Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Series: Kairos #1, Time Quintet #1
Published in 1962
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract”.

Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

I decided to reread A Wrinkle in Time again because I am also going to reread the remainder of the Murry/O’Keefe series and I am one of those people who needs to begin at the beginning. I don’t have anything to add to this review, except that I remain in awe of Madeleine L’Engle’s extraordinary humanity. She was a remarkable woman, and I’m not sure that we deserved her.

I read the book as a child of the 1970’s – probably a bit more than decade or so after the initial 1963 publication, around 1977, when I was 11. I fell in love with the book then, seeing much of myself in Meg Murry, the ordinary, often grumpy, young woman. I revisited L’Engle in 2015, and found that, while some of her books had not held up with reread, many of them did.

This book is part of my personal canon, one of the books that shaped my childhood and had a part in making me who I am today.

A Wrinkle in Time is a bit of a period piece, to be sure. Girls today are stronger, more self-aware, more cognizant of the pressures of an often sexist society, and more willing to buck convention in order to be authentic to themselves. Not all girls, of course, but some girls. Our culture, today, at least struggles to understand these pressures and to acknowledge that they exist, even if we often fail to genuinely confront them.

A few notes on the the DuVernay adaptation from 2018: The adaptation succeeds in a way that, after reading a lot of L’Engle, and a fair amount about L’Engle, I believe that she would appreciate. Casting Storm Reid, a biracial young woman was, as Meg Murry, was an inspired decision, the relocation of the plot to a more diverse location in California, the addition of Charles Wallace as an adopted child, to me really work to illuminate some of the themes that L’Engle was writing about – alienation and dangers of extreme social conformity in particular.

There are parts of the book that are quite different from the movie, of course. In the book, the Murry’s have two additional children, a set of male twins who are effortlessly socially competent. They are capable of fulfilling society’s expectations with little work. Meg, on the other hand, is prickly, defensive, occasionally angry, and fearsomely intelligent – all things which 1963 America couldn’t really cope with in girls. Heck, we still struggle with girls who are prickly, defensive, occasionally angry and fearsomely intelligent.

L’Engle’s central message, as always, revolves around love. For L’Engle, love is the thing that sets humans apart – our capacity to love overcomes darkness, our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for love is what enables us to prevail over our adversaries. This is her spirituality, writ small – L’Engle was a deeply religious woman, and her faith informs her writing always (a fact which makes the presence of A Wrinkle in Time on banned book lists based upon religious objections to the text quite frankly odd).

I am not a religious woman, but the fact that someone like Madeleine L’Engle, brilliant and thoughtful, found a way to integrate her Christian faith with her love of science and her extraordinary tolerance gives me hope that American Christianity can step back from the dark place that it is in right now and find a way forward that is more affirming of the ideals held by women and men like her – that of equality and supporting the vulnerable among us. I can only imagine that L’Engle would have deplored much of what is going on in the evangelical Christian religion related to the persecution of LGBTQ people and the continued embrace of misogyny as a bedrock principle.

A Wrinkle in Time shines light into dark places. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

A Century of Women, Dorothy Simpson

A Puppet for a Corpse by Dorothy Simpson

Title: A Puppet for a Corpse
Author: Dorothy Simpson
Series: Inspector Luke Thanet #3
Published in 1983

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A doctor’s apparent suicide sets off alarm bells for Detective Inspector Thanet, “a shrewd yet compassionate observer of aberrant human behavior” (The New York Times).

The Hippocratic oath binds medical professionals to a lifetime of helping fellow human beings. For a doctor to kill himself is not just to renege on that pledge, but to betray all mankind. When Dr. Arnold Pettifer is found dead from an overdose of pills and alcohol, Det. Inspector Luke Thanet’s first reaction is disgust. His second is suspicion: This, he thinks, is murder.

Nothing in Pettifer’s life would point to suicide. He had a prospering practice, money in the bank, a beautiful new wife, and a baby on the way. But when Inspector Thanet learns that Pettifer’s wife had taken a lover, he begins to suspect her—only to find that nothing about the death of Dr. Pettifer is as obvious as it may seem.

I picked up one of these Luke Thanet books for a couple of bucks at the UBS before Christmas – I am always looking for new classic mystery series, and this looked like a promising option.

This is the third book in the series I’ve read at this point. I read the 6th book, Dead on Arrival, first, and then I bought the second and third books because they must have been on sale, as I got them both for under $3.00 each, and the price has now increased to $6.50, which is more than I’m willing to spend. I read the second book, Six Feet Under, at the end of December, and then read this one yesterday. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the series at this point.

I haven’t found any of the books to be particularly difficult to figure out. I cottoned on to the solution in Dead on Arrival really early in the book, once a certain piece of information is imparted to the reader. Six Feet Under gave me the most trouble – I only figured out part of it, and not the most important part. Simpson definitely likes to divide the reader’s attention, and works hard to misdirect, which is only partially successful.

The books are set in Kent, England, in the fictional town of Sturrenden (interestingly, Thanet is the name of a district in Kent). Inspector Thanet is a bit cerebral, and is more-or-less happily married to Joan, with two children. His marriage takes up quite a lot of screen time, as he is grappling with Joan going back to work now that the kids are a bit older, and he doesn’t like not having his meals served hot and ready at his beck and call when he gets home.

Puppet for a Corpse was originally published in 1983, although it has a bit more regressive of a feel than the eighties – when I looked up the publication date I was surprised that it wasn’t the early seventies, given the interactions between Luke and Joan. I graduated from high school in 1984, and there was never any expectation between myself and any man I have ever been involved in that I would be his domestic servant. On the other hand, I suppose Luke and Joan are closer to the ages of my parents than they are to my age, and Thanet’s attitude was pretty much the same as my dad’s attitude was when my mom went to work after my brother and I had graduated from high school.

In terms of the mystery, I’ve read enough of these older police procedurals to have had an inkling of what had likely happened, although I didn’t quite figure it out. There isn’t a lot to them- it takes me about 90 minutes to read one from beginning to end. I’ll keep my eye out for them at my library/UBS, and would consider buying more if they went back on sale, but overall, they are in the “take it or leave it” subcategory of mystery fiction.

This books fits well into my Century of Women Authors, though, fulfilling year 1983

Stella Gibbons

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

Title: The Bachelor
Author: Stella Gibbons
Published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: Brother and sister, Constance and Kenneth Fielding live in calm respectability, just out of reach of London and the Blitz. But when a series of uninvited guests converge upon them – from a Balkan exile to Ken’s old flame and the siblings’ own raffish father – the household struggles to preserve its precious peace. In this full house, in a quiet corner of suburbia, no one expects to find romance.

I had planned to read this one for a 1944 club on my blog but ran out of time. This is my second Gibbons, and I have not yet read her most celebrated work Cold Comfort Farm – the first one I read was called Nightingale Wood, which I read a couple of years ago.

I think I liked this one a tiny bit better than Nightingale Wood, although it has some of the same issues that I stumbled on in that one. It’s set during WWII, so the characters are on the homefront during the active fighting, but they scarcely seem to notice that there is a war on. There is some talk about the blackout, and a bit during a barrage, and a couple of the characters have war work that they are engaged in, but for the most part the three main character’s lives go on much as they do during peacetime. I’m not sure if this is an accurate depiction of the way that money can smooth all of the rough edges off the world, even during WWII, or if it is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Gibbons. I tend to think the latter.

It is a bit of a romance, with the characters coupling off all over the place. My issue with The Bachelor is that I found only one of the pairings even remotely appealing or plausible. Gibbons writes flawed characters, which isn’t a problem for me, but also writes characters who need a swift kick in the ass. The only characters I particularly liked were Betty and Alicia, and I actively disliked Vartouhi and Constance and found them unconvincing. Richard and Kenneth (the titular bachelor, btw) were pleasant enough, if a bit wet.

The writing is a pleasure to read, however, and the descriptions of Sunglades, the home where most of the “action” takes place, are beautiful. I will definitely read more Gibbons, because no matter my issues with her novels, they are worth reading.

D.E. Stevenson

Bel Lamington duology by D.E. Stevenson

Titles: Bel Lamington and Fletcher’s End
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1961/1962

Plot summaries:

Bel Lamington: Bel Lamington finds London a very lonely place – until a charming young artist literally drops in on her rooftop garden…

Bel Lamington, an orphan daughter of an Army colonel, is brought up in an English village and flung into the whirl of London life to earn a hard living as a secretary while attempting to navigate romance, unexpected friendships and urban life. Shy, sensitive, and innocent, she is unaware of the pitfalls that surround her.

But when Bel is offered a chance to leave London and venture to a fishing hotel in Scotland for a much needed holiday with an old school friend, things begin to change. There she learns that you cannot escape from your troubles by running away from them…

Fletcher’s End: The joys and contentment of newly-wedded life, set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, are the subject of this volume by the beloved novelist, D.E. Stevenson. The author of Bel Lamington continues the heartwarming story of the gentle heroine who came to London and fell in love with her employer, Ellis Brownlee.

Shortly before Bel’s marriage to Ellis, her friend, Louise Armstrong, goes house hunting for the Brownlees and discovers a charming but neglected old stone cottage in the Cotswolds. Bel adores the house, called Fletchers End. Equally enthusiastic, Ellis buys the place from the absentee-owner, Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, and, after a picture-book wedding, the happy couple move in.

As she embarks on her new life as a devoted wife, Bel loyally guides Louise through her own romantic tribulations. She also enjoys sharing with Ellis the excitement and satisfaction of decorating their first real home, as well as unravelling the mysteries of the old stone cottage.

But with the unexpected arrival of Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, the peace of Fletchers End is suddenly threatened…

These two very light, old-fashioned romances are available on Kindle Unlimited. Originally published in 1961 and 1962, they tell the story of Bel, young and somewhat impoverished woman living and working in London, and her travails. The first book gets her married off, and the second book deals with the purchase of a first home, renovation, a tiny bit of drama, and the romantic life of her best friend, Louise.

There isn’t a lot of substance to the pair of books, but they are extremely sweet and I liked all of the characters a lot. The friendship between Bel and Louise is quite lovely and is unmarred by the sort of jealous nastiness that can sometimes pass for tension in books of this sort. Bel is a working girl when the books begin, and she is extremely capable at her job. While they were published in the early 1960’s they had a more old-fashioned feel to them to me, more 1950’s or even 1940’s in atmosphere. There wasn’t any real focus on the rapid social change occurring during the 1960’s.

These two simple little books don’t offer the same though provoking social commentary as something like South Riding, but they were free and a pleasant way to while away a few hours reading something entirely unchallenging.

Stevenson is having a bit of a renaissance these days, between her Miss Buncle and her Mrs. Tim series. Neither of those are available for free, so I haven’t dipped into them yet, although I do plan to read them at some point. I suspect that they are better than the ones that I have read, which are enjoyable, if a bit pedestrian, light romance. They are very comfortable books.

Winifred Holtby

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
First published: 1936

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as headmistress she is full of ambition, determined to create a great school and to inspire her girls to take all they can from life. But in the aftermath of the First World War, the country is in depression and ideals are hard won. Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, but when her mother’s health fails, her education must be sacrificed – there is nobody else to care for the children.

Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall stands for everything Sarah despises: his family has farmed the South Riding for generations, their position uncontested. Yet Sarah cannot help being drawn to this proud, haunted – and almost ruined – man.

South Riding is a rich, panoramic novel, bringing vividly to life a rural community on the brink of change.

I did struggle with this book at the beginning. There were too many characters, and I do maintain that Winifred Holtby spent far too much time on people who were not Sarah Burton, Emma Beddows or Robert Carne, most particularly Reverend Huggins, about whose hypocrisy I simply could not care, and the Sawdon storyline, with poor Lily dying of some sort of cancerous tumor. This is not a book written for the 2018 attention-span, which has been decimated by the influence of social media and our tendency to flit from one thing to the next. It’s a deep dive, not a surface treatment.

And once I let myself really get going in the book, I fell in love.

Sarah Burton, the schoolmistress of the South Riding girl’s school, is a marvelous character. Unmarried, by choice, not necessity –

She had been engaged to marry three different men. The first, a college friend, was killed on the Somme in 1916; the second, a South African farmer, irritated her with his political dogmatism until they quarrelled furiously and irreparably; the third, an English Socialist member of Parliament, withdrew in alarm when he found her feminism to be not merely academic but insistent.

– she said of herself:

“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.

Her story was the one that I loved the most – a youngish, not especially pretty but still immensely attractive woman who has managed by sheer force of will to get a school for herself. She sees the future in her girls, a future that doesn’t require them to give up themselves for a man. As she says to them (in possibly my favorite quote of the book):

Question your government’s policy, question the arms race, question the Kingsport slums, and the economics over feeding school children, and the rule that makes women have to renounce their jobs on marriage, and why the derelict areas still are derelict. This is a great country, and we are proud of it, and it means much that is most lovable. But questioning does not mean the end of loving, and loving does not mean the abnegation of intelligence.

There are dozens of amazing quotes, like the one above, and so much truth here. Emma Beddows was my second favorite character – a seventyish woman who is also a local Alderman, who sees the role of local government as the place where things get done. She says of herself:

I’m an old woman. But when you’re seventy you don’t always feel old. I know I don’t. There are times when you find yourself thinking of yourself as a girl. “Now the girl went downstairs.” “Now the girl put her hat on.” And then you look in the glass and there’s a stiff heavy lump of an elderly person facing you, your face all wrinkles and the life gone out of your limbs. But you can still feel young.

South Riding is a book that focuses on the public and private lives of women. The men are, largely, foils to the women, especially the bankrupt gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, who ends up as the object of devoted passion by both Miss Burton and Mrs. Beddows, though that passion is quite different between the women. It’s not a love story, though, unless the love is love of independence, of purpose, of a woman’s life lived beyond hearth and home, as this exchange between Mrs. Beddows and Sarah Burton illustrates:

‘You don’t believe then in a higher Providence?’

‘Not if it means just knuckling under as soon as things grow difficult, and calling that God’s will. I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.’ . . .

We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.

“Take what you want,” says God. “Take it and pay for it.”

I think that South Riding will hold up well to rereads, and that I will likely get something new out of every reading. A story written around the activities of the local parish government is, perhaps, an odd way to tell a story about a place, but it works incredibly well here. And Winifred Holtby wasn’t wrong when she said:

‘all this local government, it’s just people working together – us ordinary people, against the troubles that afflict us all.’

Even with what seemed like a slow beginning, this was a five star read for me.

Various

Re-Joining the Classics Club!

I previously joined The Classics Club back in September of 2012, with a list of 50 books to read by December, 2017. I easily hit that goal, back on August 30, 2015. At that point, I was blogging on a different blog, which was self-hosted. I recently shut down that one after republishing everything onto a free blog. You can find my challenge list here, as well as my finish line post, which identifies all of the books, and a short recap of the project.

When I was considering projects for this blog, I decided to rejoin the Classics Club, with another 50 classics to read in 5 years. The project officially commences on 12/1/2018 and will finish on 11/30/2024. You can find the list of classics under the tab at the top of the blog, which you can also find here. In keeping with this blog theme, they were all written by women.

Various

Back to the Classics 2019

Karen @ Karen’s Books and Chocolate has decided to host the Back to the Classics Challenge again next year! You can find her announcement post, with the newest round of categories, here.

While I will likely make changes to this list, I thought I’d put together a first round of ideas for the categories. I am planning to read all women authors for this challenge, to fit into the theme of this blog:

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899. My initial impulse is to read something by Elizabeth Gaskell – possibly Cranford. The other possibility would be to reread Middlemarch by George Eliot.

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969: There are so many choices here! I think I’ll read something mid-century British for this one: Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Comyns, E.M. Delafield, etc.

3. Classic by a Female Author. Since everything I am reading will be by a female author, this category is totally open for me! I’ll decide how to fill it down the road a bit!

4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language: I have been meaning to read Sigrid Undset’s Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy for several years. I think I will read the first installment for this category – The Wreath, which was published in 1920.

5. Classic Comedy. Any comedy or humorous work. Humor is very subjective, so if you think Crime and Punishment is hilarious, go ahead and use it, but if it’s a work that’s traditionally not considered humorous, please tell us why in your post. I don’t read very much comedy. I’m thinking of one of the Peter Wimsey mysteries, by Dorothy Sayers, for this category, since I find them frequently quite funny. Or maybe Angela Thirkell. Her Chronicles of Barsetshire are usually witty and satirical.

6. Classic Tragedy. Tragedies traditionally have a sad ending, but just like the comedies, this is up for the reader to interpret. I am definitely reading something by Edith Wharton for this category – possibly a reread of The House of Mirth.

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes: I love really long, doorstopper style books. I’m considering the Middlemarch reread for this one. Pretty much anything by Eliot would work, except for Silas Marner.

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages: I don’t read shorter works, so I’m going to have to look around for something for this one.

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either continent or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries: The easy thing to do would be to pick an American classic, but that seems sort of cheaty, so I’m going to look for something from the Caribbean or South America.

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those contents or islands, or by an author from these countries: I am planning to read one of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn mysteries for this category – Ms. Marsh was born in New Zealand. Alternatively, I may read Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.

11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you’ve lived: I struggled with this one a little bit until I remembered Willa Cather. I was born in Nebraska, which is also the setting for her classic My Antonia. I’ve read it before, but not for many years, and I’ve long been considering a rereard.

12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only. This category is always a struggle for me because I don’t like reading plays. I’m going to try Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap and see if I have any more success with a mystery!

Molly Thynne

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

Title: The Crime at the “Noah’s Ark”
Author: Molly Thynne
First published in 1931

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “There’ll be blue murder here before Christmas!”

A number of parties heading for a luxurious holiday spot, are forced by severe winter weather to put up at the ‘Noah’s Ark’, a hostelry they will share with Dr. Constantine, a shrewd chess master and keen observer of all around him. Other guests include bestselling novelist Angus Stuart, the aristocratic Romsey family, a pair of old spinster sisters, and a galloping major whose horseplay gets him into hot water – and then gets him murdered.

Who is the masked intruder who causes such a commotion on the first night? Who has stolen Mrs van Dolen’s emeralds, and who has slashed everyone’s (almost everyone’s) car tyres? And are the murderer and thief one and the same, or are the guests faced with two desperate criminals hiding in plain sight in the snowbound inn? Dr. Constantine, aided by two of the younger guests, is compelled to investigate this sparkling Christmas mystery before anyone else ends up singing in the heavenly choir …

I really enjoyed this one! If you’re looking for a seasonal read, choose The Crime at Noah’s Ark!

Basic plot involves a group of people all unknown to one another who are snowed in at a country wayside inn. Emeralds are stolen, drunk assaultive men are murdered (and no one feels very sorry about it), and there is lots of lurking about and sneaking through darkened corridors. The main character is a likeable author, and there is a tiny bit of romance to go along with the mystery. I guessed a couple of the twists, and pretty much figured out whodunnit, but it was still tons of fun.

This is a very inexpensive treat – it’s $2.99 on kindle, and worth every penny. Kudos to the Dean Street Press for finding and bringing these lesser known golden age authors back into “print,” even if that print is pixels not paper – they have five other mysteries by Molly Thynne on offer, and I plan to read them all eventually. This is one of the best things about the ebook revolution!

Edith Wharton

Summer by Edith Wharton

Originally published September 5, 2014

Title: Summer
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1917

Summary from Goodreads: Considered by some to be her finest work, Edith Wharton’s Summer created a sensation when first published in 1917, as it was one of the first novels to deal honestly with a young woman’s sexual awakening.

Summer is the story of Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners adopted by a family in a poor New England town, who has a passionate love affair with Lucius Harney, an educated man from the city. Wharton broke the conventions of women’s romantic fiction by making Charity a thoroughly independent modern woman—in touch with her emotions and sexuality, yet kept from love and the larger world she craves by the overwhelming pressures of heredity and society.

Praised for its realism and honesty by such writers as Joseph Conrad and Henry James and compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Summer remains as fresh and powerful a novel today as when it was first written.

People refer to this as Wharton’s most erotic book. I disagree with that characterization – I think that The Age of Innocence, with its unrequited, simmering passion between Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is much more erotic. This one is sexier.

Charity Royall is a young woman who has been raised by Lawyer Royall in North Dormer, a small New England town. Her family comes from the mountain, a poverty-stricken area. At some point, Lawyer Royall finds himself attracted to the young woman and proposes to marry her. This is squicky as all hell, since he has basically been her father since she was a small child.

Charity understandably turns him down, being attracted to Lucius Harney, man about town, photographer, and the nephew of another one of New Dormer’s finest citizens. He is clearly above her in social position. Charity, recklessly, falls for him, and the two of them embark on a sexual relationship. This is a Wharton book, however, which means that the reader pretty much has to guess what has happened.

It isn’t just the lack of explicit sex that wasn’t erotic. It was the shallowness of the connection between Charity and Lucius Harney. There is no reason to believe that Harney wasn’t absolute rubbish as a lover, self-absorbed and concerned with neither Charity’s pleasure, nor her plight. (Did I just accuse a fictional character of being crap in bed. Why yes, yes I did. And I stand by the accusation. There is no chance that poor Charity had an orgasm. None at all.) It is easy to sympathize with Charity, and to deplore her poor choices, but it was so obvious that Harney was just exploiting her, and it made me want to shake her.

Wharton’s books explore the border between social expectation and human agency. I have read three of them – The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now Summer, and all of them describe and condemn the way in which individuals are oppressed by society. Honestly, I think that Wharton is at her best when she is writing about the upper classes – she came from wealth and extraordinary privilege, and was related to the Rensselaers, the most prestigious of the old patroon families – so she understood and was able to describe the suffocating constraints of that society on, in particular, women. She lived in a time when the social customs were confining and even subjugating, and her books reveal the airlessness and the arbitrary nature of many of those customs. They were a social cage, designed to separate classes and maintain distinctions lacking in substance or merit. Having an intellectual life was out of the question for most individuals, including most men, but definitely all women.

Wharton’s books explore what happens when the individual steps outside of those lines, seeking more for him or herself than that which birth has conferred.

Usually, it is pretty much a disaster. In this book, actually, Charity managed to pull out a win for herself. While the twenty-first-century independent romantic in me was pretty much completely grossed out by the way it ended, by 1917 standards, Charity does pretty well, with a solid, middle-class existence. She fared a lot better than Lily Bart, from The House of Mirth. Interestingly, she doesn’t share Lily Bart’s honorable qualities. That’s probably sort of the point – when hunger conflicts with honor, hunger must, and usually will, win. Or, you die.

Anyway, reading Edith Wharton is like opening a vein. She is depressing as hell, but always worth reading.

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Post originally published July 31, 2015

Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1913

Summary from Goodreads: Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton’s second full-length work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine’s marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted. – Anita Brookner

This book is the second in Wharton’s cycle of books focusing on women and marriage in gilded age New York. The first, House of Mirth, was published in 1905. House of Mirth was her first full-length novel. The Custom of the Country was the second of the three, published in 1913. The Age of Innocence completes the cycle, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Each of them explore female autonomy and marriage in the late nineteenth century, focusing primarily on upper-class New York society and the extensive rules and limitations of that society.

The anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is Undine Spragg, a midwestern girl with seething ambitions who has dragged her newly rich family to New York. Born in the fictional Apex City, Undine has an outsized sense of importance coupled with absolutely no principles whatsoever. She is, and remains, total tabula rasa through the entire book, an empty vessel to be filled with whatever social niceties are required to fit into the group to which she aspires. She cares for essentially no one and provides no value at all save her extraordinary youthful beauty. Sirenlike, she convinces four different men: her father, Abner Spragg, her New York husband, Ralph Marvell, her French husband, Raymond de Chelles, and, coming full circle, her Apex City husband Elmer Moffatt that she is precisely who they want her – and believe her – to be.

In mythology, Undine is an elemental water spirit, a nereide, a nymph, who is born without a human soul and must marry a human male in order to achieve immortality. This is a fine analogy to Undine Spragg, a woman who is so utterly self-centered that she is incapable of even the barest human feeling for another person. Like a nymph, she is physically gorgeous, eternally youthful, lithe, slender and innocent of appearance. She has the ability to be completely artificial and yet appear utterly without artifice. The men whom she marries believe her to be exactly who she appears to be, until much too late.

Edith Wharton is frequently unkind to her female characters. Undine is different. She is never really forced to pay the price for her decisions, but, in part, I think that this is because she is incapable of feeling like she did anything wrong. She is a human wrecking ball, a vampire squid wrapped around the face of those who love her, sucking them dry and discarding the empty husk that she leaves behind.

In many ways, she reminds me of some of the other great anti-heroines in literature: Emma Bovary, Scarlett O’Hara, Daisy Buchanan, Becky Sharp. And there is nothing like reading about an anti-heroine and realizing that many of the qualities that make her an anti-heroine are the same qualities that might make a man a hero. Or, at a minimum, successful. Undine, as a woman, has no ability to make her own money or be independent, and she lacks any sort of a control or restraint to prevent her from behaving really, really badly. She is pure consumption, unbridled by convention, with no ability other than manipulation to achieve her aims.

She makes her parents miserable, with her constant social climbing and relentless demands. Near the beginning of the book, she has target-locked on a specific social class exemplified by old New York families, and demands that, in order to insinuate herself into that class, her father purchase her an opera box, so she can see and be seen the class with which she wants to associate herself. When her father demurs, because of the cost, but suggests he might be able to afford a seat, she responds:

“I’d a good deal rather have a box for the season,” she rejoined, and he saw the opening he had given her.

She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold — and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

Every decision she makes turns out, in her mind, to be the wrong one because she is simply incapable of contentment. There is a great, grasping need at the bottom of her that can never be filled. She marries into New York society, and that turns to ashes because, as it turns out, old families don’t necessarily possess the kind of material resources that she needs in order to be amused. And because she is Undine Spragg, beautiful and demanding, she never, not even for one minute, feels that she should have to make the best of any situation. Rather, the situation must make the best of her, or she is out. When husband number one conveniently kicks off, opening the way for her to remarry a Catholic French Count as a widow, not as a divorcee, she is briefly contented with the great chateau and the title.

In some ways, she’s met her match in Raymond de Chelles. She tries to manipulate him, and he merely ignores her. When she throws a tantrum over their reduced circumstances, and attempts to guilt him into selling some of his heirloom tapestries in order to keep her in her accustomed splendor, he responds:

“Ah, that’s your answer — that’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us!” He stopped a moment, and then let his voice break out with the volume she had felt it to be gathering. “And you’re all alike,” he exclaimed, “every one of you. You come among us from a country we don’t know, and can’t imagine, a country you care for so little that before you’ve been a day in ours you’ve forgotten the very house you were born in — if it wasn’t torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about — you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they are dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of what we have — and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.”

After this, she finally, ultimately, frees herself from him and marries her equal, Elmer Moffat, a man who is just as newly rich, just as crass, just as brash as Undine herself. With unlimited resources and a husband who will make no demands upon her, she believes that she has finally achieved that which she is due.

But even at the end of the book, I’m left with a strong belief that this one will not stick. That the black widow spider that is Undine Spragg de Chelles Moffat will not be content for long. The book ends:

But under all that dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guest she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Honestly, is there anyone, finishing this book, who doesn’t think that somewhere there is a president who doesn’t have a prayer in hell of standing in her way when she decides to marry the ambassador to France? Because seriously, Undine Spragg could reduce Donald Trump to a pile of quivering ectoplasm in thirty seconds flat.

Edith Wharton is, as always, brilliant. But, unlike so many of her other books, this book is a hard diamond of a thing. I cannot sympathize with Undine Spragg, because there is no humanity in her at all. She is the ultimate expression of the Randian ideal: pure selfishness, gorgeous and demanding, standing with hand outstretched, wearing a beautiful dress.