The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
By Nava Atlas | On January 22, 2018 | Updated December 7, 2020 | Comments (0)
The Custom of the Country is a 1913 novel by Edith Wharton. Undine Spragg, its heroine, is an ambitious young woman from the American midwest. Raised in the fictional town of Apex, she’s the product of a family who has risen to a certain social status through sketchy financial dealings.
Undine strives to rise in New York City society through a succession of marriages and divorces that ultimately lead to her undoing.
Undine Spragg has often been compared to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, minus any of the charm. It has occasionally been supposed whether Edith Wharton, though a woman herself, was a misogyynist.
An irredeemable heroine?
Though The Custom of the Country has been more favorably viewed through the long lens of literary history, its main character, like so many other of Wharton’s fictional females, was devoid of many — or any — redeeming qualities.
Though Wharton was considered a significant literary figure from the time her first novel, The House of Mirth (1905), was published, reviewers occasionally expressed their disappointment at her subjects and characters, even as they admired her talent.
Here is a contemporary (2016) review and analysis by Kate Macdonald of The Custom of the Country (reprinted in part and by permission):
The Custom of the Country: An analysis
This analyisis was contributed by Kate McDonald. Reprinted by permission. Edith Wharton’s magnificent and chilling novel The Custom of the Country (1913) is the story of a classic American social climber. I hesitate to call Undine Spragg the heroine, since she is a horrible person, and a monster of ambition and selfishness.
But she is undeniably the protagonist in this novel about the invasion of the American upper classes by money, and about the brash new ways of the stock market, of business methods only just on the right side of the law, and of the appalling economic realities of life that drive a man of good family to have to work in an office.
Undine Spragg only exists to enjoy herself, which means that she lives off the work of her father, and the men she marries. And my goodness, she marries.
Serial marriage is quite usual behavior where she comes from, the invented town of Apex, somewhere in the midwest, and her ideas about the rightness of Apex morality clash resolutely with the refined ways of old money New York and the French aristocracy.
Undine’s problem is that she doesn’t realize that divorce is a disgrace, and spells the end of social life for any decent woman in those societies into which she eventually marries.
She can’t see the difficulty in divorcing a difficult or disappointing husband to make a better deal for herself elsewhere. She certainly won’t become anyone’s mistress, which would be the French solution, unless there is no alternative.
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See also: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
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The problem for the upper class New York Marvell family, and of the family of the Marquis de Chelles, into which she does marry, is that Undine refuses to consider anyone’s needs as more important than her own, and she needs money, all the time.
She resents economy as a personal insult, and cannot understand why her husband will not sell the tapestries given to his ancestor by the King, when she needs money for a season in Paris.
Undine works so hard in this novel, but not with her hands. She is learning all the time, but her tragedy is that almost until the end of her story (which ends triumphantly for her) she is only able to learn what she thinks she needs to know, and she cannot see beyond her own needs.
Her reason for learning new ways of behaving is to enter fashionable society, and she must work at breaking into successive layers of society by understanding their values and adapting her own to match. She works to learn the rules constantly, and then follows them skillfully, shedding her old self to fit in.
But her way is so plodding, she cannot see beyond the next step because she is simply incapable of thinking beyond her own situation.
In Apex she gets into a spot of bother from which her father’s money rescues her, and decides she has to leave town. She’s already sampled life out of town by dragging her parents to hotels, further and further east, but nothing came of these summer trips except an increasing awareness of how little there was for her in Apex, and how much there was waiting for her in New York.
So the Spragg family go to New York, and for two years Undine and her mother work hard hanging around on the fringes of New York society as seen in the illustrated magazines, which is their only frame of reference.
At last there is a breakthrough: Undine meets Ralph Marvell at a party, and his sister writes to Mrs Spragg the next day asking if Undine may be allowed to come to dinner. Undine thinks this is bizarre: why should her mother have any say in where she goes and who she meets?
Again, she simply doesn’t know about refined New York ideas about a girl being protected and in chaperonage until marriage. Her Apex behavior is considered vulgar and too free in New York: her required New York manners would be considered ridiculously old-fashioned and prim in Apex.
In so many ways, this is a novel of two worlds colliding. At the dinner Undine encounters more peculiar behavior: she is asked what pictures she has seen or which books she read, and she has no idea why this should be worth talking about.
Her remarks about divorce cause an unexpected hush, and Undine goes home having learned a bit more about the half-lights and half-tones by which Ralph’s world is illuminated. She also learns that the really smart people, so she thinks, rent a box at the opera.
She tells her father to rent one for her, and he overdoes things and rents one for the whole season, because nothing is too good for his Undine, and anything is worth doing to keep that look of stormy aggression off her face when she hasn’t got her own way.
Marooned in the box, where Undine looks at her best, Ralph comes to see her, and she is very willing to be rescued by a real gentleman from the déclassé hotel society that she now realizes is beneath her. They marry, and her social climbing begins: working incessantly to learn the custom of each new country, or social level, that she wants to invade.
I feel for the men in this novel because they earn all the money, working hard for no thanks, and all struggle to supply Undine’s wants.
She has not married wisely in Ralph, because although his family is old and distinguished, he is poor and not at all cut out for working in an office, though he does this diligently and not very effectively after their marriage. Undine is bored by him, and longs only for parties and balls. She spends his income and her father’s allowance as fast as it can be earned …
Undine’s rise in society, and also her inability to learn unaided and her lack of any sense of things greater than herself, are rather caustic symbols of the new rich in American society at the turn of the century.
Edith Wharton’s own family was old rich, and even though she herself divorced, had a lover, and lived a raffish life in Paris, far away from Washington Square, she writes about the American old rich with as much pride and affection as she describes Undine and her risqué friends with loathing.
Read the rest of this analysis on KateMacdonald.net.
A 1913 review of The Custom of the Country
When The Custom of the Country first appeared in print in 1913, reviewers seemed united in their belief that despite the revolting characters, particularly Undine, this was the work of an exceedingly talented writer.
The San Francisco Examiner, for example, observed: “… her work would have been better if she could have made her Undine Spragg a little more likable, even if only on occasions, and to a slight extent,” and yet that “it remains to note that it is a powerful story of compelling interest ad a fine study of modern social life.”
Here is a typical mixed review in full of The Custom of the Country that appeared when the novel was published in 1913:
From the original Louisville Courier-Journal review of The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, November 1913: Despite its many excellent points, Mrs. Wharton’s new novel, The Custom of the Country, makes one again regret that a writer of such brilliance, such insight, such worldly wisdom, should waste time on some of the material she employs.
In the America of today — bad as it is, in perhaps acute and ugly stages of transition — her pen could surely find a more significant field for analysis, could discover social processes far more deserving of notation.
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See also: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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Even as Lily Bart of The House of Mirth was a heroine descending the social stairs, so Undine Spragg of this present novel is that pitiable creature, a social climber, making her way up society’s beanstalk.
A direct route to Paradise seemed that ladder when viewed from Undine’s place of upbringing, town called, ironically, Apex. Undine’s history and character is interpreted by Mrs. Wharton as the result of “the custom of the country” which develops insatiable egotism in its vain, beautiful women.
Undine Spragg’s beauty and ambition were abetted to the utmost by the money of her excellently portrayed father, Abner Spragg, lift her out of her place of birth and its crude bourgeoisie, into New York’s sacred circles of old families, and eventually into an aristocratic French tribe.
With her trained powers of analysis and presentation, Mrs. Wharton deftly portrays the various social groups of Undine’s remarkable transit. The Apex crowd, the dignified New York circle, the French family with its traditional solidarity and ideals.
A flawless realism depicts Undine Spragg with all her ineradicable crudities, her vanity, egotism, feeling for beauty of a material order. Her progress — or descent — is logical in a fearfully veracious manner.
In fact, with the truth of the novel and its technical excellence, perhaps no fault at all may be found. But thus all the more glaring is the disparity between such successful presentation and the thing portrayed.
Certainly the vain, crude, self-indulgent Udine Spragg and those like her, and their foolish, gullible fathers, their assortment of husbands abound in America today.
But after all, are their vulgar careers worth 600 pages from the pen of one of the country’s most gifted fiction writers? To beg the question, perhaps so. There may be a mode of treating such social phenomena, true types of the epoch, of employing them in a significant story.
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The Custom of the Country on Amazon *
Edith Wharton’s books on Bookshop.org*
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With a far worse specimen, Thackeray immortalized an unscrupulous social adventuress. Ah, but in Becky Sharp (of Vanity Fair) and in the author’s point of view — his creative mood, so to speak — there were advantages.
Becky, though devilish, could be so interesting. And Thackeray saw her in that light of true, if terrible satire, of exquisite irony which lifts a portrayal to the plane of notable art.
Mrs. Wharton’s irony savors rather of sarcasm. Her portrayal seldom achieves that fine satire, that humor of pathos distinguishing momentous novels.
More about The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
- Reading Guide to The Custom of the Country
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Read online at Project Gutenberg
- Audio version on Librivox
- Contemporary review on Vulpes Libris
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