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The Custom of the Country

My edition of the novel

I’ve been thinking recently about Edith Wharton’s use of place names in The Custom of the Country. It’s interesting that so many of the American place names she refers to are fictional, whereas most of the places in France are real. Wharton was in the process of moving to France during the years she worked on the novel, which makes me wonder if her increasing affection for France and her attempts to distance herself from her American life prompted her to fictionalize—and satirize—American places while implying that there was something more “real” about France. Her heroine (or anti-heroine) Undine Spragg and her parents live in a succession of fictional American hotels, such as the Stentorian, the Malibran, the Mealey House, and the Persimmon House, but then Wharton refers to Le Royal in Nice, which is a real hotel.

She invents place names in the United States—most famously, Undine’s hometown, “Apex City,” which is in an unnamed western state, but also Potash Springs and Deposit (both apparently in Virginia)—but then she refers to several real places in France: Compeigne, Pau, Chantilly, Beaulieu, Beaune, Dijon, Cimiez, Cherbourg. Then there’s the de Chelles family estate in Saint Désert, which sounds as if it could almost be a name invented especially for the dreary life that Undine encounters among her husband’s relatives, in a “desert” devoid of the kind of lively social life she expects—but of course, it’s a region in France, even though the family and their estate are invented.