Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Born Edith Newbold Jones into a society known as ‘Old New York’ at a time when women were discouraged from achieving anything beyond a proper marriage, Edith Wharton broke through these constraints to become one of America’s greatest writers. She was a close friend of Henry James, who in turn was a valued literary adviser and the saying “keeping up with the Joneses” was said to refer to her father’s family. The author of The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth, she wrote over 40 books in 40 years, including authoritative works on architecture, gardens, interior design, and travel. Essentially self-educated, she was the first woman awarded: the Pulitzer Prize for Literature (for The Age of Innocence in 1921); an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University; and full membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Wharton wrote Summer in six weeks in the spring of 1916, whilst she was in France, assisting with the war effort. She was one of the few foreigners who was allowed to travel to the front lines during the First World War and in recognition of her work with the displaced, she was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In the midst of the war around her, she wrote to her longtime editor Charles Scribner,
“I am taking a few weeks rest at Fontainebleau and making use of my leisure to write a ‘long-short’ story of the dimensions of Ethan Frome. It deals with the same kind of life in a midsummer landscape, and is a thing I have in mind for several years.”
The story that Wharton would write was something that she would later pair with Ethan Frome, even calling Summer the ‘hot Ethan’ but this time at its centre, it would have a heroine who is an orphan, a ‘refugee’, literally named Charity. Wharton was probably the most renowned of the group of female writers in the early part of the 20th century and what she cared about most was telling women’s stories. In this respect, Summer is one of her most important novels. It was only moderately successful when it was published in 1917 but when Wharton’s writings were rediscovered in the 1960s, Summer found a new audience who rightly valued it as one of her best works.
2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth.