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Edith Wharton: The Custom of the Country

A Wharton fanatic though I am, I avoided The Custom of the Country for a long time because a trusted (and normally trustworthy) source had told me it was a Horrible Book, with Horrible Characters, and had turned her off Wharton for good. A while ago I finally decided that my love of this wonderful writer was entrenched enough for me to hazard the experiment.

My friend turned out to be half right – most of the characters are indeed Horrible; the very few who aren’t have Horrible Things happen to them, and you know better than to root for any of them. A lot of people seem to be disappointed in the novel after reading The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, and I certainly would have been, had I expected more of the same. Even Lily Bart’s tragedy in The House of Mirth is couched in beauty (indeed, you could argue that beauty is the tragedy – but I digress…). The Custom, on the other hand – written in 1913, twelve years after THOM – satirically explores the ugly underside of the earlier novel. The world of The Custom feels oppressively real, even after a hundred years: it is not laugh-out-loud satire, but the kind of satire that dissects its objects with such cold-blooded accuracy that the knife hurts the reader as well. In THOM, the imagination can triumph over the horrors of the real world, however pyrrhic the victory; in TCOTC, the horrors always win in the end. And the central character, Undine Spragg… well, some have been known call her a ‘plucky female role-model who makes the best of adverse circumstances’. I call her simply the Horror of Horrors.

Undine is the daughter of a self-made man from Apex, North Carolina, determined to make her way into the highest echelons of New York society. In pursuit of this goal, she recklessly spends her father’s money – and when there’s no money to be spent, it quite simply must be made somehow, because Undine always gets what she wants.  She begins her career by committing some embarrassing faux pas and looking up to the wrong people – even being briefly engaged to a Viennese riding-master whom she mistakes for an aristocrat – but she adjusts her behaviour and expectations with astonishing facility. It is instinctive with her to become ‘the person she thought her interlocutors expected her to be’, and her dazzling, ‘almost crude’ beauty arrests the attention of Ralph Marvell, the scion of an old, refined family. They marry. But poor Ralph inhabits a world of obscure and rather pretentious artistic visions – throughout the novel, he thinks of writing a novel, without ever quite managing it – and soon realises he cannot mould her and expand her narrow horizons as he’d planned: ‘An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered.’

Nor does Undine’s own disappointment pale in comparison: ‘She had found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous.’ Her world is one of hard, glittering surfaces. ‘Fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative’, she creates her own rules and has no inherent code of conduct beyond selfishness. She has some embarrassing sexual secrets that she doesn’t see as disgraceful so much as inconvenient – but anything can be exploited. Things that would have been Lily Bart’s downfall are, for Undine, just new opportunities. Despite her vampish exterior she is also curiously asexual – it’s all about money, luxury, and social standing, and the feel of an expensive dress against her skin is the ultimate physical pleasure. Undine knows she deserves the best, and what she deserves is always around the corner; there’s always something more to be desired, and if she doesn’t get it, it’s other people’s fault. Like a vampire, she sucks her husband dry of wealth and health alike; and when a husband turns out to be useless, it’s the time-honoured Apex way to get rid of him. There are rich men out there, like the coarse Peter Van Degen; there’s Europe and its aristocrats; and then there’s Elmer Moffatt, a shady speculator mysteriously connected to Undine’s past…

The Custom of the Country has often been called a novel about divorce, but to me, the divorce is more important on the level of plot than theme. It is a pessimistic book, and Undine Spragg a bewildering character: she is part caricature, part emblematic of her social class and new American money, but she doesn’t really ‘stand for’ anything. She just is. You could say that by creating her Wharton is criticising what women become when their sole ambition is and can only be to marry well – men work, women consume – but that would be reductive as well. And Undine’s forceful personality leaves the reader with no real choice. Even as I gnashed my teeth and detested her, I kept wishing she’d get what she wanted so the people around her would finally get a moment’s peace, and when she did, I breathed a sigh of relief. (Until she decided to want something else, of course.) Very few characters in this novel are at all likeable, and those who are can be frustrating in the extreme. One feels sorry for Mr and Mrs Spragg, who are ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of their daughter, and even more sorry for Ralph Marvell, who means well and doesn’t really ask for much. But whenever Ralph tries to do something or put his foot down, he’s doomed to failure from the start: with an apt phrase, Wharton calls it his ‘desultory dabbling with life’. He, his family, his class, and the entire cultured ‘Old New York’ way of life are done for. The Marvells simmer passively in subtle indignation while the noisy, vulgar world passes them by.

Wharton shows us that the Undine Spraggs, Peter Van Degens, and Elmer Moffatts of her world will eventually have their way, but that doesn’t mean she’s on their side. It is not so much a case of these ‘Invaders’ (as the Marvells call them) being vulgar, selfish, mercenary, amoral, and strangely snobbish about their obscure origins; the more ‘aristocratic’, established classes are even more snobbish, and just as selfish, mercenary, and amoral in their own way. Wharton’s bias doesn’t show in her treatment of character, but in the characters’ different attitudes to art. There is one especially illuminating scene towards the end: Undine’s lonely little son Paul is intrigued by old, luxuriously bound books, but when he reaches out for them, he finds the book-cases locked because the books are ‘too valuable to be taken down’.

A world where appreciation of art is all on the surface, and ‘taste’ all about empty display or the crudest forms of pleasure, is a world where writing like Wharton’s ceases to be meaningful, and she knows it. But what is to be done? Ralph Marvell tried to write a book, and got nowhere. Wharton knows she is writing in a dying tradition, but she does it anyway. In the world of The Custom of the Country, an ineffectual gesture of this kind is as it already was in The House of Mirth – the only true measure of integrity.

Final Verdict: For heaven’s sake, don’t wait years to read this brilliant novel like I did! But only read it when you’re in the right mood to cope with unbearably odious characters – and if you’ve never read anything by Wharton before, I recommend you try The House of Mirth as well…

(Several editions available; mine is a Penguin paperback, ISBN: 0143039709.)

14 comments on “Edith Wharton: The Custom of the Country

  1. Jackie
    June 2, 2008

    Would you say Undine is a shallow person? She certainly isn’t likable, but I wonder if she’s not too calculating to be shallow. And what a terrible thought that she’s a mother, definitely a mistake there. Poor little Paul. Actually, one feels sorry for anyone in contact with this person. I’m not sure if I could read a whole book centered on her, though I do like Wharton. I suppose I could read it while feeling morally superior…

  2. marygm
    June 2, 2008

    I’m one of those who has never read anything by Wharton but after this review I’m more than willing to try. What is it that you like so much about her, Leena? Or is it too hard to say in a sentence or so.

  3. rosyb
    June 2, 2008

    Magnificent review, Leena. I don’t care if that sounds OTT. Unbearably odious characters sounds like just the one for me. I have no idea when I’ll be able to read this but I’m determined to and hopefully easily obtained from library.

  4. Moira
    June 3, 2008

    I’ve read all of Edith Wharton’s except this one. I’m a huge fan, too … She was such a clear-eyed observer of the world in which she lived.

    Odious sounds good. I must dig it out.

  5. Leena
    June 7, 2008

    Jackie, that’s something to ponder. I think Undine is indeed calculating and hopelessly shallow – but strangely, she seems to be calculating in an instinctive sort of way. I suppose it’s a bit like the difference between actors who analyse what they do and actors who just do it. Undine just does it, and she doesn’t plan much ahead. When her immediate plans go wrong, she adapts quickly, but she doesn’t seem to realise what she’s doing. And she’s rather dishonest with herself, too.

    Poor little Paul, I agree. I hope you’ll try out this book if you’re at all curious about it… I don’t think you’d be disappointed, though I advise not to read it when in a bad mood, as it does little to promote one’s faith in mankind 😉

    Mary, hard to say what exactly I love about Wharton. Partly it’s her being a clear-eyed observer, as Moira pointed out; that, she really was. Partly it’s the beauty of her writing – sometimes the beauty of a paragraph strikes me so powerfully I can’t get it out of my mind. (Especially in her ghost stories, oddly enough.) And partly it’s the nostalgia – despite its many faults, the world she writes about is one of great beauty… doomed beauty.

  6. Roger Lathbury
    April 12, 2009

    The main idea of this comical, pathetic, satirical romp is that American ambition and success are best expressed not by idealism or by romance but by cold blooded opportunism. In the case of a woman, opportunity means divorce. To move up the social ladder a successful woman must shed husbands or lovers with the cold bloodedness of Frank Cowperwood in Dreiser’s _The Financier._ She is a representative of a new kind of American woman. The main character’s initials are US; she is uncultured and unculturable, all materialism without any sense of value beyond money, an innocent cynic.

    Wharton finds this idea morally horrifying and funny at the same time. It’s thus a disturbing book.

    The plot is an inversion of the romance novel: it’s a divorce story. The central character knows “love” only as self-love; she is always looking in the mirror. Her men turn away from her physically, and, although she is beautiful and is capable of using her appeal to ensnare them, they soon become uninterested in her sexually. She is cold. The monotonous predictability of her shifting attitudes has some savage, Nabokovian touches of self-parody. The last scene, where Undine Spragg holds the triumphant ball–at which she is already starting to find her new husband unsatisfactory–is a perfect send-up since she has (re-)married for money the man she married for selfish reasons years ago. He is now doing roughly the same thing. It all works out perfectly!

  7. Emjay
    June 6, 2010

    I love Wharton’s sharpness, clarity and refusal to sentimentalise her characters or their situations. There is certainly a dark humour at work too and, I agree with Roger, TCOTC, one of my favourites among her writings has plenty of it. Undine is grotesque – and so ludicrous that we can laugh unreservedly at her and that’s why I often read this book when feeling out of sorts – no need to search for reasons for Undine’s disfunctionalism or feel concern for our unsympathetic response – she’s just hideous. Like all baddies, she’s far more entertaining than the virtuous – sure, Lily Bart treads the path of integrity but who could bear to laugh at her? Do try TCOTC if you haven’t done so and I hope you’ll become another fan.

  8. Bruni
    July 22, 2010

    I am not English speaking and I just discovered Wharton with “The Custom of the Country”. I found the novel fascinating. Undine Spragg is the “anti-heroine” with all the possible defaults one can find: she is selfish, egocentric, ambitious, uncultured, has no morals and yet, one is fascinated by her eternal quest to getting what she wants.

    This is a powerful book, despite its characters.

    Thanks for the reviews and comments. I read it after the book, which I loved, and I enjoyed reading them very much.

  9. Joanna
    January 14, 2012

    Undine is a total monster, and part of Wharton’s brilliance is her ability to keep us captivated as Undine constantly plunges in to new and even worse immoral behaviours. Her greatest offence is as a mother, and then as a daughter, and as you read this book, you are mesmerised by the total singlemindness of this “heroine”, and her wilful refusal to see any other point of view. Her beauty is the mechamism by which she can operate, and she must have had the sex appeal of all the 50s Hollywoold stars combined to captivate such a range of men – and yet she is curiously sexless and motivated by a passion for admiration, versus passion per se. You would be horrified if she were to marry in to your family, knowing she destroys all she encounters in order to satisfy her vain and selfish motivations, but you are desperate to know what she is going to do next. She is a force of nature and Wharton acheives the impossible – to make us want to engage with such an unremitting and possibly evil presence.

    It’s brilliant writing.

    I am a huge Wharton fan, I would dearly love to ask her what motivated her desire to create such a protagonist and to ascribe such adventures to her. Anyone who can direct me to scholarly writing on the point, I’d be very grateful. Wharton is also a timeless writer, I have read and reread her book at different stages of my life and always been fascinated by the fact that every time, they are fresh and reveal new aspects and angles of the human condition.

    Do read this book. If only to serve as a warning when you encounter those with Undine-like qualities.

  10. Nancy Zager
    February 15, 2012

    I have the feeling that this book is not as much about Undine as it is about the social structure, the “Custom of the Country”, which produces people like her. Undine is just an extreme example of the type. Her backbiting ‘friends’ are really no different, only more adept at manipulating their worlds and perhaps more willing to live with what they have achieved. Sure she’s horrible, but so is Emma Bovary, and so are Goriot’s daughters. The world is full of selfish people, men as well as women — Peter van Degen, for instance. I think Edith Wharton was satirizing a situation which almost demanded that these folk exist in plenitude. She didn’t like it, and by introducing us to the horrible Undine, she made sure her readers didn’t like it either.

  11. Joan Sutton
    July 4, 2012

    While I haven’t read your full column, because I’m in the middle of The Custom, I’d like to say that I think Undine Spragg is a very realistic study in how evil contemplates and justifies itself. She is absolutely impenetrable and totally amoral. Yet what a convincing creation she is! One would not be surprised to meet people like this and to know that such people exist and are usually extremely successful in society.

  12. Joan Sutton
    July 6, 2012

    Good point, Joanna – Undine is quite sexless since she is a total narcissist. The only thing that slightly moves her is male power, but this only for a moment. It turns out to be just another challenge that her beauty and sinister heartlessness will eventually overcome and destroy. I’ve finished the novel, and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  13. Pingback: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (1913) | Unbridled Enthusiasm

  14. Inga Andersdotter
    March 5, 2022

    I’m sure nobody is reading this by now, but you know how sometimes you just HAVE to leave a comment…. Undine is what happens when women have no way to channel their ambition and drive into any kind of real work. She clearly should have gone into business, should have put her energy into a career instead of marriage and family, but at the time when this novel was set, she couldn’t. Her only option was marriage and social climbing through men. It explains the terrible frustration that always lurks just beneath the surface of this character, the sense that she’s never satisfied with anything, that what she really wants is something not possible for her to get. It’s a cautionary tale about how this frustration can distort and destroy anything good in a personality.

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This entry was posted on June 1, 2008 by in Uncategorized.

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