The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton


What a pleasure to listen to Edith Wharton spin the tale of Undine Sprague, a more ambitious woman you will never read about. She is blind to the needs of others when those needs conflict with her desires of the moment. Those desires always involve money and any practical considerations of where it comes from are of no concern to Undine. Though she has set-backs and must spend months, sometimes years, in exile to achieve her goals, she continues to ascend to ever greater heights of social prominence. In her wake she leaves broke and broken men.

Undine will never be content. When she has married a billionaire who enables her to live in Paris and New York, travel wherever she likes, and buy whatever she wants, she finds something more to covet. In her beautiful ballroom in her Paris home just before she hosts a dinner party, she learns that an old business partner of her husband has been named Ambassador to England. She reproaches her husband for not having the ambition for such an appointment and he explains that because she has been divorced, he could not be an ambassador. She finds this unfair and very annoying. In the last paragraph of the book, Wharton leaves us with this picture of Undine:

But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador's wife: and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Though Wharton paints the picture of a relentlessly unpleasant woman, she gives a full-throated defense of her, and by extension all women,in the voice of one of the minor characters. Undine has rudely failed to bring her son to his birthday party given by her husband's family. Her husband's sister complains about Undine to Charles Bowen, a family friend, who appears to defend her against the accusation that she doesn't notice how hard her husband works.

Mrs. Fairford looked at Bowen reproachfully. "You talk as if you were on her side?"

"Are there sides already? If so, I want to look down on them impartially from the heights of pure speculation. I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages."

In his view the weak point is that the average American man looks down on his wife. 

"How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph, for instance–you say his wife's extravagance forces him to work too hard, but that's not what's wrong. It's normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what's abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it."

"To tell Undine? She'd be bored to death if he did!"

"Just so, she'd even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it's against the custom of the country….Why haven't we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don't take enough interest in them." 

What a wonderful book.

Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country, The Library of America (a collection of her novels), originally published in 1913, about 500 pages (depending on edition). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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