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“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them”*…

Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country” (1913), like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works…

In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.

The fact that “The Custom of the Country” is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times. Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach… A quick study, she busily absorbs the conventions wherever she lands (she proves a masterful code-switcher, as we might say now), but she’s also resolutely, selfishly, intractably herself, ready to flout convention if and when she can get away with it. Always gorgeous and elegantly dressed — her husband, Ralph, describes her face when in society as “like a theatre with all the lustres blazing” — Undine is nevertheless limited by her vapidity. As an American friend married to a French aristocrat explains, “You’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever.”…

Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion…

Novelist, essayist, and professor Claire Messud on the contemporary relevance of the chronicler of the Gilded Age: “How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?

[image above: source]

  • Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country

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As we peer into the not-so-distant mirror, we might send closely-observed birthday greetings to Marie-Henri Beyle; he was born on this date in 1783. Better known by his pen name “Stendahl,” he is remembered especially for his novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma (La Chartreuse de Parme). One of the first practitioners of acute explorations of his characters’ psychology, he is considered a pioneer of realism– and with Wharton, one of its finest examples.

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