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Post Road Magazine #34

Edith Wharton

Lauren Hilger

When I came to Edith Wharton’s Summer,I was living in a tiny room with wooden beams across the ceiling and a Dutch door that closed with a heavy bang. I kept leaves and flower sprigs in a glass meant for a toothbrush. It was not my permanent home, but it exists still as what permanently comes to mind when I imagine Wharton’s novella: an emotional elsewhere. Even now, in this moment, as I’m writing this and also looking at plot points online, the reviews and synopses do not capture for me the intensity of what it’s like to experience this book.

If you have yet to read it, ignore the Internet’s run-down of plot, which—it’s true—is a series of unlucky events in the life of a librarian in Western Mass in 1917, and the heartache that results when a cad comes to town. I lent out my copy and my exclamation points and rapturous notes went with it. What I do know, with the feelings that are still with me, that bring me away from my desk in New York’s summer and into a little room in Western Mass, is that she is able to speak to some ontological state of being in love.

Summerallows its protagonist to enter this state with a naïve belief. The stakes are high, the setbacks are aligned, her heart will give “a frightened jerk.” Regardless, within the larger moments, “the illuminated room,” there stands her “reckless security,” a “sense of lastingness.” Within this state, she finds herself enclosed in a “secret world.” At one point, someone tries to tell her something, but she is mentally “still winging through the forest.”

The emotions afforded to Wharton’s female protagonists are amazingly non-hierarchical, and Wharton’s whole project is hierarchy. Her world is the socially constructed world, so it is especially fascinating to me that the intimacy opens up a space for emotional revelation when these arrangements are not between two people in socially sanctioned relationships. The deep ravines between classes and gender always present in Wharton’s work are foreground, but all this makes these illicit moments even more lit from within.

Like the cinematic move of lighting a cigarette—it’s the authority of the implied, and not the explicit.

In Summer, there is the woman “from the Mountain,” the woman in borrowed shoes, because hers are no good. “How am I going to do this?” she asks herself, feeling inept and ill prepared for the town dance. While she gets dressed—while she has to physically put on the shoes of her love’s fiancée!—she is still somehow ready for something monumental, the signal that changes the way she thinks of herself. Sadly, she focuses on the objects because the objects will become her. She is the dress, the shoes, the way she appears in the room, the stockings, the brooch. Yet.

I love this secret, other feeling. It belongs to her, and doesn’t go away. If she is radiantly dressed, her doubts transform into an aura of supreme knowing. Her confidence cues the entry way, the song. There is some erotic excitement, that anticipation entering new levels, intimate, but in a room with other people.

In Wharton’s Age of Innocence, more popular than Summer, equally beloved to me, the word “alone” appears fifty-two times. There is the desire to be alone, with another person, in the library, in the hall, charged. A powerful admission, wanting to relish whatever that feeling is, away from anyone else.

Consider Wharton’s handling of her protagonist’s dreamy vulnerability here, from Summer: “A clumsy band and button fastened her unbleached night-gown about the throat. She undid it, freed her thin shoulders, and saw herself a bride in low-necked satin.”

There always seems to be a scene like this. In Wharton’s work, when a woman goes into the bathroom to wash her face or look at herself in the mirror, her relationship to herself changes—you are witnessing it—she’s almost talking to herself (“Oh my god, this is happening”), and then she walks back into the room. Within these moments that seem outside of time, I admire Wharton for being able to stay present, to tack it down, so that her readers can embody that place where she is her heartbeat.

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