anti-heroine, books, Candace Bushnell, Christopher Hampton, Downton Abbey, Edith Wharton, film adaptations, Janey Wilcox, Julian Fellowes, literature, Madonna, Paul Newman, Robert DeNiro, Sally Field, The Custom of the Country, The Custom of the Country 100th anniversary, Trading Up, Uma Thurman, Undine Spragg
Part Seven in a series celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country.
Just as there’s a direct line from Wharton’s Undine Spragg to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” there’s a direct line from Undine to the heroine of Candace Bushnell’s 2003 novel Trading Up, Janey Wilcox. Janey is beautiful, ambitious, and determined to get money and status in New York through trading one man for another. Her husband Selden (shades of Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth), thinks at one point that “Ever since they had returned from their honeymoon, she’d been attacking New York with the zeal of a mountain climber determined to reach the highest summit, with him, it seemed, relegated to a Sherpa in cummerbund and black tie.”
Bushnell acknowledges the link to Wharton when Janey tells Selden The Custom of the Country should be a movie. She’s been trying to persuade her former lover Comstock Dibble, head of Parador Pictures, that he’s the right man to make it: “‘It’s never been done before and he’d be good at it.’” I agree with her that it would make a great movie. I would love to see Undine as a film star—it just might be “the one part she was really made for” (of course I’m quoting her thoughts from the novel out of context here, but the line fits my own purpose so well!).
At one point there were plans for a film adaptation, written and directed by Christopher Hampton, but the film never materialized. In 1995, Entertainment Weekly advertized the adaptation: “Midwestern beauty Undine Spragg (Uma Thurman) and her parents (Sally Field, Paul Newman) move to turn-of-the-century New York City to take society by storm. But will a youthful indiscretion—namely her ex-husband (Robert De Niro)—spoil Undine’s plans?”
While there is as yet no film version of The Custom of the Country, Wharton’s “Big Novel” has influenced Julian Fellowes and the creation of Downton Abbey, as well as Candace Bushnell and her New York heroines. Fellowes says that after discovering The House of Mirth, “I moved on from Lily Bart to The Custom of the Country and it is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme and immediate way. I think it’s a remarkable piece of writing. In Undine Spragg, Wharton has created an anti-heroine absolutely in the same rank as Becky Sharp, Scarlet O’Hara, or Lizzy Eustace. Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton’s writing, you are on her side. That’s what’s so extraordinary about the book…. All of this was a tremendous inspiration to me. I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something. Because of Edith Wharton and the old saying ‘write what you know,’ I decided to write what I knew, not to try and find a more interesting story than my own but to write about my own past and the world I’d grown up in.”
What do you think of the connections between Wharton’s novels and Downton Abbey? Do you see Undine’s influence on the series, and on Bushnell’s heroines (and anti-heroines)?
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.