ambition, Becky Sharp, Broadview Press, Edith Wharton, Emma, Emma Woodhouse, Halifax Citadel, Halifax Town Clock, Helen Pinkerton, Jane Austen, Library of America, Lily Bart, Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford, Old New York, Raymond de Chelles, The Custom of the Country, The Custom of the Country 100th anniversary, The House of Mirth, tradition, Undine Spragg, Vanity Fair
Part One in a series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country.
It was my interest in Nova Scotia history that led me to a discovery of Edith Wharton and her fiction. Not because Wharton had any interest in Nova Scotia, but because the poet Helen Pinkerton visited my family in Halifax when I was eighteen, and I took her to see the Halifax Citadel. Her thank you gift to me, for which I will always be grateful, was the Library of America edition of Wharton’s novels The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country.
I read The House of Mirth first, and when I later read The Custom of the Country, I was struck by the contrast between the plot of the former, with Lily Bart’s decline, and that of the latter, with the rise of Undine Spragg. I loved Wharton’s satire and her precise language. I loved the energy of her characters, especially the bravado of the beautiful Midwestern heroine Undine’s quest for the best of everything, the humour and pathos of her parents’ objections to financing that quest, and the energetic resistance of her French husband Raymond de Chelles to her selfish disregard for family and tradition.
Undine is determined to improve her social status, and she’s always certain that success is just around the next corner. In New York, early in her career, her eyes are bright and her cheeks glow when she receives a dinner invitation that offers her access to the elite circle of the Marvell and Dagonet families: “She was going to know the right people at last—she was going to get what she wanted!” Of course, if she wants to make a good impression at the dinner, she’ll need a new dress, and her mother moans that Undine shouldn’t ask her father for more clothes “‘right on top of those last bills’”—just as Mrs. Spragg wailed, in the first line of the novel, “‘Undine Spragg—how can you?’” And Mr. Spragg objects, “‘I ain’t on top of those last bills yet—I’m way down under them.’” Poor Mr. and Mrs. Spragg. Undine can and she will.
Much later in the novel, when Raymond learns Undine has tried to sell his family’s Boucher tapestries to finance her glittering social life, he lashes out at her: “‘you’re all alike,’ he exclaimed, ‘every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in—if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about—you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding onto what we have—and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us!”
These are just a few examples of the things I found most compelling about The Custom of the Country when I first read it. I wanted to see how far Undine would go, and how selfishness would distort her ambitions. I was interested in Wharton’s perspective on Old New York society and the “Invaders” determined to conquer that society with new money. I watched the outsider trying to “make it” in New York and Paris, and found myself alternately touched by her desire to belong, and horrified at her methods. I was sympathetic to Raymond’s desire to preserve tradition, and at the same time sympathetic to Undine’s feelings of suffocation when the de Chelles family refuses to entertain the smallest change to their rigid routines.
The novel continues to fascinate me, more than twenty years after I first read it, and five years after I edited it for Broadview Press. Undine behaves badly, but is all ambition therefore bad? I’m interested in parallels between her character and some of Jane Austen’s best-known characters: Emma Woodhouse of Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich,” and Mary Crawford of Mansfield Park, with her belief that “‘a large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.” And then there’s Austen’s Lady Susan, preoccupied, like Undine, with her plans to “marry up.” I’ve written in some detail about connections between The Custom of the Country and Austen’s novels in an essay for Persuasions On-Line.
Like Emma, Miss Crawford, Lady Susan—and Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair—Undine believes that “If only every one would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable.” Here again, Wharton is amusing and provocative, as it’s easy to laugh at this sentiment, agree with it—and at the same time see the danger of adopting it as a philosophy.
Next in this series: Part Two: “The greatest knack for finding names”—how did Undine get her name?
My other posts on The Custom of the Country:
That moment when you’re revising obsessively and it feels like “an attack of scrupulosis”…: On revising The Custom of the Country
Happy 100th Anniversary to Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country! The first installment of the novel was published in Scribner’s Magazine in January 1913.
Writing with “dogged obstinacy”: In the summer of 1911, Edith Wharton was “digging away” at her “Big Novel,” The Custom of the Country, wondering if “dogged obstinacy” could “replace freedom & inspiration.”
“The books were too valuable to be taken down”: On Undine Spragg’s treatment of her son Paul in the last chapter of The Custom of the Country, and Paul’s experience of nightmarish library in which the books can never be read, and no one ever writes.
French Fact and American Fiction: Wharton’s use of place names in The Custom of the Country.