ambition, Apex City, Edith Wharton, Faubourg Saint Germain, New York, Old New York, Skog Harbour, Stentorian Hotel, The Custom of the Country, The Custom of the Country 100th anniversary, Undine Spragg, Washington Square
Part Three in a series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country.
Undine Spragg crosses the United States from her hometown in the American Midwest, “Apex City,” a fictional place, and makes her way to the very real, very desirable elite society of Old New York. (I’ve written about Wharton’s use of both fictional and real place names here.) Determined to rise in the world (and she doesn’t see the irony of trying to go higher than the “apex”), she convinces her rich parents early in her career to take her to the Great Lakes, then to a Virginia resort, and then to “Skog Harbour,” Maine.
Each time she thinks she’s about to find the right kind of society, the “real thing,” but at every place she catches a glimpse of something more glamorous: “There was something still better beyond, then—more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her!” After Skog Harbour she vows, “I’ll never try anything again till I try New York.” In New York the Spraggs live in the “Stentorian Hotel,” the perfect place for loud, vulgar people who don’t understand how society is supposed to work. But because Undine is exceptionally beautiful, she gets invited to an intimate dinner in Washington Square.
She thinks, “This time her fears were superfluous: there were going to be no more mistakes and no more follies now! She was going to know the right people at last—she was going to get what she wanted!” Yet eventually, even New York disappoints her, and she leaves America for Europe. Perhaps in the inner circles of the Faubourg Saint Germain in Paris, she’ll find what she really wants. But then again, perhaps not….
Next in this series: Part Four: Undine as the Empress Josephine—“after the Prudhon portrait in the Louvre”
My other posts on The Custom of the Country:
Part One: How I Discovered The Custom of the Country
Part Two: “The greatest knack for finding names”
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.
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