Many moons ago I had read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and was blown away by it. It was the novel that earned her the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so. It is one of those novels I plan to revisit sometime soon.
The Age of Innocence is one of the three ‘society’ novels that Wharton is famous for, the other two being The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, and it was the latter that tempted me first.
The protagonist, or should we say anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is the uniquely named Undine Spragg, easily one of the most appalling and yet highly fascinating characters in fiction.
We first meet Undine in the Hotel Stentorian in New York where she has recently moved in with her parents. The Spraggs are originally from Apex City (a fictional town somewhere in the Midwest), but they shift to New York so that Undine can realize her ambition of being part of the elite society in the city.
Undine is tremendously beautiful, a fact she is well aware of and knows how to use to her advantage. But there is much she is yet to learn about the codes and customs of Old New York. In the meanwhile, she captures the imagination of Ralph Marvell, who belongs to an old and respectable family in the city and they marry.
Undine is soon to realize that people who constitute Old New York are not necessarily well moneyed. The Marvells live comfortably but they have modest means and it is not enough to whet Undine’s rather expensive tastes. Ralph is a gentleman with no eye for business or work, and aspires to become an author. He receives a monthly allowance from his grandfather, but Undine’s insatiable desire for rich clothes and a decadent lifestyle means that they are also compelled to rely on the support of Undine’s father Mr Spragg.
Ralph and Undine are as different as chalk and cheese, which becomes increasingly apparent during their honeymoon. They travel to Europe. While Ralph is content to be alone with Undine, appreciating the quiet countryside and looking for inspiration to begin his novel, Undine is unhappy. She craves the life of big hotels, of being surrounded by people, dining and socializing. Ralph relents and they head to the Alpine town of St Moritz in Switzerland, where Undine, with her newly acquired set of friends, delves headlong into a life of dining at smart restaurants and umpteen shopping expeditions, a charade that continues subsequently in Paris as well.
As her extravagant lifestyle eats into their finances, despite Ralph’s many attempts to rein her in, cracks begin to appear in their relationship.
During their first days together it had seemed as though pecuniary questions were the last likely to be raised between them. But his marital education had since made strides, and he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.
The arrival of their son Paul does nothing to soothe Undine, who feels constrained by their limited circumstances. Ralph, meanwhile, also tries to reconcile himself to Undine’s many moods which keep oscillating depending on the money at her disposal and various amusements at hand.
Then there’s also the looming presence of Elmer Moffatt, a self-made man and a go getter. He is a man from Undine’s past in Apex City – much before she makes her entry into New York society. We are given an inkling of this right at beginning of the novel in a conversation between Mr and Mrs Spragg when they apprehensively discuss Mr Moffatt’s appearance in New York, a man Undine wants to have nothing to do with.
I won’t dwell anymore on the plot, although a lot more happens.
Undine Spragg, meanwhile, is a quite a character. She wants to be at the pinnacle of fashionable society, the talk of the town during the season and finds marriage as the fastest way to do it.
But, alas, while she expects wealth and respectability, she ends up getting only one of them, never both.
She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability…
Undine believes in the power of her beauty and with it the ability to get what she demands. This takes a toll on Ralph who is driven to dabble in business to support her even though he has no aptitude for it.
On one hand, Undine has a single-minded focus of attaining material possessions and getting them despite suffering various setbacks in the process. Yet her idea of success also depends a lot on how she perceives herself in the eyes of others. She is always yearning for the unattainable with the result that she remains unhappy in most of the situations she finds herself in. She is frankly horrid to poor Ralph, and yet it is perversely fascinating to watch how she takes her failures on her chin and to just move on.
In many ways she has quite a few common traits with Moffatt – both refuse to be bowed down by setbacks and while Moffatt strives for success and wealth in business, Undine aspires for it in her married life.
In this way, Wharton gives a wider view of the newly rich in America and their zeal for money as a key driving force. Undine, in a way epitomizes this, in her wanting to spend the money now, on the spot rather than save it for a distant future. In the later sections of the novel, Wharton also successfully contrasts the American obsession with material wealth with the European ideals of traditions and age old customs. With respect to this point particularly, here is Frenchman Raymond de Chelles speaking to Undine…
‘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 pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.’
Divorce is also a key plot device and a dominant theme in the novel. Wharton subtly encapsulates the implications of ending a marriage for a woman and how it restricts her standing in polite society. Interestingly, this novel was published around the time Wharton herself had just divorced her husband. Clearly, while more and more women had begun to opt for divorce across America, it was still unheard of in Old New York at the time.
Wharton’s prose as ever is top notch, elegant and incisive. This is an incredibly immersive novel where the pace never lets up. It is packed with fully realized characters and Wharton’s keen and subtle insights into society – both American and European – at the time.
Overall, The Custom of the Country is an absolutely brilliant novel and I would place it right up there with her masterpiece The Age of Innocence.