Today is the 101st anniversary of the publication of Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country. She called it her “Big Novel,” and her biographer Hermione Lee calls it her “greatest book.”
Last year, to celebrate the 100th anniversary, I wrote a series of ten blog posts about the novel, its unforgettable (anti-)heroine Undine Spragg, and the changes Wharton made to the text between the version that was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine and the publication of the first edition on October 18, 1913.
On my page “The Custom of the Country at 100,” you can find links to all the posts in my series, plus links to several other essays on The Custom of the Country published elsewhere on the web – including one by Margaret Drabble, who calls the novel “one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written.” (And of course you can find out more about the edition of the novel that I prepared for the Broadview Literary Texts series.)
I wrote, for example, about how my interest in local history, and a trip to the Halifax Citadel, led to my discovery of this fantastic novel. I talked about the source of Undine’s unusual name, and traced connections from Undine to Lorelei Lee, Marilyn Monroe, and Madonna (“diamonds are a girl’s best friend”). I also explored Wharton’s influence on Candace Bushnell and Julian Fellowes. And there are several more posts – I hope you enjoy reading (or rereading) them.
Undine’s restless ambition is endlessly fascinating. I’ve always thought the best line in the novel is this one: “There was something still better beyond, then – more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her!” She’s never, ever satisfied, no matter how much money or power she has.
It was great to hear the news last week that Scarlett Johansson will star as Undine in a new television adaptation of the novel. I do think being a movie star might well be “the one part [Undine] was really made for” (to quote a line from the novel out of context).
I had such a great time putting together this celebration of The Custom of the Country last year that I decided to do something similar to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mansfield Park – and we all know how that turned out! Instead of writing ten posts myself, I’m hosting a huge party for Mansfield Park, and now there are more than forty contributors writing guest posts. (Here’s your “Invitation to Mansfield Park,” for anyone who hasn’t received it yet.) I think Undine Spragg would be quite jealous that Fanny Price’s party is bigger than hers was. But then, Undine was celebrating only 100 years last year, not 200.
Happy 101st birthday to Undine Spragg and The Custom of the Country!