The Custom of the Country turned 100 years old in 2013! My contribution to the celebrations was a series of blog posts on the novel Edith Wharton’s biographer Hermione Lee calls “her greatest book.”
Here’s the link to my page The Custom of the Country at 100, which lists the ten posts in the series, along with my other posts on the novel, plus links to additional resources for studying the novel.
Ruthless and predatory, Edith Wharton’s seductive young heroine Undine Spragg exploits a series of husbands from the American west to New York and France in her search for the ideal combination of social power, money, and material possessions — something “more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her!” Wharton’s criticism of the leisure-class marriage market becomes a brilliant satire on the nature of desire, as the novel links marriage and divorce with selfish ambition and the culture of consumerism.
My Broadview edition provides a critical introduction and appendices that include Wharton’s outline for and correspondence about The Custom of the Country, excerpts from Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella Undine, and passages from works by Charles Darwin, Emma Goldman, Henry James, and Thorstein Veblen, among others.
The Custom of the Country satirizes much that Wharton thought was wrong with the US at the turn of the century: serial divorce, rampant consumerism and materialism, indifference to art and literature, and a proudly provincial attitude toward the traditions of Old New York and European culture. Combined with Sarah Emsley’s incisive and well-researched introduction and notes, this excellent new edition of the novel includes well-chosen readings ranging from selections from Charles Darwin and Thorstein Veblen to excepts from novels by Harold Frederic and Anita Loos that shed light on Wharton’s audacious protagonist, Undine Spragg. The result is a volume that not only restores the social and economic contexts for the novel but sharpens the reader’s appreciation for Wharton’s satire in this book, the most savage—and the most humorous—novel of her long career.
—Donna Campbell, Washington State University
This is an excellent edition of what I consider to be Wharton’s best novel…. If I were teaching this novel, this is the edition I would recommend to my students.
—Robin Peel, University of Plymouth
My essay “Nothing against her, but her Husband & her Conscience’: Jane Austen’s Lady Susan in Edith Wharton’s Old New York” (Persuasions On-Line 33.1 [Winter 2012]) talks about The Custom of the Country as a kind of sequel to Austen’s Lady Susan.