Keeping Up Appearances: A Review of The Custom of the Country

If you crave a book in which people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need that other people don’t care about, then this is your fix.

Edith Wharton must join your to-read list. Now, not later. It’s not that Wharton says anything important about our contemporary world — she reflects more than she comments; it’s not that she has an amazing plot — it’s thin and more latent than realized; nor is it that she presents roller-coaster events — instead she focuses upon psychological realism. No, you must read Wharton to read a very fine writer who can show a generation of writers what it means to actually write. In some ways Wharton outshines Jane Austen in the psychological novel, at least Jane Austen as the author of Emma. If you want social satire and irony you’ll find Wharton’s version much more refined. If you want marriage, you’ll find it here — Wharton’s main character of The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg, marries four times (twice to the same man).

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Edith Wharton as a young woman. Beinecke Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

I might as well address the elephant in the salon right up front. Comparisons have been made about the similarity of Wharton’s style to that of Henry James; the refutation is that their styes differ enough to render the comparison groundless. I tend to side, somewhat, with the first side and characterize her brand of psychological realism much like Henry James light.

Compare for example the mature and refined style of James in The Ambassadors,

“Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether’s part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.”

Or,

“They walked, wandered, wondered, and, a little, lost themselves; Strether hadn’t had for years so rich a consciousness of time — a bag of gold into which he constantly dipped for a handful.”

Now Wharton in The Custom of the Country,

“She had never paused to consider what her father and mother were ‘interested’ in, and, challenged to specify, could have named — with sincerity — only herself.”

“Miss Ray pinched her lips together without speaking, and Mrs Van Degen paused for the fraction of a second.”

Wharton’s sentences are more straightforward, almost flatter, but still literary.

Wharton and James were friends for about a decade. They recognized each other’s styles and they generally admired each other’s work. James did not hesitate to speak when he felt she hadn’t quite reached her mark. The late James was not to Wharton’s particular taste, at least in 1904 when she admitted the distaste. “I broke one tooth after another on it,” she wrote of The Ambassadors in a letter to James. Wharton was probably wrong in her lack of appreciation and James was probably right in his criticism. He was, after all, a consummate, exacting reader who saw strengths and faults of literature as easily as one breathes. And beside that, James was a literary genius. He was the sort of dinner party denizen I would tremble to be situated near to for fear of saying anything literary because he would most likely out-think me on every level.

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Henry James, Edith Wharton and Howard Sturgis on the veranda at The Mount, Wharton’s home. Before 1920. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, on this subject, the style known as psychological realism has a fascinating lineage that I think would briefly look something like: Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Henry James, Edith Wharton, Cynthia Ozick’s Trust (1966), Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land (2006), and John Bainville’s Mrs. Osmond (2017). We might toss a Dostoyevsky or two into the mix and perhaps Eliot’s Middlemarch.

What does Undine Spragg want? To get the hell out of Apex and to be magically inserted directly into the upper crust world of NYC. However, while she shares this echelon’s love of material consumption, she arrives without a clean slate, and her ideas, well this says it all: Her friend Popple has lent her romance books with dramatic heroines who restrain passion and hold out for true love, and Undine “had been struck by these arguments as justifying and even ennobling.” So we follow her through her marriages and find the truth in the old adage, the hunt is more thrilling than the kill. The strength in all of this telling is Wharton’s focus upon Undine who observes the world as it gazes upon her.

The Bragg’s arrive in New York as nouveau riche riding the wave of money from the glue business and they take up residency at the Stentorian Hotel, having given up their Riverside Drive apartment — wrong neighborhood, wrong set. Here they get to clash with old money people who have their ways.

But Undine’s mind is not the only one we are allowed to access, and this for me was a weakness of the novel. I believe a trickier set of problems and solutions would have been raised had Wharton stayed with her through the entire plot. James thought that Wharton had missed a grand opportunity in this novel, primarily to center the story on Undine’s provincial naivety and blundering egoism contrasted with the French nobility and lineage.

The Custom of the Country is a chronicle novel, to use its common term, reads somewhat more like an elaborate diary, contrasted with a character of James perhaps holding a large cut piece of quartz and obsessively examining it from all sides — looking into it, observing the reflections, watching the manner in which the shape slowly changes as it is turned in the fingers. Wharton, though, will not linger. The glimpses of insight, the perceptive observations, the opinions are pages torn from a calendar, events that speed by. James wrote about TCOTC in Notes on Novelists, (1914) that it is “consistently, almost scientifically satiric” and that its effect caused a reader to become “more and more one with the principle of authority at work; the light that gathers is a dry light, of great intensity, and the effect, if not rather the very essence of its dryness is a particularly fine asperity.” Asperity is a temper that expresses bitterness or anger.

What does Undine want? She wants the world and she wants it now.

The title in and of itself says a lot, it’s the story of the country mouse visiting the city mouse. It’s no wonder that Henry James read this work and said that Wharton had missed an opportunity to demonstrate the class of cultures, that of Undine with Europe, from a psychological point of view. But that would be James’ motive; as he once said, which most authors know if they pause to recognize it, that he read a book and immediately began seeing ways he would write the same passages.

This is a high class world of costly trinkets and dainties tarnished by scandal, the subjects of salon and drawing-room chit chat. This is the lifestyles and failures of the rich and famous. The goal of life is to acquire property, either through inheritance or work. These rich stop just short of owning persons although low level workers are to be at their beck and call. Dearly-won rewards of the material kind are seen to quickly diminish in a world of keeping up appearances, and where emotional rewards are fleeting. Wharton was not only a great writer but a very wealthy writer, an autodidact from what I know, and her richesse world view seeps through all that she writes here.

According to Wharton, the title was taken from a play by John Fletcher and Philip Massinger of 1647 in which the “custom” was the droit du seigneur in which a feudal lord could have intimate relations with a subordinate woman, in particular on their wedding night. As an aside, if you want to watch a fairly average but engrossing film featuring the subject try out And Now the Screaming Starts (1973), an Amicus production which also, in a screamingly odd twist, produced the movie version of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. But I digress. Of course the droit du seigneur resonates once we understand Undine’s dirty little secret. Moffat is of the feudal town but not yet the Lord, although he will be by the end of the book. Townies know everybody’s business and that someone married so and so or slept with so and so is fodder for squawking but of little consequence once liquor and proximity take over. In contrast, the upper crust of NYC views divorce as horrific, a word not even to be whispered, and a woman divorced is a woman vitiated.

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Le Droit du Seigneur by Jules Arsene Garnier (1872). Wikimedia Commons.

TCOTC doesn’t satirize the rich generally but Wharton manages to skewer the materialism and narcissism of Undine quite nicely, to the point where Undine becomes a maddeningly annoying young woman. But it is exactly on this detail where Wharton’s shift in the point of view is absolument ahurissante (mind-boggling). Is it that Wharton really believed Undine has no depth beyond her little thoughts presented to us, (we don’t believe this because she is so conniving) or is it that when things begin to get really sticky, that Wharton turns the topic. Here I often wondered if she’d been too indoctrinated to the de rigueur for conversation of the hoity-toity set in which one briefly chats on lots of topics with lots of people. I couldn’t help but think this custom played a role in Wharton’s decisions. At any rate, and I think I agree with James, whether it’s the lost opportunity of psychological contrast or whether it’s the lack of strict focus on Undine’s interior thoughts, I was bothered by the switch. Something seems not quite developed to its potential in this area.

The underlying economic theme reflects only the usual inequalities of turn of the century America, justified by the credo that everybody has an equal access to wealth acquisition. The twist of lemon in this drink is that, for this set, the rules also demand that those who lose their wealth become nobodies. The “set” as Undine calls it, is the community of rich elite who determine members or ostracize all others. They are the adjudication machine that is always humming in the background, with its agenda never displayed because if you don’t understand it, you’re obviously not destined to be a member. The rules are obvious however. You must have money enough to be, not just play, the part, no divorced women, and so forth. So to appreciate the book you have to accept leanings of the 1%: slews of dinner parties, fancy restaurants, plays and operas, visits, seasonal trips between New York and Paris, and on and on in a never ending life of expenditure because not only is this necessitated by what one owns, it’s necessitated by what one is, and both are justified by how one appears to others, all of which indicates a deep American ideology, that at its core is entirely rooted in capitalism and meritocracy.

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The Mount, Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Photo by David Dashiell, 2006. Wikimedia Commons.

I think that Wharton most likely drew inspiration for the novel from Richardson’s Clarissa, placing Lovelace’s ravaging into Undine’s past, not as a rape but as adolescent love. Richardson solved the point of view problem via the epistolary novel in that it keeps readers within the mind of Clarissa. Wharton’s switches of character and point of view are jarring, and we neither see the full depth of Undine’s reactions nor does the switch really go justice to the other characters such as Ralph Marvell.

I also get the sense she drew upon Dickens in parts of the novel. Here is a comparison example to illustrate what I mean:

Wharton: “It had been raining heavily and persistently for a longer time than she could remember. Day after day the hills beyond the park had been curtained by motionless clouds, the gutters of the long steep roofs had gurgled with a perpetual overflow, the opaque surface of the moat had been peppered by a continuous pelting of big drops. The water lay in glassy stretches under the trees and along the sodden edges of the garden-paths, it rose in a white mist from the fields beyond…”

Dickens: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.” That is one of Dickens’ most amazing little sections of writing.

Wharton’s strength is her dogged pursuit of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Yet, I kept pining for James. I like the way his long, convoluted, difficult sentences support the exposed psychology of his characters, which seems a better form supporting function than are the choices of Wharton.

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Fair use for review.

One of Wharton’s strengths is to say a lot with little as the first sentence demonstrates:

“‘Undine Spragg — how can you?’ Her mother wailed, raising a prematurely wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the not which a languid ‘bell-boy’ had just brought in.”

I wish that more contemporary novelists managed this type of sly complexity. Wharton also has her Oscar Wilde moments with aphorisms, for example: “‘Ah, there’s the secret of domestic happiness. Marry somebody who likes all the things you don’t, and make love to somebody who likes all the things you do.”

Undine starts with Moffat and she nearly ends with Moffat. He loves her from the start and by the end of the novel he becomes a billionaire, buying up great art works of the world with intent and taste. Undine has again married him, but she soon realizes that money alone won’t buy power in an American money is always greener on the other side of marriage conclusion. We know she’ll never be satisfied but we’ll leave her to find that out for herself. Oh, and by the bye, how not to admire a name like Looty Arlington.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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