A prolific writer, and regarded as one America’s greatest ever authors, Edith Wharton is perhaps best known for her novels of New York society. The Custom of the Country is undoubtedly a biting satire on that society which Wharton understood so very well. Here Wharton explores the society of old New York families and the emerging nouveau riche.
“She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability.”
Undine Spragg – is a quite marvellous anti-heroine, her actions cannot help but appal and confound the reader. More than a hundred years after this novel was written, it is possible to see her actions, even outside the context of the times, as utterly reprehensible. Undine Spragg is the only, spoiled daughter of a self-made man. Having arrived in New York from the (fictional) city of Apex, where some business dealings of an unspecified nature have brought Mr Abner Spragg a small fortune, the Spraggs are living in a plush hotel suite. Here, the beautiful, enormously ambitious but socially naïve Undine contrives to bring herself to the height of New York society.
“She had found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous; that she was in the case of those who have cast in their lot with a fallen cause, or—to use an analogy more within her range—who have hired an opera box on the wrong night.”
As Undine is courted by Ralph Marvell the son of a respectable old New York family, who are no longer as wealthy as they once were, she runs into a face from the past. It is clear from the beginning that there is a secret to Undine’s life before she arrived in New York, a secret tied up with Apex and Elmer Moffat (it’s a secret that I defy the modern reader not to guess immediately – but that really doesn’t matter). Ralph’s family, very much represent the old order of New York society, it is a society Undine wants to be a part of, but she really doesn’t understand its rules, nor does she understand that such families, do not always have the large sums of money she imagines they must have. Nervous, that that which she wishes to keep hidden is revealed, Undine ensures her socially brilliant marriage takes place as soon as possible. It is a marriage however, that her father will have to support financially. Honeymooning in Europe – and although still very much in love with the beauty he married – Ralph is quick to see and come to dread his wife’s changing moods and sudden caprices.
“The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing.”
As Ralph soon finds out, Undine is terrifyingly extravagant, with very clear intractable ideas of what she wants, and little idea of the value of money and the realities of financial constraints. Ralph is forced to enter the ungentlemanly world of business in order to support his wife, whose father has encountered some financial lows. Undine is devastated by the interruption to her life a pregnancy brings, and loathes her home because it is not close enough to Fifth Avenue. Undine almost totally rejects her little son Paul, who is adored by his fond father. Within four years of her marriage, Undine is spending greater amounts of time with those she considers, richer and more glittering, those who represent the life she now thinks she wants. Little Paul is forgotten by his mother on the day of his third birthday, left sobbing himself to sleep while Undine is enjoying herself with Peter Van Degen, Ralph’s cousin’s husband. When Undine chooses to travel to Europe with Peter, while her husband and son holiday in the country, it is the beginning of the end of her marriage. I so wanted things to end differently for Ralph, his story is utterly heart-breaking.
In Europe, Undine makes mistakes in her search for respectability and acceptance; she misjudges her relationship with Peter Van Degan, who abandons her. Undine, finds herself in an awkward position, associating with a hotch potch of both wealthy Americans and French aristocracy; she is in danger of finding herself on the outside of the society she so desperately craves. A second, seemingly more brilliant marriage beckons. Now a part of an old aristocratic family, Undine is apparently unable to understand the delicate balance of age old traditions. The shadow of her upbringing in Apex is never far away, in the person of Elmer Moffat who has now achieved extraordinary success. Always with an eye on just what it is she wants no matter what the cost might be, Undine starts to reach out again, for the next glittering prize.
“Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”
Undine seems destined to never being happy with whatever she gains, her pursuit of one thing leading inevitably to the realisation there is something else, something better. Oblivious of the misery she leaves in her wake, Undine ploughs on, sloughing off the skin of each period of her life with barely a backward glance. It is Undine’s son Paul who will linger longest in my memory; his lonely sadness in a room empty of his old belongings is a poignant image indeed.
This is a novel of society, of aspirations, materialism, greed and misplaced values. As ever Edith Wharton’s writing is unquestionably brilliant and so it is also an enormously compelling novel, powerful and hard to put down.