Sunday, 19 September 2010
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
The Custom of the Country was originally published in 1913 and tells the story of Undine Spragg, a girl who uses her beauty and ruthlessness to attempt to ascend New York's social ladder before she moves to Paris and paves her way there.
This was my first Edith Wharton novel, my only previous experience with Wharton was the film version of The Age of Innocence at which I got quite annoyed (why didn't he go up to her apartment at the end!)
But back to The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg is a fascinating character, she only has one ambition in life which is to get to the top of whichever society she happens to find herself in. She is so fixated on this desire that she is completely oblivious to everything else around her. In order to achieve her rise to the top she spends a lot of time trying to marry the right man. If the 'right' man turns out to be the 'wrong' man or she has gone as far as she can using her current husband, well she can always get a divorce.
Undine one is one of the most despicable and selfish characters I have ever read about. She does not have her own opinions or views but rather she adapts to the opinions of which ever social crowd she is attached to which leads to some quite witty moments in the book.
Near the beginning of the book, Undine receives her first New York dinner invitation and she then spends a good page and a half pondering how she should reply and what paper she should reply on..
"She had read in the Boudoir Chat ….that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink.. It was a disappointment, therefore to find that Mrs Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs Fairford's social standing".
To really demonstrate how Undine's mind works however was summed up in one line for me. Undine is in Paris when she receives frantic letters from her husband begging her to come home as the doctors bills for her sons illness was larger than expected and they cannot afford her lifestyle in Paris, after pondering “Was it her fault that she and the boy had been ill?” She comes out with this corker,
…...”and as she leaned back among the cushions disturbing thoughts were banished by the urgent necessity of deciding what dress she should wear.”
Moments like these made me chuckle but as the book went on, Undine became more and more loathsome and the people ruined or hurt in her wake (including her own little boy) became too numerous and almost became tragic.
I think the book is pointing the finger at people like her who only care for money, status and beauty, yet will always chase what they can't have, she is a caricature of those type of people. But its also a sharp look at the changing fortunes of people with money at that time.
I am reading Madame Bovary in October and I'll be interested in comparing these two women.
Would I recommend this? Yes, I found this an enjoyable read with a main character that was so despicable I couldn't look away. However if you have not read Edith Wharton before then her books The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are more famous so you might want to start with them.
Posted by Jess