The first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, Edith Wharton stands among the finest writers of early 20th-century America. In The Custom of the Country, Wharton’s scathing social commentary is on full display through the beautiful and manipulative Undine Spragg. When Undine convinces her nouveau riche parents to move to New York, she quickly injects herself into high society. But even a well-to-do husband isn’t enough for Undine, whose overwhelming lust for wealth proves to be her undoing.
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Edith Wharton's novel is deliciously enjoyable, especially if you delight in watching detestable characters crush one another and see people behave more brutishly and vulgarly than you could have expected. By "people" I primarily mean the wonderfully named Undine Spragg, a social climber who bulldozes as many people as she can to attain an ever escaping, ever elusive goal of social grandeur and wealth. Wharton's satiric, witty, whip-smart writing fairly sparkles here, and the entire novel has lighter touch, perhaps because about half of it is in the mind of a buffoon, rather than the plodding Archer of Age of Innocence, for example.
But I really want to write about Barbara Caruso here, who should narrate EVERYTHING. She reads with warmth, humor, wit, and imparts an incredible understanding of each of the characters. I wonder about the difficulty of being a reader—she has to play every role, and she does so splendidly. Conflicted characters like Undine, whom one would normally expect to hate, are given depth and conviction. Brava.
Open Letter to Baron Fellowes of West Stafford (Lord Julian Fellowes):
After reading the novel The Custom of the Country, I discovered that you attribute to this novel your success with, among other endeavors, the popular series Downton Abbey. In your speech accepting the 2012 Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award, you said:
"It is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme and immediate way. I think it's a remarkable piece of writing. In Undine Spragg, Wharton has created an anti-heroine absolutely in the same rank as Becky Sharp, Scarlett O'Hara, or Lizzie Eustace. Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton's writing, you are on her side. That's what's so extraordinary about the book...I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something."
I agree, in a general way, with everything you state about this novel up until the part about being "on [Undine Spragg's] side." I find the thought that anyone could pull for Undine Spragg quite perplexing and almost troubling. Perhaps I might attribute our difference in opinion to class distinctions: me an attorney who grew up middle class in the American Deep South and you a loaded, landed Baron/author/screenwriter reared in South Kensington and Chiddingly, East Sussex. I do not think though, that this can be pegged simply to the fact that you are English and I am American. At least I hope that is not the case because I do sincerely believe that I am on the side of the angels here.
I enjoyed this fine novel as a satire of the upper class society in New York City at the start of the 20th Century. I take heart from the fact that no one in the novel pulls for or is on Undine's side except Undine. Her father cannot even stand her. I cannot think of or imagine a female anti-heroine who is or could be more despicable, callow, vacuous, callous, nauseating, cold, loveless, loathsome, self-centered and inhumane as Undine Spragg. She was spoiled by her parents, threw fits when her father hesitated to bankrupt himself to buy her the next new thing to fit into NYC's upper crust, she married in hopes of money, then, when it was never enough, she abandoned husband and child and prostituted herself for jewelry, long stays in Paris, et cetera, then failed to come home from her vixen adventure to attend to her son or husband when the husband had pneumonia, did not bat an eye upon her husband's awful death, and committed countless other immoral misdeeds.
In short, I could not find one redeeming quality in this b*^*h. I wanted her to fall and miserably so in some tangible or measurable way; certainly, she failed in about every part of the moral human character and condition.
By posting this online, I am inviting anyone (of any class, gender, age, and from anywhere) who has read this novel to enlighten me on what I am missing that put Baron Fellowes of West Stafford "on [Undine Spragg's] side." My Lord, hath our moral decadence come to this?