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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

December 6, 2011 23 comments

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. 1913. French title: Les beaux mariages.

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.

I’m really happy my 200th post is a review of a book I truly loved. This one will be my last read for Sarah’s Challenge Not a Rat’s Chance in Hell’s Challenge, category A Book Previously Abandoned.

Undine Spragg, the beauty queen of Apex, has just arrived in New York with her parents. Her father enriched in his Western city of Apex through some shady business. Her parents adore her and spoil her. She’s young, gorgeous, ambitious and in search of a rich and aristocratic husband. After a few months, she manages to break into the New York high society and marries Ralph Marvell, a well-bred man but not rich enough to satisfy all her fantasies. Will she manage to adapt to her conventional step-family? How will she accept that Ralph has a good breeding and open access to the most select salons in New York and nonetheless not enough money to afford all her whims? But who is Elmer Moffatt, a ghost from her past, looming over her recent success? I don’t want to tell too much about the plot, even if it’s a classic that many people have read.

Undine is a perfectly disagreeable character. She infuriated me; she’s vapid, shallow and blatantly materialistic. She assesses people and things through the double lenses of their cash value and their society usefulness.

Undine’s estimate of people had always been based on their apparent power of getting what they wanted–provided it came under the category of things she understood wanting.

She has no interest in other people but for what they can bring to her, feels no love for anyone but herself and is as selfish as the daughters in Le Père Goriot by Balzac. She lacks compassion, motherly feelings and ability to listen. Nobody and nothing is sacred, neither family jewels or tapestries or not even a son. Her reactions and her actions horrified me. She’s perpetually dissatisfied with what she has. She has no conversation of any kind since she has no interest in books, politics, music, domestic issues or business. She can’t embroider, draw or play an instrument. Getting involved in charities is totally out of her character. She has no curiosity for anything but buying clothes and showing off at parties. She has no scruples and will bulldoze out any obstacle that could lie between her and what she wants. But she’s gorgeous, knows how to use her beauty and men are stupid enough to consider it a sufficient quality. Undine has incredible survival skills and in the surface adapts to her environment. But as she doesn’t really care about other people, she fails to understand them deeply and it backfires on her sometimes. She has a tendency to enjoy vulgar company and above all, she has no sense for Beauty.

All is said about the difference between Ralph and Undine when Mrs Spragg explains where Undine’s name comes from:

Her visitor, [Ralph] with a smile, and echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain, had repeated her daughter’s name after her, saying: “It’s a wonderful find–how could you tell it would be such a fit?”–it came to her quite easily to answer: “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born–” and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: “It’s from Undoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take.

Ralph is the kind of man who thinks of the water divinity when he hears Undine. But Undine wasn’t named after a divinity. She was named after a hair-waver. Everything is said. He’s more intellectual, sensitive and poetical; she’s materialistic, uncultured and happy to be so.

I thought that Ralph Marvell was a wonderful character. It’s not often that a male character is described with so much sensibility. The description of Ralph’s disappointment with Undine, the strings she pulls thanks to her beauty and the different shades of his moods are really touching.

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience.

Ralph moved me, because he felt so much, was so lucid about his circumstances and yet couldn’t fight against the tide.

Apart from the private drama of Undine’s life, The Custom of the Country is also a harsh criticism of the emerging aristocracy of new money in America. It’s an X-ray of the American society, its interest in business and money, its vision of marriage and women. Undine invests in husbands like businessmen invest in Wall Street. She’s Elmer Moffatt’s feminine counterpart; they are made of the same clay. The novel takes place in New York and in France and Edith Wharton excels in describing characters and settings. She knew France very well and she portrays perfectly the difference of culture between France and the USA. Some of the ideas she develops in French Ways and their Meaning are already present in The Custom of the Country. The title refers to the difference of custom between Apex and New-York, between America and France. Edith Wharton preferred the French vision of marriage, more of a partnership. In French, you don’t belong to your spouse; you share your life with them. She tried to explain that the American vision of marriage and women creates monsters like Undine:

“The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.” (…) How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.” “To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!” “Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

(…)

 “YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?” “Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.” “Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?” “Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture.

(…)

“Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!” Mrs. Fairford presented an amazed silence to the rush of this tirade; but when she rallied it was to murmur: “And is Undine one of the exceptions?” Her companion took the shot with a smile. “No–she’s a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It’s Ralph who’s the victim and the exception.”

Divorce is actually a central theme of the book, a very modern one for a 1913 novel. Its modernity echoes that of What Maisie Knew. I wonder what Edith Wharton would make of the French divorce rates I heard the other day on the radio (67% of marriages in Paris and 50% in other regions) Undine, as a representant of the new generation thinks it a normal event in life. The older generation, like Mr Spragg and higher social classes, like Ralph’s family still regard it as dreadful.

Mr. Spragg did not regard divorce as intrinsically wrong or even inexpedient; and of its social disadvantages he had never even heard. Lots of women did it, as Undine said, and if their reasons were adequate they were justified. If Ralph Marvell had been a drunkard or “unfaithful” Mr. Spragg would have approved Undine’s desire to divorce him; but that it should be prompted by her inclination for another man–and a man with a wife of his own–was as shocking to him as it would have been to the most uncompromising of the Dagonets and Marvells.

Edith Wharton came from the same social circles as Ralph Marvell. They have strong values and this is why in life or business, the end doesn’t justify the means. But she blames his family traditions because they repress feelings and don’t want to face his misery. Edith Wharton had suffered physically from that oppressive atmosphere. She broke free when she came to France and that might explain why she’s such a blind Francophile.

Reading The Custom of the Country might be easier for a French than for an American, with all the French words included in the text and all the undercurrent comparison between French and American ways. Sometimes the words have a fantasist orthography (Allow me to escort you to the bew-fay. I had to pause to realize that bew-fay was buffet or undoolay for ondulé in the quote before.) or are correctly spelled (divers et ondoyant; réunions de famille, tisane and biscuits de Reims). I’ve read the free Kindle version, I suppose there are proper footnotes in the Penguin edition. Edith Wharton writes simply and manages to create powerful images with few words (He leaned over to give Marvell’s hand the ironic grasp of celibacy.) Her descriptions of homes and places are excellent and vivid, always giving an insight of the owner’s character through their home. There aren’t superfluous words or endless sentences like in Henry James. It runs and flows like cristallyne water.

The plot is gripping; I was impatient to read the twists and turns of Undine’s life. It’s wonderfully written, engrossing and intelligent. I found it thought provoking and entertaining. A masterpiece.

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