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Edith Wharton: The Custom of the Country
Wharton took a long time over writing this novel, distracted as she was by issues in her personal life, particularly her love for Morton Fullerton. She started and stopped several times, so it is surprising to find it such a harmonious novel. The heroine, if that is the right word, is Undine Spragg, introduced as the very first words of the novel. Undine is a mid-Westerner and a social climber. She is also beautiful. Indeed, she represents many of things that the snobbish Wharton despised and, as a result, she is viciously satirised by Wharton. The story is relatively straightforward. Undine persuades her parents to move the family to New York where she marries her way to the top, leaving bodies in her wake – husbands, family, her son. Undine is so totally unsympathetic that no-one will like her, not even her weak parents. However, in the hands of a lesser writer – a man perhaps – she would have been savaged and that would have been that. The moral of the story would have been that here was a wicked, low-bred woman trying to make something of herself that she was not and left out to dry for her pains. But, as the title makes clear, Wharton does not entirely blame Undine. It is, indeed, the custom of the country for women to behave in that manner. There is little opportunity for women not born with a silver spoon in their mouths (like Wharton herself) to advance unless they can marry their way to the top. And whose fault is that?
First published 1913 by Charles Scribner’s Sons