Today on Project Gutenberg #57

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Another classic author here! Edith Wharton was a prolific American writer with a career spanning decades, from the 1880s and 1890s up to the 1930s. Her stories tended to deal with the complex dynamics of upper-class society during the Gilded Age, i.e. the last two or three decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. She’s most famous for writing The Age of Innocence, which made her the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Literature. Today’s book, The Custom of the Country, is not nearly as famous, but it has still managed to leave a mark in literary history. Here’s some trivia for you: Julian Fellowes, best known as the creator of Downton Abbey, actually cited this particular story as a key inspiration for his own creative work.

The Custom of the Country is the tale of Undine Scragg, a young woman from a nouveau riche family that has moved to New York from the Midwest. When it comes to her marriage prospects, Undine has only one thing in mind: gaining as much wealth and social power as she can. She sets her sights on Ralph Marvell, a man from an old upper-class family, and soon marries him. But marriage into an old money family isn’t all its cracked up to be, especially when the old money doesn’t actually have much money. Dissatisfied with the trajectory of her life, Undine sets out to find the happiness and status she wants, leaving a trail of misery, scandal and even death in her wake.

Undine is what we would in literary terms call an anti-heroine. In more casual terms, we might call her an unapologetic bitch. Fellowes compared her to characters like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind. Her idea of happiness is being rich and powerful, and she goes to some extreme lengths to attain that. She marries and divorces more than once, and she starts multiple affairs. In her most odious moment, she blackmails one of her ex-husbands for money by threatening to take their son away, an act which drives the husband to suicide. She also ends up getting what she wants in the end, remarrying a rich old flame whose cynical temperament is well suited to her own. But does she really win? The ending of the book implies that for Undine, no amount of money and status will ever be enough:

“Oh, that reminds me—” instead of obeying her he unfolded the paper. “I brought it in to show you something. Jim Driscoll’s been appointed Ambassador to England.”

“Jim Driscoll—!” She caught up the paper and stared at the paragraph he pointed to. Jim Driscoll—that pitiful nonentity, with his stout mistrustful commonplace wife! It seemed extraordinary that the government should have hunted up such insignificant people. And immediately she had a great vague vision of the splendours they were going to—all the banquets and ceremonies and precedences….

“I shouldn’t say she’d want to, with so few jewels—” She dropped the paper and turned to her husband. “If you had a spark of ambition, that’s the kind of thing you’d try for. You could have got it just as easily as not!”

He laughed and thrust his thumbs in his waistcoat armholes with the gesture she disliked. “As it happens, it’s about the one thing I couldn’t.”

“You couldn’t? Why not?”

“Because you’re divorced. They won’t have divorced Ambassadresses.”

“They won’t? Why not, I’d like to know?”

“Well, I guess the court ladies are afraid there’d be too many pretty women in the Embassies,” he answered jocularly.

She burst into an angry laugh, and the blood flamed up into her face. “I never heard of anything so insulting!” she cried, as if the rule had been invented to humiliate her.

There was a noise of motors backing and advancing in the court, and she heard the first voices on the stairs. She turned to give herself a last look in the glass, saw the blaze of her rubies, the glitter of her hair, and remembered the brilliant names on her list.

But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

Chapter 46

Wharton’s writing manages to be a lot of things: descriptive, sharp, sad, funny and satirical. An ongoing theme here is the not-so-subtle criticism of the stigma surrounding divorce in the 1910s, especially for women. Undine may not be a very admirable person, but a lot of the pain she causes could have been avoided had she been able to get divorced without suffering such dire social consequences. Once she divorces for the first time, she basically gets shut out of high society, and most of the book is about her trying to claw her way back in. Her ex-husband’s suicide makes the point that in the world of Gilded Age aristocracy, it’s more acceptable to go through life as a widow than a divorcee, even if it’s partially your own fault that you’re a widow to begin with. For 1913, that’s kind of ruthless.

I’ve read and studied a little bit of Wharton before — her short story “Roman Fever” is quite good and also about women being catty to shocking lengths — but I have yet to read any of her novels. I might have to save this one, though. It may not be Wharton’s most popular or enduring book, but it’s still well written and has a lot to say about people and society. And sometimes it’s just fun to read a story about an awful woman destroying people.

That’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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