Ralph Marvell: You know nothing of this society you’re in; of its antecedents, its rules, its conventions; and it’s my affair to look after you, and warn you when you’re on the wrong track.
Undine: I don’t believe an American woman needs to know such a lot about their old rules. They can see I mean to follow my own, and if they don’t like it they needn’t go with me.
Undine Spragg, the main character in Edith Wharton’s, The Custom of the Country, must surely be ranked in the top ten of the most disliked protagonists of literary history. Narcissist, taker, Queen of the Most-Selfish do not describe fully the ruin she wreaks as she pursues life in high society.
I have now read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels and novellas as I continue this year of reading specific writers. Her main characters have this in common: they dream of a better life than the one they find themselves in, they make plans for it and plot through the roadblocks that may be in the way, the goal seems just within reach and then the outcome is thwarted in some way and they are stuck where they have always been. And in each of these stories I have cheered for the protagonist to reach that goal, to fulfill the dream he or she has worked so hard for. But in Undine Spragg I found the exception. Her shockingly malicious behavior had me wondering who or when her reign of ruin would be put to an end.
Set in early 20th century New York City, Paris and Italy, The Custom of the Country concerns Undine Spragg, a startling beauty with grand ambitions beyond her small midwestern town of Apex. After her father has some business success, she begs her parents to move to New York City where she hopes to establish herself in the higher echelons of society. Armed with Town Talk and Boudoir Chat she devours the articles describing the fashionable trends for women, the best places to be seen and the names of those she hopes to meet. After two years of many false and humiliated starts where the difference between old and new money is important, but never apparent to the newcomer, Undine marries Ralph Marvell, whom she believes is the answer to her dreams of upper class life.
But it becomes clear on their honeymoon to Italy that old-monied Ralph is not as rich as Undine had hoped. What also becomes apparent to the cultured, would-be novelist is his wife is not suited to his own visions of married life. The solitude of the remote places Ralph thought perfect for a honeymoon Undine finds boring and craves the excitement of people and parties. She has no desire for new experiences or to broaden her mind:
An imagination like his peopled with such varied images and associates…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 has 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….
As they try to settle into life in his ancestral home in Washington Square, both become miserable. He, because he has to put his dreams as a writer on hold to work at a job he hates in order to pay for her enormous appetite for fashion and socializing and she, because once married she never expected to have to pay attention to how much things cost or to budget. When Undine becomes pregnant, which is a joyous occasion for Ralph he is shocked to see how devastated she is over what a pregnancy will do her physical beauty and mopes about until a son is born, whom she soon neglects.
The recurring theme for Undine is outlined above and follows her through subsequent marriages and affairs. She believes her beauty should be showcased by the best fashions Paris has to offer and to be seen with the best people at the best places her duty; having a successful effect on those of society reflects on her family. And though custom forces husbands and fathers to provide for their wives and daughters, she refuses to be fitted with anything less than the finest whether there is enough money or not. And when there is not she manipulates, cajoles, pouts and generally makes it impossible for “the best” not to be delivered and laid out the next day.
Leaving her infant son with Ralph, Undine flees to her friends in Europe. The flirtation she’s had with wealthy Peter Van Degen, the husband of Ralph’s cousin Clare and his best friend, becomes a full-blown affair. Undine obtains a divorce giving her custody of Paul, but has made no contact with him since leaving. She is certain Peter will divorce his wife for her and continues to press him, because she knows without a marriage contract she is vulnerable. But when Peter cools to her, she is once more with little money and is unable to keep up with her friends.
Several years pass with a miserable Undine living with her parents. She convinces her father to send her to Europe where she hopes to once again climb the ladder of success. When the French count Raymond de Chelles falls in love with her and they plan to marry, she tells Ralph she wants Paul to join her in France, though her long-time absence is disturbing to both father and son. Distraught at the thought of losing his son Ralph makes a business deal with Elmer Moffatt, with whom he has done business in the past. Hoping to raise a hundred thousand dollars as a sort of buy off, he is confident that for Undine there is a price for everything, including her son. But the deal goes bad and what is worse, he discovers Moffatt and Undine were once married when they were teenagers, but her father forced an annulment. In shock at this, coupled with the loss of his son, he commits suicide. Undine is now free to marry the Count.
However, the Count’s family are traditionalists and though as lovers Undine and Raymond had a vibrant social life, as his wife there are different expectations. He wants no more of that life for her and sequesters her and Paul to an out of the way old family residence where she, of course, is not happy. This time it is she who cools to a relationship and divorces Raymond. When at a chance meeting with Elmer Moffatt she realizes how rich he is, she marries him and thinks the days of “how much does this cost” are over. Does she finally have everything she wants?
That can never be true for Undine Spragg. There is never enough and always some new bright and shiny object to chase.
Rich beyond imagination Moffatt is satisfied with his life, but he is not as ambitious as Undine would like. When giving a dinner party she hears about an Ambassadorship to England granted to an old nemesis from her small town in Apex and she is intrigued. She wants that for her husband, too.
She had a great vague vision of the splendors they were going to—all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences….Turning to her husband goading him for his lack of ambition saying he could have that easily, he delivers to her the most devastating piece of news she could hear: no amount of money, connections or titles could allow him such a position, because he is married to a divorced woman and “They won’t have divorced Ambassadresses.” This she could never get. And as she advanced to welcome her guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.
This novel is a challenging read; it is complex and rich in commentary on the American expat experience of which Wharton’s writing is superb.
Wharton is a bold critic on the type of wealthy semi-resident traveler who has come to be known as the ‘ugly American.’ Though Undine is a fictional character within a fictional landscape, she is nonetheless a symbol for this type of narcissistic, rich destroyer of tradition that Wharton, herself an expat American living on and off in Paris, rails against. Wharton has Raymond deliver a speech to Undine that brilliantly decries this kind of superficial American sensibility. They are at the end of their marriage when Raymond discovers Undine tried to sell his family’s centuries-old wall tapestries, because she wanted money.
That’s all you feel when you lay hands on things that are sacred to us! And you’re all alike, 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’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have—and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pickup up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honorable for us.
If this had any effect on Undine, one would never know it. Empathy, recognition of her faults, growth into adult behavior was not part of her make up. She threatened to leave Raymond for “speaking to me this way,” and soon she did.
I have to admit it: Although Edith Wharton has become one of my favorite writers it was a bit of a relief to turn the last page on this one!
Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Signet Classic
Challenges: The Classics Club, my 2019 Author Reads