How Can We Read Edith Wharton Today?

This essay is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to …

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This essay is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation, led by Claire Messud, about “The Custom of the Country,” to be held on Jan. 28.

“The Custom of the Country”(1913),like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works.

In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.

The fact that “The Custom of the Country” is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times. Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach. When Ralph chastises Undine for keeping company with a disgraced baroness in Europe, she retorts, “Mercy, what a solemn speech!… I don’t believe an American woman needs to know such a lot about their old rules. They can see I mean to follow my own, and if they don’t like it they needn’t go with me.” A quick study, she busily absorbs the conventions wherever she lands (she proves a masterful code-switcher, as we might say now), but she’s also resolutely, selfishly, intractably herself, ready to flout convention if and when she can get away with it. Always gorgeous and elegantly dressed — her husband, Ralph, describes her face when in society as “like a theatre with all the lustres blazing” — Undine is nevertheless limited by her vapidity. As an American friend married to a French aristocrat explains, “You’re as handsome as ever; but people here don’t go on looking at each other forever.”

Wharton’s copy of “The Custom of the Country,” a first edition from the December 1913 printing.Credit…Courtesy of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home, Lenox, Mass.
A portrait of Wharton by Edward Harrison May, 1881.Credit…Darling Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

In her introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of the book, the writer and academic Linda Wagner-Martin observes that Wharton “believed that morals are intrinsic to manners,” and that the actions of Wharton’s characters in conventional early 20th-century society were, in fact, actions with moral consequences and foreseeable outcomes. That Undine’s relentless ambition should lead to her parents’ financial decline, to Marvell’s suicide, to the permanent disruption of her son’s life — all this can be anticipated from the outset by those, like Wharton herself, with a clear and perceptive gaze. Each reader will decide for themselves whether and when to condemn our protagonist (perhaps for Ralph, as he comes to believe, “weakness was innate in him” and Undine is not at all to blame?). But Undine simply is as she is, like a horse or a tree or a stone. Wharton’s novel, then, offers a compelling and unsettling anthropological study: Undine Spragg (whose initials, significantly, are “U.S.”) can be seen as a feminist icon; a brave, undaunted materialist in the spirit of Ayn Rand (or, as Jonathan Franzen once wrote of her, “comically indestructible, like Wile E. Coyote”); or as a monster of thoughtless egotism who destroys everyone and everything of value around her. Above all, she’s someone who — as if schooled by Andy Warhol — understands that her youth and good looks are a currency that can be used to purchase social standing, and, starting as she does in the valley of Apex City, only discerns the next socially desirable peak from the vantage point of her most recent ascent: first New York, then Paris, then perhaps the world entire.

A postcard from Edith Wharton to her friend Sara Norton, dated January 11, 1907.Credit…Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Undine Spragg wasn’t an entirely new type of heroine (Becky Sharp, the protagonist of “Vanity Fair,” for one, preceded her), but Wharton’s novel was prescient in its grasp of the shifting power in American and European societies, as evidenced by the characteristics of the various men who enter Undine’s life — from the etiolated, cultured Washington Square aristocracy of Ralph Marvell or the faded, tradition-bound grandeur of Undine’s second husband, the minor French nobleman Raymond de Chelles, through to the culturally assimilated newer wealth of the banker’s son and playboy Peter Van Degen and ultimately, the straightforward, triumphal materialism of the opportunistic investor Elmer Moffatt, who says of de Chelles, “His ancestors are his business: Wall Street’s mine.” Wharton conveys, too, already a century ago, the importance of cultivating one’s public image. When Undine, having been an utterly neglectful mother to her son, Paul, for much of the story, suddenly sees the advantage of reclaiming him, she reflects that “it was dreadful that her little boy should be growing up far away from her, perhaps dressed in clothes she would have hated.” It’s a thought one might, less than charitably, attribute to a reality television star of today such as a Kardashian or a Real Housewife of Somewhere.

Because moneyed society still works the way Undine Spragg understands it to: if your sole determination is to climb unsentimentally through its ranks, then you must approach your ascent strategically. If, in particular, you’re a woman without brilliance or great financial resources, then you must understand, as does Undine, that your beauty, your brand and your connections constitute your wealth. Along the way, you may make some mistakes — Undine’s early marriage to Moffatt, her brief engagement to the riding master Aaronson, and her misjudged divorce from Ralph Marvell all temporarily threaten her prospects — but if you’re canny, and a bit lucky, then you can overcome them.

The official wedding photograph of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with the royal family in the Green Drawing Room of Windsor Castle taken on May 19, 2018.Credit…Alexi Lubomirski/EPA, via Shutterstock

IT ISN’T HARD to find contemporary examples of tenacious social climbing all around us, whether in Hollywood or Washington, D.C., or at the fancy dinner parties of New York, Palm Beach, Dallas or San Francisco. Consider the humbler or parochial origins of many a rich or powerful man’s beautiful wife or girlfriend. For these women, marriage often works like a business, a carefully calculated investment in the future. But perhaps the present-day celebrity who most readily recalls Undine Spragg is Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, or Rachel Meghan Markle of Woodland Hills, Calif., as she once was. The daughter of a yoga teacher and a veteran lighting director and DP on daytime soaps and sitcoms (he won awards for his work on “General Hospital”), Meghan was seemingly always ambitious, both as an actress (her first role was on a TV show where her father worked) and in her romantic life. She married her longtime beau, a film producer named Trevor Engelson, in 2011, only to divorce him within three years (“Trevor went from cherishing Meghan to, as one friend observed, ‘feeling like he was a piece of something stuck to the bottom of her shoe,’” according to the controversial royal biographer Andrew Morton’s 2018 book “Meghan: A Hollywood Princess”). Then, having moved to Toronto for an acting role, she reportedly had a relationship with a celebrity chef, Cory Vitiello, originally of Brantford, Ontario. But the young man voted “Best New Chef in Toronto” in 2009 by Air Canada’s in-flight magazine enRoute could never have been a match for the then fifth-in-line to the royal throne of the United Kingdom, and in the summer of 2016, she abruptly parted company with Cory and took up with Harry, Duke of Sussex, whom, as we all know, she married and with whom she currently has one son, Archie.

Along the way, Meghan became estranged from her father and from her half-siblings. Undine, on the other hand, manages to retain ties to — and to remain to some degree financially supported by — her endlessly faithful and indulgent parents until the novel’s end. It’s impossible to know what really happens within the confines of a couple or a family, including (or perhaps especially) the British royal family, but one might recognize Meghan’s unhappy experience in Wharton’s explanation of Undine’s disenchantment with Ralph Marvell: “During the three years since her marriage she had learned to make distinctions unknown to her girlish categories. She had found out that she had given herself to the exclusive and the dowdy when the future belonged to the showy and the promiscuous; that she was in the case of those who have cast in their lot with a fallen cause, or — to use an analogy more within her range — who have hired an opera box on the wrong night.”

A photograph of Wharton with two small dogs on her shoulders taken by E. F. Cooper in Newport, R.I., circa 1889.Credit…Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
A postcard from Wharton to Leon Belugou dated May 10, 1914, depicting Villa I Tatti, the home of the art historian Bernard Berenson, where Wharton was often a guest.Credit…Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Meghan — Morton’s book includes the claim that she was “always fascinated by the royal family” — may have believed when she met Harry that the British royal family was the acme of glamour and achievement, but she seems to have discovered, upon her arrival at court, a stifling, rule-bound prison where she could not be herself. Just like Undine, trapped with de Chelles’s tiresome relatives in the country seat of the wonderfully named (and actual) Saint-Désert, in France’s Bourgogne region, Meghan appears to have longed for freedom and excitement. And perhaps like Undine, “she wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability; and despite her surface-sophistication her notion of amusement was hardly less innocent than when she had hung on the plumber’s fence with Indiana Frusk.” In the case of Meghan, the “plumber’s fence” wasn’t in Apex City but in Los Angeles, where her notions of amusement (and allure) were likely formed by childhood visits to the sets of the television shows on which her father worked.

So Meghan has returned, apparently indomitable, and certainly now much richer, to the city of her birth, with husband and son in tow. When, while married to de Chelles and living in France, Undine again meets her adolescent love, Elmer Moffatt, now a self-made billionaire, she has a profound realization: “His face, his voice, the very words he used, were like so many hammer-strokes demolishing the unrealities that imprisoned her. Here was someone who spoke her language, who knew her meanings, who understood instinctively all the deep-seated wants for which her acquired vocabulary had no terms; and as she talked she once more seemed to herself intelligent, eloquent and interesting.” This perception, one assumes, is akin to the exhilaration and blossoming that Meghan may have felt when she returned to her homeland, and more than that, to her native L.A. celebrity culture. After all, the language of neighbors such as Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence and Jennifer Aniston is one that we can imagine she speaks fluently, that she has grown up speaking, and in which she feels fully understood. Like Undine, indeed like countless American girls, Meghan grew up with a fairy-tale (dare one say anti-feminist) fantasy, nurtured by the shimmering, largely fictional, narratives of gossip columns (in Undine’s day) or glossy magazines, films and, now, social media. Both women, with businesslike dedication, appear to have pursued a mirage that, when attained, could only disappoint. But both women — unconquerable, conceiving of themselves as heroines — seem to confront the challenge with their own best interests firmly in view and find a positive way forward. They make lemonade out of lemons; they reinvent themselves; they keep on climbing. Spare a thought, however, for Meghan’s consort, whose native customs and country are so very far removed from where he now finds himself, and who must discover within, in order to thrive, the adaptability and resilience of an Undine or a Meghan. Were Wharton writing their story — or rather, chiefly the story of the indefatigable social-climbing (anti)heroine — one fears the prince might not fare well.

Wharton in the rose garden at Pavillon Colombe, her home in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France, outside of Paris, circa 1937.Credit…Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

“THE CUSTOM OF the Country,”Wharton’s novel of divorce, was among her favorites. Begun in 1908 and published in 1913, the book took her an uncommonly long time to write. She was distracted by other projects — in those years, she produced “Ethan Frome” (1911) and “The Reef” (1912) as well as short stories — but most significantly, Wharton and her husband, Teddy, themselves divorced, after twenty-eight years of marriage, in part because Teddy had stolen significant sums of money from his wife. Although born into an eminent Yankee family with a great deal of wealth, and consequently in a considerably better position than most divorcées (then or now), she nevertheless found herself, as Martin-Wagner puts it, “something of a social outcast,” and left the United States for France, where she would live until her death in 1937. At the same time, her biographer R. W. B. Lewis writes, she “felt propelled out of her metaphorical prison,” able to “exercise what Henry James had called a fantastic freedom.”

Undine’s repeated unions and their dissolutions — by the novel’s end her full name is Undine Spragg Marvell de Chelles Moffatt, though strictly speaking Moffatt should be listed twice — are on the one hand socially unsettling to (though ultimately accommodated by) New York and Paris societies, and on the other constitute for Undine that “fantastic freedom.” It’s perhaps not totally surprising, then, that, as Lewis notes, Undine shares a number of key traits with her creator, including their childhood nickname, Puss. Wharton understood well the personal costs of marriage for women, and the limits society placed upon them. She surely put something of herself into Undine. At the same time, she knew intimately the suffering of poor Ralph Marvell, scion of old New York, who, upon reading about his divorce in the newspapers, felt that “the coarse fingering of public curiosity had touched the secret places of his soul, and nothing that had gone before seemed as humiliating as this trivial comment on his tragedy.”

Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion.

Claire Messud is the award-winning author of eight books, including “The Burning Girl” and, most recently, “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography Through Essays.”

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