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Part Two in a series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country.

Arthur Rackham's cover for a 1909 edition of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's Undine

Arthur Rackham’s cover for a 1909 edition of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine

In a wonderful conversation between Undine Spragg’s future husband Ralph Marvell and her mother, Mrs. Spragg, Ralph learns the source of Undine’s beautiful first name. He has been thinking of her as a water-spirit, hearing “echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain” (the quotation is from Montaigne’s Essays, and in the 19th Century the story of Undine the water-spirit was retold in a book by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and later in two operas, with music by E.T.A. Hoffman and Albert Lortzing).

But when he says the name is “‘a wonderful find’” and asks, “‘how could you tell it would be such a fit?’” Mrs. Spragg disappoints him with her explanation: “‘Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born.’” Undine is named for a product, a brand. Ralph is “struck and silent.” No literary reference is intended, though Mrs. Spragg claims her husband is “‘quite a scholar’”—the name is “‘from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping,’” she adds.

Title page for UndineWhat Mrs. Spragg says of her husband is true of Edith Wharton as well: both have “‘the greatest knack for finding names.’” I love the name Wharton chose for the heroine of this novel: “Undine Spragg” is such a great combination of beautiful and harsh sounds (much like “Lily Bart” in The House of Mirth). It’s no coincidence that her initials, U.S., also stand for “United States.” Neither is it a coincidence that she’s from a place called Apex, which makes her “U.S. of A.”

What are some of your favourite names among Wharton’s characters? One of my other favourites from this novel is Indiana Frusk, and in The Age of Innocence I like Mrs. Manson Mingott (the former Catherine Spicer). Then there’s Eldorada Tooker in The Glimpses of the Moon.

For further reading:

Undine, or, the Water Spirit; and Sintram and his Companions, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, trans. Thomas Tracy (Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1855). (There are also excerpts from Undine, or, the Water Spirit in the appendices in my Broadview edition of The Custom of the Country).

Next in this series: Part Three: “I’ll never try anything again till I try New York”—Undine’s journey from Apex City to New York, and beyond

My other posts on The Custom of the Country:

Part One: How I Discovered 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.