You say you’re done with The Age of Innocence. Not so fast. Just hitch up your bustle, loosen up your stays and flop right back down on that horsehair sofa. Settle back for another delectable wedge of Wharton.
The Custom of the Country (1913) was written seven years before The Age of Innocence, but takes place in the New York represented in the latter book’s last chapter. The Old Guard of New York society is still hanging in, but its inexorable grip is being peeled away, slowly and tenaciously, one gloved finger at a time.
The novel opens with a beautiful girl (with a decidedly unbeautiful name) named Undine Spragg who, with her mother and father, newly rich and newly arrived from the midwestern Apex City, are perched at the fashionable Hotel Stentorian. Because her daddy is rich and she’s so damn good-looking, it’s only a matter of time before she marries into the big deals. Mrs. Heeney, a “society” manicurist and masseuse, counsels Undine and her mother daily to be patient about getting in: “The wrong set’s like fly-paper: once you’re in it, you can pull and pull, but you’ll never get out of it again…Undine’s all right. A girl like her can afford to wait…she’ll have the run of the place in no time.”
Undine has her sights set on Ralph Marvell, who resembles Newland Archer in that he’s been abroad and fancies himself broad-minded but it is mostly a veneer; he’s very much entrenched in his upbringing. His one bold step out proves to be disastrous — he falls for Undine. Since she isn’t from his world, she’s practically foreign and he’s charmed by it. When he meets her bumpkin-ish mother, one would think Undine would be undone, but he’s charmed through and through. She meets his family as well and damns herself everytime she opens her mouth. Ralph treats her pronouncements like witty repartee, but his family is aghast.
As the set-up for the romance and the romance itself is grinding through the New York City society mill a bit too slow for Undine’s liking, she tries to help it speed along by asking her father for money for new dresses and one time, she asks him to rent a box at the opera for her for the whole season. Since moving to New York (obstensibly for the single purpose of getting Undine launched into society) Mr. Spragg’s been “a mite strapped” but Undine stubbornly persists and gets everything she wants. Why these common-sense plain folk meekly put up with this late Victorian-era Veruca is a mystery, but Wharton cleverly withholds that for a time, then lets it drop rather late in the novel in an offhand way.
Also arrived in New York City is a red-faced fellow from Apex City named Elmer Moffatt, whose proximity as well as his “spruced up” appearance is enough cause to make Mr. Spragg scowl nervously and Mrs. Spragg reach for her vial of digitalis. Undine encounters Moffatt at the opera when she’s engaged to Ralph and can fairly smell the wedding cake baking, and she’s horrified to see him. She asks Elmer (nicely) to get lost and he obliges, for the moment.
Undine snags Ralph and things go to hell in a handbasket. Even though she’s now among society folk, she’s still working hard to be a big splash, so she’s still spending money like water. The Marvell family isn’t rich, but working for a living is frowned upon, so Ralph is forced to ask his father-in-law for an allowance before the wedding. Undine and Ralph have a son and she’s not terribly interested in staying home and taking care of little Paul.
Meanwhile, Undine has had her Homer Simpson “D’Oh!” moment about society not necessarily equaling tons of money, so she’s already got an eye out for her next conquest, but it’s a mistake she’s destined to repeat. Nothing deters Undine for long, though — she’s a great one for believing in “starting over”. She’s got pioneer spirit, but it runs so amok that it makes amok look normal.
Undine is a fascinating and repelling creation of the Becky Sharp/Scarlett O’Hara variety. Wharton is superb with this character and even more so with poor hapless Ralph Marvell who will break your heart. The Custom of the Country is brilliant and my favorite Edith Wharton novel so far. Really good read — I promise. Go find it.