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.