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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Custom of the Country

Edith Wharton

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To purchase The Custom of the Country

Title: The Custom of the Country
Author: Edith Wharton
Genre: Novel
Written: 1913
Length: 408 pages
Availability: The Custom of the Country - US
The Custom of the Country - UK
The Custom of the Country - Canada
Les beaux mariages - France
Die kühle Woge des Glücks - Deutschland
L'usanza del paese - Italia
Las costumbres del país - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • The 2022 Penguin Classics edition comes with a Foreword by Sofia Coppola and an Introduction by Sarah Blackwood

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Our Assessment:

A- : delightfully sharp

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 18/6/2004 Margaret Drabble
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/10/1913 L.M.F.
The NYT Style Magazine . 20/1/2021 Claire Messud
Sunday Times . 16/11/1913 F.G.Bettany
Sunday Times . 9/1/1966 Michael Ratcliffe
The Times . 7/7/1984 Kay Dick

  From the Reviews:
  • "Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country (1913) is one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written. Not all enjoyable novels are great, and not all great novels are enjoyable. This is, supremely, both. I liked it when I first read it many years ago, but I was far more impressed when I came across it again. (...) Undine can, and she does. She dares, risks, exceeds, rises, falls, and rises again. She is unstoppable. She is a force of nature. Her energy is dreadful, her beauty is fatal. (...) There is a great deal of plot in this novel, and it is splendidly constructed. (...) She is an anthropologist and a sociologist, as her title indicates. This novel is full of brilliantly perceptive comments on family and marriage, on women's education, on American customs and European customs, and on the influence of American capitalism and commerce upon American culture. Where Henry James dimly suggests, Wharton analyses and illustrates." - Margaret Drabble, The Guardian

  • "Undine Spragg is the most repellent heroine we have encountered in many a long day -- so " monstrous" that at times she seems scarcely human, yet so cleverly portrayed that she is always real. (...) The theme of the spoilt, utterly selfish woman is of course no new one, but it has rarely been developed in a manner so skillful, so delicate, and so completely ruthless." - L.M.F., The New York Times Book Review

  • "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" - Claire Messud, The New York Times Style Magazine

  • "There is no getting away from the consummate craftsmanship of Edith Wharton's latest novel. It is only after some little time that her design dawns on you, but no sooner have you grasped it than you begin to see with what amazing skill it is planned out and carried through. (...) And yet with all your admiration of Mrs. Wharton's intelligence and inventiveness and knowledge of her world I do not mind betting that you will rise from the study of her new tale with a feeling of profound depression. (...) What is so disheartening in Mrs. Wharton's book is the impression we get of the hopeless struggle which the nobler qualities of humanity wage in that grade of society, American and cosmopolitan, which she has chosen for the setting of her story. Delicacy of conduct, sense of honour, loyalty to tradition, are made to cut so sorry a figure here." - F.G.Bettany, Sunday Times

  • "The Custom of the Country is a ruthless prism of the belle époque turned sour, and if its very diffuseness robs it of the firm central line upheld by the two shorter novels, it is unmistakably the work of the same hand." - Michael Ratcliffe, Sunday Times

  • "The Custom of the Country is also an extraordinary achievement, for the heroine is so grossly unsympathetic. It is a powerful portrait of an avaricious, wholly self-centred, spoilt woman who has no redeeming feature, and whose progress towards fulfilment of her wishes is never halted. (...) The portrait is ruthless, wonderfully satirical and very funny." - Kay Dick, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Abner E. Spragg did well for himself and his family -- wife Leota and daughter Undine -- in Apex City, in the American heartland, but they have grander ambitions for their daughter as she comes of age and move to New York City. They've been there for two years when The Custom of the Country opens, with Undine frustrated by her inability to break into the circles she wants to be part of, despite her parents indulging pretty much her every whim.
       Undine is the shallowest of creatures, interested only in her own satisfaction; she recognizes her power over men -- she is a beautiful woman -- but takes advantage of that only to serve her own simple ends, showing little interest in romance or sexual adventure or, indeed, being tied down in any way:

She would not take more risks than she could help, and it was admiration, not love, that she wanted. She wanted to enjoy herself, and her conception of enjoyment was publicity, promiscuity -- the band, the banners, the crowd, the close contact of covetous impulses, and the sense of walking among them in cool security. Any personal entanglement might mean "bother," and bother was the thing she most abhorred.
       Undine is concerned only with her own enjoyment, and practically oblivious to others except when they are in close proximity and can somehow serve her purposes. Otherwise, it is: out of sight, out of mind: "It never occurred to her that other people's lives went on when they were out her range of vision". Wharton entertainingly describes her socializing, but among the most successful parts of the novel is when Undine spends the summer away from then-husband Ralph (and their son Paul), living it up in Europe while Ralph toils away at a job he hates to help provide for her, Wharton focusing not on what far-away Undine does but rather on Ralph and the bits of information from and about her he gets, with letters from her become increasingly rare until it's clear she's essentially discarded him.
       Undine requires money in order to live the life she wants to live, but she has little understanding of it. Her father's business success is enough to bankroll her entry into New York society, but not sufficient to keep her up in the style she insists on: among the amusing aspects of the novel is the slow decline of the elder Spraggs -- Abner never quite able to enjoy the business-success in New York that he was able to in Apex -- while Undine still demands and receives an allowance from them, through pretty much all of her circumstances. Undine does soon make a fine catch and match in Ralph Marvell, who comes from the kind of family that means something in New York society, but he doesn't have enough money to allow her the lifestyle she expects, so naturally she moves on. She follows up with a French aristocrat, Raymond de Chelles, who is from "a family of moderate fortune" -- which also doesn't turn out to be nearly sufficient for her wants (especially given the family's other expenses, and a profligate brother).
       For all of Undine's seemingly successful steps up the social ladder, money proves always to be an issue, and for each step up there's also a step, if not back then to the side -- and Undine can't bear being on the sidelines, away from where the action is. She resents Ralph not being able to afford them the New York address that she thinks is her due (with poor Ralph winding up back in his childhood home before all is said and done) -- and becoming pregnant is a tragedy for her because of what she loses: "It takes a year -- a whole year out of life !" Meanwhile, then, Raymond's stately family home might be impressive, but it's not Paris, and Paris is where Undine then wants to be. If occasionally forced to think about money, Undine generally just spends it very freely; the men's -- her father's, her husbands' -- complaints about her excesses barely touch her and she lets them worry about it; she manages always to skirt by -- and, ultimately, does find a man who can afford her lifestyle, the " billionaire Railroad King" (at a time when a billion was still a lot of money ...).
       Undine can only see from her limited perspective, and it all seems very simple to her: "If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable". She doesn't think she's asking for much -- not more than the natural order of things:
She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability
       But in her over-eagerness she repeatedly leaps too quickly -- making also for that succession of not very satisfying marriages she goes through. Adding some insult to injury, there's childhood playmate from Apex, Indiana Frusk, from whom Undine had distanced herself back in the day but who, at least for a time, leapfrogs her to exactly the kind of situation and position Undine aspires to:
She still did and was all that Undine had so sedulously learned not to be and do; but to dwell on these obstacles to her success was but to be more deeply impressed by the fact that she had nevertheless succeeded.
       The beautiful Undine dazzles, but her vacuity is a drawback: as Wharton's best summing-up sentence has it: "Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel". She is not cultured, not educated; she doesn't read much (would-be writer Ralph notes she never opens a book -- though later she does while away some time reading novels). She does aim to please, or to impress, after a fashion -- "it was instinctive with her to become, for the moment, the person she thought her interlocutors expected her to be" -- but she does not have the wherewithal; what she has is her looks and a superficially appealing manner.
       The contrast between Old World and New, between culture and money, is also a constant in the book. There's no getting around the fact that, as old Apex acquaintance Elmer Moffatt points out to Undine: "You're an American, ain't you ?" -- and it is only when she truly accepts and embraces this that she can (nearly) find true happiness.
       Wharton contrasts Europe and America, with their very different romantic values:
Where does the real life of most American men lie ? In some woman's drawing-room or in their offices ? The answer's obvious, isn't it ? The emotional centre of gravity's not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it's love, in our new one it's business. In America the real crime passionnel is a 'big steal' -- there's more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.
       As much as she is drawn to Old World respectability, it's New World business ruthlessness that is the only way for her to get what she wants. What passion she has is not for other people; she is not a romantic -- and willing, at one point, to even entertain the idea of basically giving up her son in exchange for the money that can purchase the freedom for her to take her next step in the world. (The money-deal falls through and she winds up burdened with the kid after all, but it's not a complete loss: she realizes, upon seeing him for the first time in a long time: "what an acquisition he would be" -- and is proven right, beginning with how eagerly new husband Raymond takes to the boy.)
       A recurring presence is that old friend Elmer Moffatt, whose beginnings were certainly not particularly respectable and who remains a figure who doesn't seem quite on the level. Undine's father, Ralph, and Raymond will all turn to him for financial gain, but in each case there's a whiff -- or a stench -- of being compromised when they do; indeed, arguably in each instance each man is broken by doing a deal with Moffatt. (Poor Ralph invests with Moffatt in a desperate bid to keep his son, but the deal doesn't go through in time; Wharton nicely has it then turn out to be a success -- too late for Ralph, but with Undine then able to enjoy the considerable profits.)
       Undine's history with Moffatt not only goes far back, but also turns out to have been deeper than she wants anyone to know. Moffatt uses that -- like everything -- to his advantage, but he also plays his games carefully. He too knows what he wants, but it takes him a while until he truly gets his footing; once he does, however, he becomes a true American business success story. He has a rare attitude that helps explain it:
Fact is, I've never had the time to nurse old scores, and if you neglect 'em they die off like gold-fish.
       Moffatt is an interesting, dark (shadowy if not exactly sinister) counterpart to Undine -- and the other men in her life. Breezily carefree, he represents the New World spirit, for better and worse -- triumphant, here, though Wharton certainly seems to feel at least ambivalent about that.
       Undine is a fine protagonist. Her path is not nearly as easy as it is often held to be: she has many set-backs -- or at least times when she is stuck in dreary place, a horror for her -- and she is not quite as oblivious of and indifferent to others as she is made out to be, showing the occasional maternal feeling, or affection for this or that man in her life. She is, in fact, a quite familiar type -- if drawn to somewhat greater (if not absolute) extremes, and there's enough to her to make her human, rather than simple cartoon.
       Wharton's ending is inspired, the perfect come-uppance for the woman who finally finds herself with everything she could possibly want and that money could buy ... except, she suddenly learns, the opportunity to play: "the one part she was really made for". Undine, we realize, will never truly be satisfied; her biggest character-flaw is the moving target of her aspiration to the unattainable.
       Much of the pleasure and fun of The Custom of the Country comes also from Wharton's prose and pricking-sharp observations, from Undine dressing in black after a death in: "not quite mourning, but something decently regretful" to the "ornate Mrs.Shallum" looking like: "a piece of ambulant upholstery".
       Wharton also paces the novel well, including several periods allowed just to pass by, a year or two succinctly summed up without being dwelt on much -- adding to the impact of the story picking up again at the later point. If Undine is the focus, Wharton also does well in occasionally shifting to action away from her, and the steady appearance of supporting characters in the background is also particularly well handled.
       The one rather forced plot point comes when Undine demands her son back which, as presented here, feels all too forced for specific ends for the novel. While Undine was granted full custody of the boy, it's hard to believe that Ralph wouldn't have been able to at least reasonably challenge that in court, even in those days, given that Undine completely abandoned the child. (At the very least one would have also expected him -- and/or the courts -- to insist that the mother come for the child herself, rather than simply shipping him off to Europe in the hands of a third party.) Wharton gets a lot of mileage out of how events unfold here, but it does all feel a bit too conveniently contrived, not quite in the easy flow of the rest of the novel (despite how many unlikely other events also take place there).
       With its remarkable protagonist, The Custom of the Country is a very good and satisfying read, with an appealing dark humor to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 January 2023

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The Custom of the Country: Reviews: Edith Wharton: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Edith Wharton lived 1862 to 1937.

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© 2023 the complete review

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