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

Undine Spragg is never happy in her marriages, though she continues to be optimistic that she’ll eventually find the right man. The Custom of the Country is a novel of serial marriage, and serial divorce. Like Lorelei Lee, the heroine of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) by Anita Loos, Undine thinks that overall, American men are better than “French gentlemen,” although for a while, Paris does seem “devine” to both women. There are striking parallels between Lorelei and Undine, as Lorelei similarly travels from one city to the next, and from America to Europe, looking for happiness in status and material possessions.

Marilyn Monroe famously starred as Lorelei, the material girl living in a material world, for whom “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (If you follow the link and watch the clip from the song, tell me if the  “decorative” women on the chandelier make you think of George Saunders’s story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” And if you haven’t read the story yet — I recommend it highly.)

In Loos’s novel, Lorelei concludes: “So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever” (Chapter 4).

Wharton praised Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as “the great American Novel,” and her biographer R.W.B. Lewis says she was pleased to see elements of Undine’s character in Loos’s heroine. I wonder what she would think of the progression from Lorelei to Marilyn Monroe to Madonna’s “Material Girl” video.

For further reading:

Edith Wharton: A Biography, by R.W.B. Lewis (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos (New York: Penguin, 1998). (Chapter 4 of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “Paris is Devine,” also appears in the appendices in my Broadview edition of The Custom of the Country.)

Next in this series: Part Seven: “Trading Up”: Wharton’s Influence on Candace Bushnell and Julian Fellowes—Undine as a film star?

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”

Part Four: Undine Spragg as the Empress Josephine

Part Five: Marriage, Divorce, and “diversified elements of misery”

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.