How I hate everything.
The story behind Summer
In 1993, I saw John Madden’s film adaptation of the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Wanting to read the original book on which the film was based, I was struck in the novel’s introduction by the reference to a companion novel – Summer – that Wharton had written some years afterwards.
I sought out the novel and was immediately struck by its story and characters. As in Ethan Frome, the novel concerned a love triangle but whereas in the first novel where Ethan was the centre, caught between his wife Zeena and her cousin Maddie, in Summer, Wharton explored the awakening of Charity, a young girl and the two men in her life, Royall her guardian and the young visitor to their tiny village, Lucius Harney.
Rather than adapt the whole story, I became much more interested in whether I could tell the events of the novel purely through its three main characters and by doing so, create a dynamic and emotional piece of work.
Starting work on the adaptation in 2005 and following many drafts and workshops over several years with a terrific group of actors – Lucy Cudden, Andrew Macbean, and Benjamin Wilkin – Summer finally became a draft ready for production. It received its World Premiere at the Jack Studio Theatre, London in May 2012. I was delighted with the production of my first play and in particular, of the three incredible actors – Joanne Gale, Francis Adams, and Jeffrey Mundell – who were cast to portray Charity, Royall, and Harney.
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.