A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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.)