The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton

Purchased at Hatcherd's, Piccadilly

Undine Spragg may not be the most selfish central character in English-language fiction, but she certainly deserves a place on the short-list. Since her childhood in Ajax City, somewhere in the American mid-West, her entire life has been devoted to upward social mobility.

Her parents have fed this obsession. Her father, a successful business manipulator in Ajax, has, at Undine’s demand, summered at Great Lakes resorts and then in Virginia and neither of those two spas met the cut for his daughter — he now finds himself ensconced in the Hotel Stentorian in New York City, as Undine trolls for bigger fish. She has known since childhood that the way “up” was to hitch yourself to higher-flying stars but now she is in the City and opportunity blooms:

Undine, as a child, had taken but a lukewarm interest in the diversion of her playmates. Even in the early days when she had lived with her parents in a ragged outskirt of Apex, and hung on the fence with Indiana Frusk, the freckled daughter of the plumber ‘across the way’, she had cared little for dolls or skipping-ropes, and still less for the riotous games in which the loud Indiana played Atalanta to all the boyhood of the quarter. Already Undine’s chief delight was to ‘dress up’ in her mother’s Sunday skirt and ‘play lady’ before the wardrobe mirror. The taste had outlasted childhood, and she still practised the same secret pantomime, gliding in, settling her skirts, swaying her fan, moving her lips in soundless talk and laughter; but lately she had shrunk from everything that reminded her of her baffled social yearnings. Now, however, she could yield without afterthought to the joy of dramatizing her beauty. Within a few days she would be enacting the scene she was now mimicking; and it amused her to see in advance just what impression she would produce on Mrs. Fairford’s guests.

That quote from the early pages of the novel is instructive. Undine knows what she is good at (mainly being beautiful) and knows what she wants (more, more and more is a fair summary). And while she is aware of her weaknesses (they all come down to a lack of exposure) she is more than willing to learn — and learning, for her, is to gain access to the company and experience of people whom she can exploit.

I make no secret of the fact that Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors — one of her other great novels, The House of Mirth, was one of the first posts on this blog and her novella, The Touchstone, followed some months later (links to both posts here). Her best works capture and amalgmate two themes — the transition of New York from “old” to “new” money as the twentieth century dawns and the forces that play on upwardly mobile individuals in that changing society.

The Custom of the Country is arguably the best of her novels, rivalling The Age of Innocence — I think this one would get my vote. Wharton herself was born to old money and married, disastrously, into new. This novel was written in 1913 after Wharton had moved to Europe and, not coincidentally, the year of her divorce from Teddy Wharton. The “custom of the country” of the title has more than one reference in the book — one is the notion of divorce as a needed tactic for those who want to move up the social scale, the other is the idea that the American way to achieve self-interest is to exploit all the social opportunities that are around you.

Undine’s life journey is, perhaps, captured in her strange first name. Those with a classical background will know that she is related to the nereids, the classical sea-nymphs. But that was not what inspired her parents. Rather, as her mother explains, it was the source of the family fortune: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born…it’s from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.”

Undine learned early on that the shortest way to her goals was/is through marriage. Her first, back in Ajax, is to Elmer Moffat; it is quickly to be undone by her father, but will remain a powerful force throughout the book. As we first meet her in New York, she is angling for her second and sets her sights on Ralph Marvel, the symbol of “old” New York money, which in this book comes down to a lot of “old” ethics and not much money, a sign of the times.

Old New York is comfortable and wants no part of the smart New York money, represented by Wall Street. Undine discovers, too late, that she has married into the the wrong class. Ralph takes her to Europe (finally, in her estimation) but all the wrong Europe — dreadful, boring Italian mountain towns with art and history, instead of the glamor of the cafes of Paris (only patronized by Americans) or even, horrors, swinging London.

Undine finds a useful amusement when she returns to New York in the form of an acquaintance with Peter Van Degen, the avatar of “new money” in this book. Societally well-married, and very rich, Van Degen wants nothing more than an affair with Undine. Alas, despite the custom of the country, or perhaps because of it, that is not on in Undine’s complicated moral world. She is willing to follow Peter to Paris and let him subisdize and entertain her, but anything more is not allowed.

Which is where Wharton introduces her own European experience and values — she had been spending more than half her time in Europe for close to a decade before writing this novel. As Charles Bowen, an older American who is a sort of amanuensis in this novel, observes:

To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people who give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

Undine does marry into French tradition and money — and does discover that her reach has finally exceeded her grasp.

I’m sorry to end my thoughts there, but Wharton’s ending deserves not to be spoiled. She has created a marvelous cast of characters (my concentration on Undine is an understatement of what the book has to offer — Ralph Marvel, in particular, is fully developed) who serve her overriding theme.

The Custom of the Country is one of the best novels ever written in English. Wharton develops a number of important themes and succeeds with each of them. It is truly a book that should be treasured.

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17 Responses to “The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton”

  1. Isabel Says:

    Henry James writes about the same people, but his novels are more “interior”, concentrating on the thoughts of people and not much on action.

    It seems that Undine is a more active character than any of Henry James’ ladies.

    I like her energy.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: I agree. James is another one of my favorites — he does focus more on the relationships of his characters and somewhat less on their surroundings. In this book, in particular, Wharton moves closer to him, but even then the world in which her characters live plays a very big part. In many ways, I think her more extroverted approach makes Wharton an easier read than James, but both are excellent.

  3. Mary Says:

    Coincidentally, BBC Radio 4 is currently broadcasting `The Custom of the Country’ as their Classic Serial over three Sundays. Like you I love Edith Wharton and very much enjoyed this book when I read it some years ago. I agree so much with your comment about Wharton’s more `extroverted approach’ compared to James. However I haven’t been tempted to reread this novel as I have with The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and novellas like The Brunner Sisters.
    The reason for this is that I find The Custom of the Country presents its characters in rather broad strokes – not least Undine who is patently a monster ( albeit encouraged by her parents!) and whilst this novel was an excellent read I don’t feel the urge to revisit it. Did Wharton consciously divide her novels between the more humorous satirical ones – including Custom of the Country and Twilight Sleep and the more serious even tragic ones? I have the biography of Wharton on my shelf and haven’t read yet it so maybe that offers some evidence about her writing patterns. Graham Greene for example consciously divided his novels between those he classed as more serious and those he classed as `entertainments’.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I haven’t read anything that suggests Wharton consciously divided her novels or novellas, as Greene did. While it is true that almost all the characters in this novel (including the males) have more “caricature” to them than in some of her other books, I think she does that as part of the context of the overall book. This one, I think, is more an examination of the emptiness of “society” on both sides of the Atlantic and the exaggerated characters are part of that story. It is also worth remembering that Wharton wrote this during the year of the finalization of her own divorce and while contemplating her own “affair”.

  5. john h Says:

    hey kevin, it’s been a while since I visited. I haven’t read that much Wharton–just “The Age of Innocence” and some of the short stories. She’s a wonderful prose stylist.

    It occurs to me based upon your appreciation of Wharton that you would like a couple of other lesser known American writers. The first is Howard Sturgis. He was actually a contemporary of Wharton’s and is only known now for his novel “Belchamber” which NYRB has published in their series. I read that book this year and really enjoyed it. A second American writer who shares a lot of similarities with Wharton is Isabel Bolton. She wrote in the 1940s and 50s. Some years back a book comprising her three best novels came out. It was titled “New York Mosaic.” Well worth checking out.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John: I don’t know either of those authors — will check them out.

  7. Kerry Says:

    I clearly have to read more Wharton. One of my favorite novellas ever is Ethan Frome, so I do like her writing. You’ve made a good case for her longer works. I will try to read something by her this year. She is too good for me to continue to pass by.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I do think Wharton deserves a place in the “classics” of American fiction in particular, so given your interest in books that have withstood the test of time, she deserves reading. Also, she is one of those rare authors who is good at short stories, novellas and full-length novels — most writers who try all lengths seem to be much better at one form rather than all.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating review, you’d already recommended this to me Kevin so it was on my radar, but still very interesting to read about it in detail.

    Great joke there about the name, Undine, not a classical reference at all but merely a hair-waver (and there’s a lot packed in that joke I suspect). Ajax is another classical reference, I wonder if that means anything? Not necessarily of course.

    Pushkin Press have published a Wharton, Glimpses of the Moon, which I’m quite tempted by. Are you familiar with that one at all Kevin?

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I have not read Glimpses of the Moon and I did have it down as a future purchase. Wharton wrote a lot and the minor works are starting to get republished.

  11. whisperinggums Says:

    Great review. I am a huge Wharton fan and have read seven or eight (if you include The Buccaneers which was unfinished I think) of her novels. Her ability to show the nexus between social pressure and personality is pretty unparalleled (though her friend Henry James covers some of the same ground doesn’t he). I read once – was it true or apocryphal – that the ending of The house of mirth was headlined in the newspaper when the last episode (it was first published as a serial I believe) was published! Pretty amazing. Don’t you just love the name Undine Spragg? So evocative, so perfect for her!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    wg: I too am a major Wharton fan — can’t tell you how many I have read, but it is not all. I still have a number of volumes on the shelf and, I’ll admit, I pull one I haven’t read off whenever I feel the need to re-engage with an author who never disappoints me. Since she wrote short stories, novellas and novels (not to mention gardening and architecture) books, there is always something on hand that will fit whatever time is available.

    And yes Undine Spragg is one of the best-named characters in all of literature, even if her character is rather shallow. :-)

  13. whisperinggums Says:

    Yes, I do too – I have one waiting in the wings now. One day I would like to read Hermione Lee’s autobiography of her which is supposed to be good.

    I gave my mother a book of her short stories a few years ago with the idea of borrowing it back one day. I haven’t yet – but will eventually!

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    wg: I’ve trashed the misleading posts. If you go to NYRB Classics and check out Edith Wharton you will find a link to the book of New York short stories which I think is excellent.

  15. whisperinggums Says:

    Thanks, will do …

  16. Nicola Says:

    Good review. I must read this novel. Wharton is particularly good on conspicuous consumption in The House of Mirth.

  17. sema4dogz Says:

    I have come very late in life to Edith Wharton, but by virtue of my new Kindle I am swimming in her , so lovely . I was greatly taken by the pathos and inexorable pace of House Of Mirth , but my favourite to date has to be Custom of the Country. The social progress of the egregious Undine Spragg ( Spragg!) is masterfully told – to my mind , better than James, and more honest in it’s depiction of the delicate manoueverings around intimate relations – or lack of them as the case may be .
    As Nicola above says, Wharton is wonderful on conspicous consupmption and prompted me to revisit Thorstein Weblen’s masterpiece of sociologlical thought on this.

    A minor point , but in Patrick MCabe’s review Undine’s home town of Apex is referred to as Ajax ….. Doesn’t really matter I guess, except that I don’t believe Apex is a name carelessly chosen.

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