The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
It’s not a secret that I love Edith Wharton. Truly, madly, deeply. Even if The House of Mirth ended up being The House of Death and Destruction, The Buccaneers and The Age of Innocence broke my heart and made me cry in the best possible way. She has a way of making women tragic without being pitiable, of showing us the nuances of high society in New York and abroad, and somehow painting gilded prison bars over the most sumptuous of ballroom and drawing room scenes.
The heroine of The Custom of the Country is Undine Spragg, a woman who has been wholly shaped by her ideas of society. Ironically, she grew up in Kansas, dreaming of a better life. Her dream is to part of New York society, to marry a rich man from a good family, and to essentially spend her time buying jewels and fancy dresses and being adored by all around her. However, she soon finds that the “good” families left in New York are not the rich ones, and that aphorism holds true abroad as well. A series of disastrous divorces reveals not only that Undine will never be happy, but that she never can be happy because society is always telling her she’s not good enough.
The dichotomy between what Undine thinks she wants and what she really wants is the most interesting thing about this story. She thinks she wants to marry Ralph Marvell, grandson of a Dagonet, last son of a great New York family. However, she’s frustrated by both his lack of money and his inability to make any, and she’s unwilling to compromise by scaling back her own desires. She later falls in with a man who is tacky, but unfathomably rich, only to discover that he’s not a “sure thing” or any sort of honorable person. A later husband, a noble, also reveals money issues and a surprising sentimentality about family artifacts. Another husband finally reveals that Undine sabotaged herself before she ever even met Ralph Marvell — she is forever barred from “really” decent society, regardless of how much money she eventually gains.
Is this my favorite of Wharton’s novels? No. That title is still held by The Age of Innocence, the first Wharton I ever read. It’s hard to beat Countess Olenska, tragic and beautiful and beloved. But I think it might be one of the most interesting Wharton novels, in its depiction of an extreme application of societal expectations. It’s easy to see that Undine is doing something wrong…but what, exactly, when the fact that she’s an American has made her upwardly mobile but marrying “well” is really her only option?