The Custom of the Country at 100

My Broadview edition of The Custom of the Country

My Broadview edition of The Custom of the Country

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!

Americans in Paris, 1860-1900A 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:

An Invitation to Celebrate 100 Years of The Custom of the Country

Part One: How I Discovered The Custom of the Country

Part Two: “The greatest knack for finding names”—how did Undine get her name?

Part Three: “I’ll never try anything again till I try New York”—Undine’s journey from Apex City to New York, and beyond

Part Four: Undine as the Empress Josephine—“after the Prudhon portrait in the Louvre”

Part Five: Marriage, Divorce, and “diversified elements of misery”—Wharton’s fascination with marriage and divorce in fiction

Part Six: “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”—Undine Spragg, Lorelei Lee, Marilyn Monroe, and Madonna

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

Part Eight: What Edith Wharton Tells Us About The Way We Live Now—The Custom of the Country and Edith Wharton in Context, edited by Laura Rattray

Part Nine: Edith Wharton’s Portrait of a Lady—Mr. Popple’s portraits and Undine’s powers

Part Ten: How Much Did Edith Wharton Revise The Custom of the Country?—revisions between the serialized text published in Scribner’s Magazine and the text of the first edition

Here’s the link to my Pinterest board for The Custom of the Country.

And my Pinterest board for Edith Wharton.

And here’s the post I wrote for the 101st anniversary of the novel in 2014.

My earlier posts about 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.

Listen to Hermione Lee discussing Edith Wharton with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company

A Symposium Celebrating 100 Years of The Custom of the Country:

Centennial Reappraisals Symposium“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:

Discussion Questions by Donna Campbell

Summary and Discussion Questions by Karen Wikander

Articles About The Custom of the Country:

“Edith Wharton Invented Kim Kardashian: To understand the celebrity’s cult of personality, one need only pick up a copy of ‘The Custom of the Country,’” by Sage Mehta, Salon

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.”

The Decoration of Houses

The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton

“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?

21 thoughts on “The Custom of the Country at 100”

  1. I just stumbled onto your blog. It amazes me that you’ve put Austen and Wharton together: I’m a big Austen fan, and several months ago I re-read all the books. Then I read my first Wharton book, The House of Mirth, and fell in love with her. I’m now reading her Glimpses of the Moon, and loving it. I guess I will read The Custom of the Country next, then come back to read your essays.

    I tried Elizabeth Gaskell also, and couldn’t get through Mary Barton; gave up on p. 100. Since I’ve only read 3 or 4 of Wharton’s books, I’ll be happy for awhile.

    I’ll definitely be back!

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    • I’m always happy to hear from other fans of Austen and Wharton — welcome, and thanks for visiting! The Glimpses of the Moon is an excellent choice to read alongside The House of Mirth. It’s as if Wharton’s rewriting Lily’s story from the very beginning — though I won’t talk about the ending here because you haven’t got to it yet…. When you do get to the end, you might be interested in my essay on “The Tragic Action of Mansfield Park,” in which I talk about both The House of Mirth and The Glimpses of the Moon (http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol28no1/emsley.htm).

      North and South is my favourite Gaskell novel, though I do like Mary Barton very much as well. I hope you enjoy reading The Custom of the Country, if you do decide to read that one next. Undine Spragg is endlessly fascinating — many readers dislike her intensely. Let me know what you think.

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      • I LOVE North and South! Wives and Daughters is also excellent and one can’t dismiss Cranford. I think Mary Barton was my least favourite but it was still so great.
        I haven’t read The Custom of the Country yet (it’s sitting on my shelf next to The Buccaneers) but I loved The House of Mirth. When I do read Custom, I will come back here and read through all your posts! What a great idea!

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        • I like Wives and Daughters and Cranford, too. Hope you enjoy The Custom of the Country! Do you know about the TV adaptation that’s in the works? Written by Christopher Hampton and starring Scarlett Johansson as Undine.

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