The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton – A Review

The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton
Library of America

At the heart of it, Wharton’s novels are about freedom. It isn’t an existential freedom, it’s a practical one, one that assumes money and love are really what influence a person. For a Lilly Bart in the House of Mirth it is a serious matter, one that leads to her destruction. With The Custom of the Country, Wharton takes a different approach, one that is not as immediately tragic as Mirth, but when looked at from a distance, is as devastating.

Undine Spragg is a young woman from Apex who comes to New York to climb the social ladder and be someone. With Undine, there are only a few things she is interested in, clothing and parties, and those are really just so she can fit in amongst the best people, the ones she reads about in the society pages. She doesn’t belong to New York society and Wharton obviously has fun contrasting her manners against those of the old line New York families.

Nevertheless, she does worm her way into a social scene thanks to her parents who seem to live for her and think nothing of living as high as they can. She marries into one of the old line families, but as often the case with Wharton, that status doesn’t come with money. Her husband Ralph only has a small income and would rather write poetry (I wonder what dreamers in our New Gilded Age will want to do?). It’s not a match for the ages. He makes it for love; she for status. Neither of them get what they want. For Ralph, it slowly destroys him. He has a lover, but he is too bound to convention. Undine, though, doesn’t really care. As long as she has money, she’s happy. She ultimately divorces him, a move that shows her as a scandalous money grabber. She will marry two more times, each time increasing her income.

For Undine, freedom is something to be bought. She is unable to see that is the case. She is a primal person; one who is incapable of thinking beyond the immediate social circle needs. It leads her to surprises when her assumptions fail to be true. Her marriage to the French count is a failure because she assumes because he is rich he can spend his money as he wishes. But for him, the family is an obligation he must honor. Each in their way, is constrained by the structures they are part of and they have accepted as the way the world is. Wharton makes this even more clear when the Count spends a fortune to pay his brother’s gambling debts, but won’t allow Undine to stay in Paris for the season.

Undine, despite her avarice, might seem the most free. She isn’t tied down by convention. She gets divorce three times; doesn’t commit suicide like Ralph; survives every society snub. Wharton doesn’t find anything redeeming in it, though. Her tone isn’t a moralizing, nor is wild like a Thackery in Vanity Fair, although Undine is like a Becky Sharp, but there is a very dry sense of satire. It is so dry it is easy to miss. For readers who want to relate to their heroines, this is not the book; try The House of Mirth. It’s in that dryness, the realistic depiction of a woman so consumed by status and money, that Wharton creates a character who is so untethered to reality, she has no idea what she really wants. She destroys everyone, unintentionally, of course, and when she has gotten everything she wants, or says she wants, Wharton reveals Undine’s true desperation.

The Custom of the Country contrasts the two competing approaches to living: fidelity to tradition, what ever those might be; or a careless disregard for all rules. In both cases, though, the characters are trapped in worlds they come from or think they are joining. While the case of Ralph Marvell holding on to a family honor is tragic, that of Undine who does not know who she is, is even more tragic. It’s an illusory freedom. She has no idea what she truly wants and that leaves her after she has married the multi-millionaire uncertain if she has enough yet. It’s a dark ending. She has bought into fashion without understanding the fashion is always changing.

Wharton’s work always meets at the intersection of wealth and freedom. At her best her works are cautionary tales. Although Undine’s passage through the aristocracy of Europe might seem unrealistic, translate them to pop cultural icons, and you have glimpses into a new Gilded Age. The Custom of the Country is a dark and dry satire, which makes it a little bit more difficult to approach like Mirth and the Age of Innocence. But it is one of her better works and worth a read after Mirth and Innocence.

Xingu and Other Stories by Edith Wharton – A Review

Xingu and Other Stories
Edith Wharton
Charles Scribner’s Sons, October 1916, 436 pg

Xingu and Other Stories is an uneven collection of stories from a writer in the midst of her most fertile work. The good stories show similar concerns of her more famous novels such as the house of Mirth. When she is examining the lives of couples or more commonly the lives of women she is a powerful writer that doesn’t write polemics, but creates heroines that self aware and willing to try to size what should be theirs. They may not get it, but they’ll try. Interspersed among those stories, though, are less than convincing ghost stories, atrocity stories from World War I, and tales of revenge. Nevertheless, Xingu has some gems in it.

The eponymous story Xingu  is a funny send up of conformity and phony intellectualism. A group of women get together regularly and invite a writer to talk to the group about their book. The writers quickly bore of the  morally bland middle class women and their pedantic questions. Nor are the women are capable of  having their own opinions about the works. They all seek a kind of respectable consensus on what each book means and it makes for a conservative and unimaginative group. One day when they are trying to entertain a pompous writer one of the members mentions begins to talk about a place called Xingu. Everyone at the lunch fakes knowledge of Xingu, but none of them have heard of it. As the story builds, they begin to get more and more extravagant in their claims. Finally, the woman who first mentions Xingu , turns the table on them all and tells them what Xingu means, deflating the pedantic women of the group. It is a funny story although the punch line is a little long. Wharton can occasionally draw a story out a little too far.

Autres Temps… is classic Wharton with its subtle and nuanced look at women in society. In the story, a woman returns to New York after her divorce, a scandalous idea in during the late 1800’s, forced her to flee to Europe and a new life. She returns because her daughter has just divorced, too, and is going to remarry and she wants to be there to help her, because she remembers what a disaster it was for her. When she arrives, though, her daughter reminds her everything is alright. No one seems upset, even the women of her generation, the women she was friends with at one time. She begins to think that her exile is over, but slowly her daughter begins to suggest, perhaps she is too tired to come to dinner with everyone. Maybe she should stay in her rooms. It is a brilliant moment, both in the coldness of her daughter who should have been grateful for her help, and the identification of that all too common trait where mores change for the young, but those of the older generation still remember the past sins. It doesn’t so much as mater what she did, just that she did something at some point and should return to her exile.

The Long Run is perhaps the most cutting of all the stories and reminiscent of The House of Mirth. It it, a single man and a married woman are friends and lovers. They have been friends for years and the desire between them is strong. One night she comes to him and says she can be his. She is ready to give everything up for him and will run away that very evening. Although he says he wants it and would love to leave the factory he owns and write again with as his muse, he won’t do it. He says it wouldn’t be good for her. He is not the free thinker he is, but now the respectable factory owner more concerned about what people will think about him. Yet he is aware of his situation:

…she had married that pompous stick Phillip Trant because she needed a home, and perhaps also because she wanted a little luxury. Queer how we sneer at women for wanting the thing that gives them half their attraction!

But she is too independent for this and refuses his half measures that are more interested in respectability than love. She also sees that the winner if they do things his way is him. She won’t have any power. She wisely says no in the best line of the book:

…one way of finding out whether a risk is worth taking is not to take it, and then to see what one becomes in the long run, and draw one’s inferences.

The novella The Bunner Sisters is a strange tale about drug addiction, or as the drug addict is called in the book, drug fiends. The drug in question is opium and though Wharton never shows anyone taking it, it is the axis of the story. Even in the opening pages of the book there is a sense of danger and squalor populated by drunks and it sets the tone for the book. Describing the neighboorhood the Bunner Sisters live in she says,

These three house fairly exemplified the general character of the street, which, as it stretched eastward, rapidly fell from shabbiness to squalor, with an increasing frequency of projecting sign-boards, and of swinging doors that softly shot or opened at the touch of red-nosed men and pale little girls with broken jugs.

In other words, saloons, the so called scourge of preprohibition America. The story is about two lonely sisters who have a small millinery shop. They live a solitary life until one buys the other a clock for her birthday. The man they bought it from has a little shop and both women hold out hopes of marring him, but it is the younger sister finally marries him. Unfortunately, he is an opium addict and the older sister worries constantly about what happened to her sister who went to St. Louis wither her husband. Finally, the sister returns and tells a tale of addiction, poverty, violence, that finally ends in a still born baby and death by tuberculosis. It is a frightful tale of what can happen when you have no one and you are dependent on a man. The younger sister renounces her freedom in the little shop, although it isn’t much freedom, and chooses unwisely. It is a story that is only one step away from Dickens. It is hard to say, though without knowing more about drug usage in her works and in general (I do know in her novel Custom or the Country there is an overdose), whether this falls under prescient or after school special. That said, it is in the general tenor of the social realist problem novel. At the same time, it is well drawn picture of the two spinsters, ones you can imagine she probably met at one time or anther. And Wharton does capture the loneliness well.

As for the rest of the stories, we have Coming Home which is purported to be a story from American ambulance drivers in France during World War I. It is a story of a Frenchwoman who is caught behind enemy lines. She has no other option than put up with the Germans, letting them stay in her house, eat her food, and though it is not said, rape her. When the French take the town back her brother learns the truth and when finding the German officer who raped her he murders him, leaving as if he had been mortally wounded. It isn’t a bad story as they go, but it fits right in there with German atrocity stories and is as much propaganda as anything else. Wharton was quite committed to the war and had already written Fighting France and had helped set up hospitals, and would later write the novel, A Son at the Front. It was also the only story written for the collection and shows a hurried rush to write something relevant.

The rest of the stories are so-so. One is a ghost story with a tiresome ending that has little suspense and another is a mysterious murder that really isn’t that mysterious.

Xingu has some great Wharton and it has some less than stellar work, but the good ones are excellent. Now if only publishers would pay $2000 for stories like these as they did in her time.