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

One of the highlights of Undine’s earlier career in New York is a fancy dress ball: “The ball was as brilliant as she had hoped, and her own part in it as thrilling as a page from one of the ‘society novels’ with which she had cheated the monotony of Apex days. She had no time for reading now: every hour was packed with what she would have called life, and the intensity of her sensations culminated on that triumphant evening.”

She dresses “as the Empress Josephine, after the Prudhon portrait in the Louvre”—you can see the painting here— and the reason the evening is triumphant is that all the women admire her gown but the men don’t notice it, because they’re only admiring her: “What could be more delightful than to feel that, while all the women envied her dress, the men did not so much look at it? Their admiration was all for herself, and her beauty deepened under it as flowers take a warmer colour in the rays of sunset.” Her thoughts about herself here are clearly influenced by the flowery language of those “society novels” she used to read, even though she doesn’t read anything anymore.

The ball takes place not long before Undine’s divorce from her New York husband, Ralph Marvell—and in fact, the dress is paid for by Peter Van Degen, with whom she soon begins an affair. Given that Undine doesn’t read, and that her interest in art and culture is very limited, it’s surprising that she as a character is familiar with Pierre-Paul Prud’hon’s portrait of the Empress Josephine. But Wharton chose to connect this painting with Undine for good reasons.

The painting was completed the year before Napoleon had his marriage to Josephine annulled. That had been her second marriage: her previous husband (Alexandre vicomte de Beauharnais) had been guillotined in 1794. Josephine’s first husband was embarrassed by her “provincial manners”—so that’s one link with Undine of Apex City, who has beauty but not sophistication. One of Napoleon’s objections to his marriage with Josephine was her extravagant spending, and Undine also likes to spend money lavishly, whether it belongs to her father, one of her husbands, or even a man with whom she is not yet on intimate terms.

She confesses her worry about money—Van Degen “had just laughed away, in bluff brotherly fashion, the gnawing thought of the fancy dress, had assured her he’d give a ball himself rather than miss seeing her wear it, and had added: ‘oh, hang waiting for the bill—won’t a couple of thou’ make it all right?’ in a tone that showed what a small matter money was to any one who took the larger view of life.” Undine uses her beauty and powers of seduction to persuade men to spend money on her, a habit that’s part of the “custom of the country” Wharton criticizes.

Next in this series: Part Five: Marriage, Divorce, and “diversified elements of misery”—Wharton’s fascination with marriage and divorce in fiction

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”

Part Three: “I’ll never try anything again till I try New York”

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.