Edith Wharton called it her “Big Novel,” and her biographer Hermione Lee calls it her “greatest book.” The Custom of the Country was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine between January and November 1913, and the first edition was published in October 1913. To celebrate the 100th anniversary, I wrote a series of ten posts between July and November 2013 about the novel, its heroine (or anti-heroine), and the fascinating changes Wharton made between the serial publication and the first edition. Many thanks to everyone who read these posts and participated in the conversations!
A few years ago, my sister Elizabeth Baxter and I spent a few days comparing the complete serial text and the first edition, word by word, sentence by sentence, as preparation for my Broadview Literary Texts edition of The Custom of the Country. (Partway through our reading, we went to see “Americans in Paris 1860-1900” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and entertained ourselves by looking for portraits that resembled Wharton’s characters. Madame X as Undine Spragg, perhaps?) You can read about what we discovered in Part Ten: How Much Did Edith Wharton Revise The Custom of the Country?
My series of blog posts celebrating the 100th anniversary of The Custom of the Country:
And here’s the post I wrote for the 101st anniversary of the novel in 2014.
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.
Listen to Hermione Lee discussing Edith Wharton with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company
“Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country: Centennial Reappraisals,” August 22-23, 2013, at Liverpool Hope University. The symposium directors are William Blazek and Laura Rattray, and the keynote speakers are Pamela Knights and Gary Totten.
Ideas for Book Club or Classroom Discussion of The Custom of the Country:
Articles About The Custom of the Country:
Mehta writes, “Throughout the book Wharton questions Undine: How can you be so superficial? How can you be so self-involved? How can you be so heartless? How can you marry and divorce so easily?
Undine can, and does; in part because she is so beautiful. Wharton both condemns her character’s choices, and envies them. Not only is her heroine fiction, she is fantasy. Best-selling fantasy. Undine tapped into the desires of women across America. At that time fiction was serialized just as TV is today and the American audience was hooked.”
“The beautiful and the damned,” by Margaret Drabble, The Guardian
Drabble calls The Custom of the Country “one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written. Not all enjoyable novels are great, and not all great novels are enjoyable. This is, supremely, both.”
“Edith Wharton’s Houses,” by Alexandra Lange, The New Yorker
Lange calls The Custom of the Country Wharton’s “architectural masterpiece”: “houses become the way we readers chart Undine’s climb, which is entirely accomplished by strategic marriage. With each husband, she changes city, house type, and architectural style, moving from brownstone to château to hôtel particulier. It is Undine’s misreading of those houses (she assumes big house equals money equals freedom) that leads her into each bad marriage, and pushes Wharton’s plot forward.”
“Insiders and Invaders,” by Eunice De Souza, Mumbai Mirror
“Even though Undine Spragg is a rapacious young woman, I found my heart in my mouth wondering what insensitive thing she would do next as she works her way up, discarding her various husbands on the way.”
“Bride and Conqueror,” by Leonard Cassuto, The Wall Street Journal
“Wharton’s novels of manners are not marriage plots so much as business narratives.”
What would you add to this list of resources for studying and celebrating The Custom of the Country?