Old New York in the Gilded Age -- the setting for "The Custom of the Country" by Edith Wharton
Photo via here
Photo via here
Last week, as winter was giving way to spring and wisteria and camellias were blooming all over Los Angeles, I found myself staying in on Wednesday in order to finish The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. Have you read it? If you haven't, stop what you are doing right now and get your hands on a copy of this book. Trust me, you are in for a treat. The heroine, or anti-heroine of the book, Undine Spragg is one of the most deliciously evil characters you will ever read about. She is the ultimate social climber and the extent of her scheming selfishness is so vast as to be fascinating. The story of her rise from a small-town Midwestern girl to a French countess will make your jaw drop. This tale of old New York society clashing with the upstart American middle class is one of Wharton's very best books. Undine is one of the "bad girls" of literature who, like Becky Sharp and Emma Bovary, has no conscience and doesn't care whose life she destroys on her way to the top. This is a compulsive read -- a great book and a thoroughly enjoyable one. Reading it is a reminder of Edith Wharton's impressive talent -- she was a masterful storyteller, insightful chronicler of American society, and a supremely gifted writer.
Undine Spragg is an American beauty from the Midwest who is determined to move up in the world. She convinces her parents to take her to New York where she plans to seek her fortune. She is a force of nature and a manipulator, a beautiful woman who knows the power of her beauty and how to use it. She somehow manages to get everyone to bend to her will. Men fall in love with her. But New York is a hard nut to crack and unlike Lily Bart and Newland Archer, the protagonists of The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence who are born into society, Undine is an outsider. She is searching for a way into New York's upper echelons and it takes her a while to figure out how to gain entree into this new world.
She sets her sights on the aristocratic, young Ralph Marvell who is from an old and respectable New York family. His family is horrified when Ralph falls under the spell of Undine's beauty and marries her. Because she is unsophisticated and naive, Undine thinks that marriage to Ralph will be the key to her success. But she has no understanding of the intricacies and unspoken rules of the world she has married into and doesn't realize that Ralph is cash-poor. Although he has a law degree, he has no desire to work and is content to spend his days reading and writing poetry. Like most men of his class, he is without a profession and dislikes the subject of making money. They have a son, but motherhood brings Undine no happiness and she begins to look around for a better life.
And so begins her endless pursuit of wealth and position in the world, by making one strategic marriage after another. Only later will Ralph find out that Undine had previously been married before she married him; he is devastated not only because this discovery is a symbol of Undine's dishonesty to him throughout their marriage, but also because divorce was a social stigma in New York society. As it turns out, divorce will be a way of life for Undine as she endlessly searches for happiness throughout the years. Her trajectory will take her to Paris and the inner circles of French aristocracy. You will be surprised to see who she winds up with by the book's end. Because she equates happiness with material possessions, she will never be happy. But this is a lesson she never learns, as she is one of Wharton's most unenlightened heroines.
You will love this novel about one of the great female villains in literature and enjoy watching her make her way in the world -- lying, cheating, and charming her way to the top. Undine Spragg is one of literature's most memorable characters and "The Custom of the Country" is one of Wharton's most enjoyable and unforgettable books. Don't you love it when you find a book that you can't put down?
The first day of spring is on Wednesday. Here are some flowers from Hollyflora to get you in the mood...
And camellias from the garden!