The Custom of the Country
By Edith Wharton
One couldn’t really describe Undine Spragg as a ‘heroine’. But she is certainly the main protagonist of this book. The spoilt only child of a successful businessman and a compliant mother, Undine has grown up to expect her every whim to be satisfied. The novel follows her attempts to rise above her roots.
What gives Undine distinction is her exceptional beauty, which she believes will enable her to leave behind her modest beginnings in backwater Apex and achieve the heights of New York society by making a favourable marriage. To this end, her parents remove themselves and Undine to New York for her to begin what she sees as her inevitable progress, through marriage, to the heights of the sophisticated world of mid-Nineteenth century New York
Everything we need to know about Undine’s family background and attitudes is neatly summarised by Wharton when Ralph Marvell, whom Undine eventually marries, asks her mother to explain how she came to be called ‘Undine’ He says: ‘It’s a wonderful find – how could you tell it would be such a fit?’ Undine’s mother replies easily, ‘’Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born.’ Ralph remaining struck and silent, she goes on to explain: It’s from Undoolay’, you know, the French for crimping.’
Modern American marriage customs and divorce in the upper eschelons of American society are the two main themes of the novel. The phrase: ‘the custom of the country’ is used early on in the narrative by Charles Bowen, a character who serves as a social analyst, and who observes that ‘it is the custom of the country’ for a man to slave away to pay for his wife's extravagances without ever telling her anything about the work he does. The consequence is that there is little if any shared life in many American marriages. The centre of the man's life, the world of business, remains a mystery to his wife. The centre of her life, a social world of opulent display, becomes an expensive drain on his resources when business is not going well. Undine early on gives her view of the purpose of American marriages when she observes that her friend Mabel Lipscomb will probably soon be getting a divorce since her husband has ‘been a disappointment to her.’
However, to me, ‘the custom of the country’ must also refer to Undine’s chronic, and ultimately disastrous, inability to understand any social world but the one she grew up in. Despite her meteoric rise through the social strata, her values remain basically Apex values. Her attempts to ‘learn’ ways of sounding well-informed and intelligent are doomed. Marrying, first, into a family who, as well as their aristocratic connections, are educated and embrace all aspects of cultural life, Undine is out of her depths; worse than that, Ralph Marvell turns out to be a man whose creative bent is the main focus of his life. Being forced to take on uncongenial work to support Undine in the manner to which she is accustomed, he bravely soldiers on. When eventually, she divorces him, leaving young Paul with his father, Ralph focuses all his affection on his son. Later, after divorce and re-marriage, Undine decides that having the son she had previously rejected to live with her will create the best impression in her new, aristocratic family, which is the final humiliation for Ralph and he shoots himself.
In her marrying into the aristocratic de Chelles family and becoming a Marquise, Undine believes that has finally achieved her highest ambition and reached the pinnacle of French society. But she very soon discovers that the customs of that particular country are completely alien to her. Instead of the dazzling social life in Paris she anticipated, she is forced to live in her husband’s decaying chateau in the depths of the country and to join the other women of his family in quiet pursuits like housekeeping and needlework.
Undine’s story reminds me of the story of the Little Old Woman who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle: a kind fairy hears her sighing that she wished she could get out of her vinegar bottle and live in a nice cottage. The wish is granted. But the little old lady is never satisfied; from the cottage she moves into a house, then into a mansion, then into a palace. Finally she asks for a castle. The next day she wakes up and she’s back in her vinegar bottle! So Undine gets her richly-deserved come-uppance, although in a rather unexpected way and one which shows Wharton deploying her well-developed sense of irony at its best. The only way in which she can enjoy the level of wealth she deems necessary to achieve recognition in ‘the best society’ is to re-marry the man whom she’d first known, married, then rejected, in her far-off youth in Apex. He has now become fabulously wealthy – but the social life Undine aspires to eludes the reach of the couple who are very slightly scorned as ‘nouveau riche.’ Her marriage is a hollow sham and she’s left with a deep sense of somehow having failed in life.