It took Jonathan Franzen to draw my attention to the symmetry among the titles of Edith Wharton’s three big New York society novels: The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence. Franzen also tries to persuade his readers, in a New Yorker piece celebrating the sesquicentennial of Wharton’s birth, that The Custom of the Country is the strongest of the three books. I disagree. It may be one of Wharton’s most entertaining novels — she didn’t often exercise her sardonic sense of humor in print — but it can’t touch the penetrating melancholy of her best work.
That being said, it’s a heck of a lot of fun. The opening line has lingered in my head for years: “‘Undine Spragg — how can you?'” Undine — named, thank you, for a hair-waving tonic — goes on for the next three hundred pages riding rough-shod over every obstacle that stands in her way. Perfectly solipsistic, she is the perfect woman for her age. All Undine wants is a steady diet of admiration and publicity. Gosh, she’s the perfect woman for our age, too. I’m pretty sure if she lived now she would have her own reality TV show. The genius of the book, though, is that Undine can’t go out and design a line of tea gowns or endorse a particular brand of corset. She has to not only marry, but marry a man who can provide her with a never-ending stream of cash and social clout. Unfortunately, she’s both unsophisticated and slightly dim, so she makes a series of errors.
If there’s a twinge of pain in the book, it’s the spectacle of the collateral damage. There’s over-bred Ralph Marvell, the scion of Old New York, a refined intellectual who is incapable of earning a living. Beautiful brassy Undine dazzles him and he makes the mistake of seeing in her a sensibility that meets his own. The match ends, of course, in tears, and Undine uses their son Paul as leverage to get a divorce so that she can marry up — into the French aristocracy.
It was interesting to note on this reading that while Wharton gives us liberal doses of Ralph’s disillusionment and desperation, the Marquis Raymond de Chelles remains a cipher. No, a type: a French aristocrat, deeply enmeshed in family and church, absolutely beyond Undine’s comprehension. He’s as elusive to us as he is to Undine.
The third man in the trio — Undine’s beaten-down stock speculator papa doesn’t count except as a cash machine — is Elmer Moffatt, the bumptious nouveau riche, with his red face and shiny pate and slightly-too-tight clothes. Energetic, competitive, aggressive, loud, Elmer is the guy who appears over and over again in anglophone literature of the turn of the century. He is Undine’s true counterpart.
Wharton has the last laugh. She finds something Undine wants, but cannot have. Better yet, her own actions have put the prize out of reach. It’s the perfect revenge of writer on character, not savage but stinging.