I had so much fun during the discussion that followed my paper on Austen and Wharton at the JASNA AGM in New York last weekend (“‘Nothing against her, but her Husband & her Conscience’: Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in Edith Wharton’s Old New York”). JASNA audiences know Austen’s novels so well, and my audience knew Wharton’s novels well, too. Many thanks to everyone who attended. For those of you who are reading The Custom of the Country for the first time, please let me know what you think of it, and of Undine Spragg.
I found our conversation about the way Lady Susan and Undine neglect their children particularly interesting. Even though Undine has custody of her son Paul at the end of The Custom of the Country, she still ignores him as much as ever, and Wharton’s focus on Paul’s perspective for most of the final chapter makes for a heartbreaking ending. His mother is about to host a party, and he wanders around the new hôtel “overlooking one of the new quarters of Paris” that is one of his parents’ new homes (the other is “5009 Fifth Avenue, which is an exact copy of the Pitti Palace, Florence”).
Wharton writes that “The library attracted him most: there were rows and rows of books, bound in dim browns and golds, and old faded reds as rich as velvet: they all looked as if they might have had stories in them as splendid as their bindings. But the book cases were closed with gilt trellising, and when Paul reached up to open one, a servant told him that Mr. Moffatt’s secretary kept them locked because the books were too valuable to be taken down. This seemed to make the library as strange as the rest of the house….”
Paul continues on to the ballroom, the drawing rooms, and the dining room, but then “strayed back into the library. The habit of solitude had given him a passion for the printed page, and if he could have found a book anywhere — any kind of a book — he would have forgotten the long hours and the empty house. But the tables in the library held only massive unused inkstands and immense immaculate blotters: not a single volume had slipped its golden prison.” At this point, his loneliness is “overwhelming.” It’s a vision of hell: a library in which the books can never be read, and no one ever writes.