were used in times of sickness whether of human or beast. Some folk went barefoot and many went wearing in their boots the traditional pea or pebble of self-torture.

Kavanagh’s account of the piety of his people is neither patronising nor reverential. This is just the way things were, he suggests – though he maintains a healthy scepticism about the many miracles attested to by the locals – ‘on whatever feeble evidence founded.’

The scene that follows reads like a prose version of Chaucer’s pilgrim tales: some were ‘going on their bare knees’ as in medieval times –

some others were doing a bit of courting under the pilgrim cloak. There was a rowdy element, too, pegging clods at the prayers and shouting. A few knots of men were arguing politics. I overheard two fellows making a deal over a horse.

The priests didn’t like this well or these demonstrations of popular piety:

They said it was a pagan well from which the old Fianians drank in the savage heroic days. The peasant folk didn’t mind the priests. They believed that Saint Bridget washed her feet in it, and not Finn MacCoole.

It’s characteristic of Kavanagh’s generous spirit that the chapter ends with the family so ‘fagged out’ when they return home at 4 a.m. that they forget all about the holy water – but the narrator concludes that Our Lady ‘was not displeased’ despite the ‘doubters’ and ‘cynics’ and ‘vulgar sightseers’ among the pilgrims:

She is kind and no doubt she enjoyed the comic twists in the pageant round Lady Well.

There’s the note of whimsy I mentioned. A shame, because this is an entertaining, heart-warming account of the growth of a poet’s mind (without Wordsworth’s transcendental portents) despite the hardships and human foibles to which young Paddy was exposed. His long walk to the hiring fair, looking for a farmer to take him on helps persuade him he’s maybe not cut out for the agricultural life. But his much longer walk to Dublin to seek out his literary heroes is far more disappointing for him.

He learns to plough his own furrow.