Saturday, November 27, 2010

She Had Everything

The Custom of the Country 
by Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country (Modern Library Classics)

"she had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them." (The Custom of the Country, p 362)

Published in 1913, two years after Ethan Frome, but in gestation since 1907, The Custom of the Country is a novel that combines the tradition of the 'money' novel with Wharton's customary depiction of New York society and, in this case, also Parisian society. Undine Spragg is a beautiful, domineering, and spoiled young woman from somewhere in the Midwest who enters this society with the baggage of one divorce already behind her. Wharton's satirical prose envelopes Undine, her parents, and the New York social crowd, as Undine attempts to join it in her effort to get ahead. Never satisfied with her lot in life (sometimes anxious and always observant of those around her imagining what they expect from her), she is impatient and makes mistakes including marrying Ralph Marvell whose family is pedigreed but impecunious. Her attempts to live in a lifestyle which she considers worthy of her grand ambition quickly leads to difficulties that engulf the marriage. Her story continues with financial intrigue on the part of her first husband, who has also migrated to New York from the Midwest for greater financial opportunities. Undine in the meantime lives in Europe chasing after a Prince before settling on a marriage to Count Raymond de Chelles. However, her all-consuming greed leads to the end of that marriage; while further financial dealings bring vast wealth to Elmer Moffat, her first husband who has become more and more interesting to her throughout the story.

Undine is one of Edith Wharton's greatest creations, who resembles Thackeray's Becky Sharp, a heroine from an earlier age. With her reliance on men of questionable financial character and the increased rate of change in society in the new century Undine devastates the social landscape before her as its representatives are shown to have feet of clay. A theme that courses through each of Undine's unsuccessful marriages is the battle between the traditions of the old families -- Marvel, Van Degen, and de Chelles -- and the modern world to which Undine so desperately wants to belong:  "she merely felt the impossibility of breaking through the mysterious web of traditions, conventions, prohibitions that enclosed her in their impenetrable network." (p 316)

Through all of this she remains consistently unattractive and  I found myself unable to generate any sympathy for her character, unlike my experience reading about Wharton's other leading ladies (Lily Bart in The House of Mirth and Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence).  In its structure the novel covers new ground for Wharton with the introduction of a journalistic narrator, Mrs Heany, in the second half of the book. The result is a more modern novel than her other great works. The story ultimately is one of a self-made woman who, while lacking moral character, is able to create a world through her ability to use the people around her for her material advantage. The novel is one in which satire is omnipresent and the result is a brittle yet brilliant achievement.

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. The Modern Library, New York. 2001 (1913)

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