by Edith Wharton
Publication Date: September 28, 1913
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.