The story starts with Undine Spragg dragging her socially awkward parents around New York. Undine's father is a very wealthy man after a series of successful financial deals in their hometown of Apex. Undine is determined to climb the social ladder of New York. She uses her beauty to entice a member of one of the Old Families of New York, Ralph Marvell, into marrying her. She's on top.
The trouble with Undine is that she is never satisfied. Once she gets what she wants, she no longer wants it. Life with Ralph isn't what she thought it would be. He has his own ideas about family and propriety. On top of that, Ralph is poor by Undine's standards. To keep up with Undine's ridiculous overspending, Ralph works like a dog, yet combined with a generous allowance from her father, it's not enough. Undine manages to convince Ralph that she must go to Paris, alone, and like an idiot, he lets her. While in Europe, Undine lives the high life and sends the bills home. Then she starts getting ideas and sets her sights on European aristocracy.
Undine is the type of person that could fall into poo and come out smelling like a rose. She has the most incredible luck. In fact, she is the complete opposite of another Wharton character Lily Bart from The House of Mirth. Just when I thought it was all over for her, something would just fall into her lap! It's almost admirable how she can size up a situation and figure out how it can benefit her. She has a lot of her father in her and if she had been a man, she'd easily be a millionaire.
However, Undine is a cold-hearted, selfish, shallow person. She has no feelings for anyone but herself. She doesn't care what pain her actions cause other people, from her parents to her husband to her son. She leaves a trail of bodies in her wake. Though I believe that if someone told Undine this, she'd be genuinely surprised.
The Custom of the Country is a story for the 21st century as well as the 20th. Anyone who has seen an episode of My Super Sweet 16 has seen a Undine in the making. She's never been told no and won't take no for an answer. Everything she wants or owns has to be better than what anyone else has. She's a victim of her upbringing.
At times, I felt that if Undine had been expected to be more than an accessory to a man she would have been a better person. A character named Charles Bowen, who considers himself an amateur sociologist, makes this observation to a friend:
"I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages."
Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”
"I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”
“What do you call the weak point?”
He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”
Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”
Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well–doesn’t he prove it? 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. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”
Charles has a point but Undine has no interest in Ralph's affairs. She's interested in her own. Undine's treats her marriages like business deals; it's not personal. The men are useful until they outlive their purpose, then they are discarded and she's onto the next one. In a way you can't blame her, it's the only career she can have.
The Custom of the Country is a feminist novel of sorts but it's also a satirical look at wealth: the rising nouveau riche of America and the fading old families of New York and Europe. They are all subject to their own follies.
I could go on more but I'll stop there. This is now my favorite Edith Wharton novel. It's entertaining and even shocking.
I read this free edition of The Custom of the Country from girlebooks on my new ebook reader.