Edith Wharton seems at one point to have intended The Custom of the Country as a feminist novel, an expose of the harm done to women by their exclusion from public life.
Published in 1913, the year of Wharton’s own divorce, the novel presents a world in which marriage is women’s only career – and personal display their only permissible field of competition.
Here’s the big set-piece speech on the subject, the speech from which the novel takes its title. Two minor characters are discussing the unhappy marriage of two of the principals, Ralph Marvell and Undine Spragg:
“I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”
Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”
“I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”
“What do you call the weak point?”
He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”
Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”
Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well–doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”
“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”
“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”
Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her.
“YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?”
“Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.”
“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”
“Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture. I’m not implying that Ralph isn’t interested in his wife–he’s a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed. Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional centre of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a ‘big steal’–there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.”
Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. “Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!”
As I said: that’s the novel Edith Wharton seems to have intended to write. Happily, however, the character intended to illustrate Wharton’s thesis burst her authorial chains and escaped into the open country like Frankenstein’s creation, there to make her own very different career as one of the most memorable monsters of American literature.
We meet Undine Spragg in a hotel in New York. Undine’s father made a small fortune through a dubious business venture in his hometown, the Midwestern city of Apex. To escape local notoriety, he and his wife have followed the demands of their strong-willed daughter and relocated.
Undine’s father at one point grimly remarks that Undine always wants things very intensely, but never for very long. What she wants when we first meet her is to join New York’s showy café society, epitomized by the flashy Peter van Deegan, heir to a banking fortune. Despite two years of relentless social campaigning, Undine has succeeded in touching only the very outermost periphery of that society.
In that periphery, she met by accident Ralph Marvell, the handsome descendent of one of the genteel families of 18th century New York. Undine is described as very beautiful (in a full-hipped, full-chested style that was already beginning to go out of fashion in 1913). Marvell falls in love. Relying on the assurances of her mother’s masseuse that old families like the Marvells are much, much grander than upstarts like the van Deegans, Undine accepts Ralph’s proposal.
The Marvell clan owns a grand house on Washington Square, sideboards of antique silver, galleries of family portraits, and a country house with a long lawn stretching to Long Island Sound. In the cash department, however, things are rather tight, a restriction that badly chafes Undine. Conflict arises on the honeymoon in Europe. Ralph’s tastes and budget send the couple to Sienna in the summer, a season when New York society prefers to gather in the grand hotels of St. Moritz in Switzerland. Undine pouts, Ralph yields – and there Undine begins a new life of extravagance, debts, and deceits to cover them.
Undine is not a sexually torrid person herself, but she becomes adept at exploiting male desires for her own purposes. She embarks on a train of manipulations that successively establish her as Peter van Deegan’s mistress, the wife of a French marquis, and ultimately restore her to her very first love, an Apex boy who has gained one of the greatest fortunes in America. She leaves behind a wreckage of casualties: Undine’s son by Ralph is used as a hostage then neglected; Ralph ends a suicide; the marquis is humiliated and discarded.
It’s not easy to reconcile this story with the theme of female victimization.
Wharton may believe that women should find a larger role for themselves. Undine however does not agree.
When Raymond [the French marquis] ceased to be interested in her conversation she had concluded it was the way of husbands; but since then it had been slowly dawning on her that she produced the same effect on others. Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel. As soon as people began to talk they ceased to see her. Any sense of insufficiency exasperated her, and she had vague thoughts of cultivating herself, and went so far as to spend a morning in the Louvre and go to one or two lectures by a fashionable philosopher. But though she returned from these expeditions charged with opinions, their expression did not excite the interest she had hoped. Her views, if abundant, were confused, and the more she said the more nebulous they seemed to grow. She was disconcerted, moreover, by finding that everybody appeared to know about the things she thought she had discovered, and her comments clearly produced more bewilderment than interest.
Remembering the attention she had attracted on her first appearance in Raymond’s world she concluded that she had “gone off” or grown dowdy, and instead of wasting more time in museums and lecture-halls she prolonged her hours at the dress-maker’s and gave up the rest of the day to the scientific cultivation of her beauty.
Undine is victimizer, and her victims are for the main part men, pre-eminently her own son, who is ultimately consigned to boarding school and forgotten.
Something he had half-guessed in her, and averted his frightened thoughts from, took his little heart in an iron grasp. She said things that weren’t true… That was what he had always feared to find out…
Undine is a terrible liar. Wharton is a marvelous truth-teller, and her truths burst out even from her own limitations – from the ideological frame of The Custom of the Country, from the anti-semitism that infects The House of Mirth. A great book transcends even its own creator, and great writers produce works greater than themselves.