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Edith Wharton's Steamy, Sexy, Hot-Weather Novella

This novel was the '50 Shades of Gray' of 1916.

Ninety-eight years ago this month, on July 2, 1916, Edith Wharton published the novella Summer, her steamy sidecar to the wintry Ethan Frome. Frome—which had been lauded after its publication five years earlier—dipped its toes into the waters of forbidden love stories with the tale of an older, married man who falls for his young cousin-in-law. Summer took a flying leap into those waters, with a plotline that includes sex outside of wedlock, an unplanned pregnancy, and a truly disturbing relationship between a teenage girl and her guardian. But a full 25 years after Tess of the D’Urbervilles, wild tales of upended sexual norms needed style and finesse—it wasn’t enough for a novel to simply shock its readers.

The first edition of Wharton's unloved novel.

Summer fell flat on its face. The New York Times wrote at the time that “it ranks with the author’s lesser tales,” and called it “far less complex than the majority of Mrs. Wharton’s novels.” Although it eventually enjoyed a critical renaissance, Summer never achieved the level of fame or respect that Ethan Frome did, despite Wharton’s attempts to link them as a New England diptych.

On this day in 1916, when The New Republic reviewed Summer, it didn’t mince words. There’s “an air of falsity about this new invention of hers,” wrote Francis Hackett, one of our first editors. He claims Wharton has a “frigid eye” and calls it an “empty” story. He goes on to deliver a scathing critique of Summer:

The trouble with that Mrs. Wharton rather forces her note. It is not that seduction as a scheme for literary bouleversement is a little out of date. There is no such thing as a catastrophe too trite to be worth reciting. It is only that Mrs. Wharton, always inclined to be sub-human, is much too callous in the uses to which she has put this seduction. …

A good shipwreck, moral or physical, is by no means the least satisfactory of fictional themes, but no author has a right to run up and down the shore line waving a harmless heroine to destruction. What one dislikes in Summer is the undoubted purpose of the author to dish the heroine for the sake of the sensation of dishing her. …

The result is a falsity that is scarcely accountable in an artist so acute.

And the result of such reviews, and nearly one hundred years of being outranked by its cold weather companion piece Ethan Frome, is that one of Wharton’s most explicit novels is left behind on the bookshelf.