Where there is a fallen woman, there is usually an apple. Even for the venerable Edith Wharton.
In Wharton's little novel Summer, published exactly 100 years ago, Wharton likes to talk about eating. A lot. She is not particular about the food, itself. But eating--well, eating and its environs take center stage. Eating becomes a place of transaction. And apples, both in their pie and in their unsliced, unsugared, and unbaked forms, show up a lot. But then again, we've got a fallen woman, the Fourth of July, and New England. Seems just about right. But it's Edith Wharton, so let's not get ahead of ourselves. For, you see, she's going to complicate these apples a bit.
Summer, which takes place in New England (only one of two of her works to be so), is lesser known than Ethan Frome (that oft-assigned chestnut of middle school) but it certainly shares similarities; Wharton herself said Summer was her "hot Ethan," and like Ethan, it is about sex and sexuality and desire. And it suggests, perhaps, there's more to life than a hot romance with a ne'er-do-well outsider and a longing to leave one's small hometown. Not much more, she concedes, but something just a little bit more.
Set in the small town of North Dormer in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the story details the coming of age of Charity Royall, bored teenage librarian from "the Mountain," as she is often reminded. In other words, not from town, from a lower class of squalor and lawlessness not spoken of. Rescued as a child from said Mountain, which looms over North Dormer, by the town's premier citizen Lawyer Royall, Charity finds herself aching for something more than either the Mountain or her oppressive small town but with little means to get it or even name it. Enter visiting architect and dreamy city slicker, Lucius Harney.
When she first meets Harney in the library, he is interested in learning more about the architecture of the old houses "about here" (104). Charity knows that there was a book, North Dormer and the Early Townships of Eagle County, a book against which she holds "a special grudge" (105) because it a "limp weakly book" that falls off the shelf or disappears between more substantial volumes. Oh, how she hates the limp and weakly (and the library, for that matter). And she cannot understand "how anyone could have taken the trouble to write a book about North Dormer and its neighbors: Dormer, Hamblin, Creston, and Creston River" (105). Dormer, apparently, is where North Dormer goes "for its apples" (105). She then lists the other claims to fame dismissively: "Creston River, where there used to be a papermill, and its grey walls stood decaying by the stream; and Hamblin, where the first snow always fell" (105). This is hardly an impressive place to Charity. Apples, papermill, snow. Ho hum. Could it get more New England?
But then Harney becomes a border in the Royall household for some time (a plot twist involving an out-of-town cousin), and Charity becomes his tour guide as he traipses through the countryside exploring buildings for a book on colonial houses. What better, then, than a picnic of cheese sandwiches, freshly decanted buttermilk, and wrapped slices of apple pie (135)? Possibly one's slightly dingy pink calico and a sassy sense of triumph at being "a part of the sunlight" (you cannot make this stuff up) (135-6). Charity is a claustrophobic teenager on a mission and Harney is her ticket to excitement. They unpack their basket under a walnut tree and she muses on the fact that just the night before Lawyer Royall had revealed the secret of her childhood on the Mountain to Harney. Embarrassed by her past and a little unsure about how he will take it, Charity demures to the lovely Lucius Harney, and they share a meal. Complete with an apple. Temptation at its core.
Not surprisingly, a storm brews over the Mountain, and the two race off to Hyatt house (137), a home filled with Mountain dwellers, possibly and likely Charity's blood relations, and certainly those who live in abject poverty. And all Charity can think is "this is where I belong" (139). And the Hyatt's offer her something kind--a broken teacup half full of whiskey (140). She cannot escape this past that is passed around as knowledge among these men (Royall and Harney) without her consent and she cannot escape this town or its looming mountain, even with a pretty little picnic.
Later, Harney and Charity go to Nettleton (the bigger neighboring town) for the Fourth of July, and Charity is impressed: the town is overrun with "other excursionists" and while the shops were closed, you can scarcely tell, as "glass doors swinging open on saloons, on restaurants, on drug-stores gushing from every soda-water tap, on fruit and confectionary shops stacked with strawberry cake, cocoanut drops, molasses candy, boxes of caramels, and chewing gum, baskets of sodden strawberries and dangling branches of bananas. Oranges, apples, spotted pears, and dusty raspberries, stale coffee, beer, and sarsaparilla and fried potatoes" (164). This is a community of abundance and commerce and opportunity. As well as an abortionist and her childhood friend, who has essentially become a prostitute. It is also where Harney kisses Charity for the first time, buys her a brooch, and tries to take her to dinner at a fancy restaurant (where they wait is too long and they end up with a clam chowder at another, less elegant restaurant). Literal fireworks ensue. As do more figurative ones with a kiss between Harney and Charity. Only to be sullied when they run into a drunken Lawyer Royall, who is accompanied by prostitutes and calls Charity as much. Not surprisingly, just after Charity's first kiss, the harlot. Nettleton is complicated at best.
And then shortly therafter Wharton gives us a love affair and apples everywhere in a secret home created out of an abandoned house. Let's review. For starters:
"The garden palings had fallen, but the broken gate dangled between its posts, and the path to the house was marked by rose-bushes run wild and hanging their small pale blossoms above the crowding grasses. Slender pilasters and an intricate fan-light framed the opening where the door had hung; and the door itself lay rotting in the grass, with an old apple-tree fallen across it" (182).Oh my. That seems a bit obvious, Edith. An overrun garden, wild and disheveled. A dilapidated farm house with its door torn from its hinges. And there it is: an old apple tree, just aching to be a meeting point for this burgeoning, aching pair. And so, Harney brings Charity some tablets of chocolate inside a little abandoned house. He asks her to kiss him again they way they did at the 4th of July. And there it is, that old apple tree: "The room was empty, and leaning her bicycle against the house Charity clambered up the slope and sat down on a rock under an old apple-tree. The air was perfectly still, and from where she sat she would be able to hear the tinkle of a bicycle-bell a long way down the road...." (188). Can't you just hear the ache in that bell tinkle? And even later, "For a few minutes, in the clear light that is all shadow, fields and woods were outlined with an unreal precision; then the twilight blotted them out, and the little house turned gray and spectral under its wizened apple-branches" (190). Daaaaang, Edith. We get it. Abandoned house. Somewhat Edenic atmosphere. Apple tree looming, coloring how everything is seen. Got it.
And Harney, for all of his faults (and boy he has many), does awaken something in her that is found, most often, when she is alone.
"She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness--the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light--before his first kiss blotted it all out....The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self.... She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use; and more wonderful, at first, than Harney's endearments were the words that were a part of them. She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he made it as bright and open as the summer air." (188-9)He brings her a newfound appreciation for the natural world. He opens up a world of excitement and brightness. And he reminds her, through language, that she is worth something. That love is open and bright.
The night of the first time Charity and Harney have sex, she bicycles home. The family cook is siting at the kitchen table and gets Charity a glass of milk and a plate. She eats pie hungrily. She sees her dress for the upcoming dance in virgin whiteness (192). You know this isn't going to end well.
Harney is, of course, engaged to another woman--the society darling Annabel Balch--and despite Harney's assurances that he will marry her, Charity insists that he do the right thing, uphold his promises, and marry Annabel. Charity doesn't feel well--and well, you can tell where this is going to lead--and it turns out she's pregnant, a diagnosis that costs her five dollars (which she doesn't have and instead she leaves behind her brooch). Melodrama ensues, Charity determines she cannot remain in North Dormer, and decides to return to the Mountain, to reunite with her mother, and to be the person she believes she was destined to be:
"The hours wore on, and she walked more and more slowly, pausing now and then to rest, and to eat a little bread and an apple picked up from the roadside. Her body seemed to grow heavier with every yard of the way, and she wondered how she would be able to carry her child later, if already he laid such a burden on her....She herself had been born as her own baby was going to be born; and whatever her mother's subsequent life had been, she could hardly help remembering the past, and receiving a daughter who was facing the trouble she had known" (218).
Yep, our fallen woman with a code of ethics is munching on apples on her way back to the Mountain. This is her exile from her Eden.
However, she's too late--her alcoholic mother is already dead, and instead Charity buries her mother's body. She is caught. The Mountain is no attractive alternative for Charity. She doesn't, however, want the abject poverty that her mother would have had to raise her in, so she decides to come down from the Mountain again, become a prostitute, and pay someone to raise her child. Enter in Lawyer Royall again (forgot about him, didn't you?) and his proposal.
Lawyer Royall is hardly the upstanding citizen he would like us all to believe. Yep, he's a windbag and a pompous drunk who once tried to force his way into Charity's bedroom after the death of his wife. But Wharton found something compelling about him, if only because Wharton said "of course he's the book" when Bernard Berenson complimented her on the good lawyer.
But Wharton is smarter than the simple apples to apples connection of a fallen woman and the forbidden fruit. She is interested in the transaction. The decision by Charity to marry Royall is just that--a transaction. They go to breakfast and she knows that he knows that she is not a virgin. He tells her to go shopping and gives her money to buy clothes; instead she goes to buy back her blue brooch (but the doctor won't part with it without an even hefiter sum of money, so Charity filches it) (240). Some transactions can be completed openly. Others need to be done furtively.
And Royall saves her from the fate of bearing a child out of wedlock. Her reputation can remain unsullied, as the child will be passed off as Royall's not Harney's. This is business. Not love. This is realism, not romance. Charity was the illegitimate child of an alcoholic. She has been given and has chosen something more for her child. But what a sad transaction. It's better than the Mountain. It's better than prostitution in Dormer.
Charity and Royall are a kind of twins--they are set apart from "the stifling environment" of North Dormer. Both are rebels rejecting village life. Both are village outsiders. They both desire more than North Dormer. They both have fantasies of escape, and neither of them ultimately can. Wharton gives us the gradual exposure of destructive illusions and the reality of a transactional world.
Is the ending a tragedy or a triumph? I am going to go with tragedy, in part because it's packaged as a transactional triumph. Charity raises her child, yes, with little shame. But she has lost the illusion of wrapped apple pies and abandoned houses with withered apple trees. Yes, we saw this coming. Harney was no good. He treats her like a transaction as well. But the price is paid not by Royall or Harney. Nope. It's paid by Charity. How's that for the most depressing, transactional, fallen from grace apple pie you're ever going to eat?
The good news, it's a damn good apple pie.
The Quintessential Apple PieThe sun rose without a cloud, and earlier than usual she was in the kitchen, making cheese sandwiches, decanting buttermilk into a bottle, wrapping up slices of apple pie, and accusing Verena [the cook] of having given away a basket she needed, which had always hung on a hook in the passage. When she came out into the porch, in her pink calico, which had run a little in the washing, but was still bright enough to set off her dark tints, she had such a triumphant sense of being a part of the sunlight and the morning that the last trace of her misery vanished. What did it matter where she came from, or whose child she was, when love was dancing in her veins, and down the road she saw young Harney coming toward her? (Summer 135)
Adapted from Kate McDermott's Art of the Pie
Kate McDermott is a master pie maker. Trust me on this one. And McDermott does not peel her apples, for she finds the peels breakdown in the baking process. Plus, it gives a little interest to the texture of the pie. She's right. Don't doubt her. Also, serve with a slice of cheddar cheese--it's the dairyland thing to do.
1 gorgeous, 9-inch deep-dish pie
For the crust:
2½ cups all-purpose flour unbleached
½ teaspoon salt
14 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter cut into tablespoon-size pieces
½ cup ice water and 1–2 tablespoons more as needed
Additional flour for rolling out dough
For the pie filling:
About 10 cups apples (skin on), quartered and cored
½ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 gratings nutmeg
½ tsp allspice
1-2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice (or 1 Tbsp artisan apple cider)
1 to 2 tablespoons Calvados or apple liqueur, optional
½ cup flour
1 knob butter (about the size of a walnut) cut into small pieces
1-2 tsp sugar
1 egg white plus 1 Tbsp water, beaten with a fork
For the crust:
1. Put all ingredients but the ice water in a large bowl. With clean hands, quickly mash the mixture together, or use a pastry blender with an up and down motion, until the ingredients look like cracker crumbs with lumps the size of peas and almonds. (We used a food processor, pulsing quickly and in short bursts--and the results were grand. McDermott says that you lose about 3-5% tenderness and only a true pie geek will notice.)
2. Sprinkle ice water over the mixture and stir lightly with a fork. Squeeze a handful of dough to see if it holds together. Mix in more water as needed.
3. Divide the dough in half and make two chubby discs about 5 inches across. Wrap the discs separately in plastic wrap, and chill for about an hour.
For the pie filling:
4. Cut the apples into ½-inch thick slices or chunks you can easily fit in your mouth.
5. In a large bowl, mix apples with sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, vinegar, Calvados, and flour. Stir until mixture begins to look sandy.
Putting it all together:
6. Take out the dough discs and let them temper until they feel slightly soft to the touch and easy to roll out. Unwrap one disc and place it on a well-floured board, pastry cloth, parchment paper, or plastic wrap.
7. Sprinkle some flour onto the top of the disc. Thump the disc with your rolling pin several times. Turn it over and thump the other side.
8. Sprinkle more flour onto the top of the dough as needed to keep the pin from sticking, and roll the crust out from the center in all directions. When the dough is 1 to 2 inches larger than your pie pan, brush off the extra flour on both sides.
9. Fold the dough over the top of the pin and lay it in the pie pan carefully. Don’t worry if the crust needs to be patched together. Paint a little water where it needs to be patched and “glue” on the patch piece.
10. Pour in apple mixture. Distribute the pieces of butter evenly on top.
11. Roll out the top crust; place over the filling. Cut at least 5 vents in the top. Trim any dough that hangs over the side of the pie pan. Crimp the edges.
12. Cover pie in plastic wrap and transfer to fridge for about 30 minutes.
13. Meanwhile, heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove wrap from the pie. Brush the top of the pie with the egg white and water mixture. Transfer pie to middle rack in the oven. Cook, 20 minutes.
15. Reduce heat to 375 degrees. Bake, 30 minutes.
16. Sprinkle sugar on pie. Continue cooking until evenly browned on top, and liquid just starts to bubble from vents, about 10 minutes more.
17. Remove and let pie cool for at least an hour.