|The Custom of the Country / Edith Wharton|
Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009, c1913.
Undine Spragg (that name!) is a young woman from Apex, a fictional city in the Midwestern United States. She is living with her parents in New York City, where they've come to get Undine away from an unspecified "incident" in her past, and get her into the Right Society.
Undine doesn't have many charms besides her great beauty and her ambition; she is able to shape herself to whatever society she happens to be in. She has a notable lack of culture or appreciation of the past -- she is a New Woman, only interested in money and social status.
When she comes to New York, her focus is on getting herself into the right levels of society. She attracts the attention of Ralph Marvell, an old family New Yorker with a dreamy, literary bent, who imagines that Undine is an uncultured blank slate, just waiting for his guidance to develop into his dream woman. He is mistaken. Undine has her own aims and desires, and discovers that she has married into the wrong set. She wants flash and money and action!
So she drifts into an affair with Peter van Dagen, a very rich man whose wife is Ralph's own lost love (and cousin?!). Peter van Dagen may be fast, and crass, but he is very rich, and for quite a long time is easily bent to Undine's will. But she can't get him to take the final step and marry her, even though they are basically living together in Paris by this time.
But when the way opens for them to do so, he backs out. Undine, casting around for another chance, marries again, this time to a French aristocrat. She soon finds that he has one standard for a lady love and one for a wife, and she chafes against the restrictions, finding this society just like the dull one she left behind in New York.
Enter Elmer Moffat, her first husband (the secret one) who is now a very rich man indeed, and Undine finally finds the man she is suited to best. But even once they are settled into their glittery life, Undine still has longings for more. The final pages of the book are a masterpiece of dissatisfaction and striving writ large.
This is the sharpest, quickest Wharton I've read so far. The plot is full of incident, and the self-centred, unlikeable, unbelievably selfish Undine is yet somehow sympathetic, you care about her and what is happening to her. Her life and circumstances point out so many social issues -- class, nationality, gender, it's all there. What is acceptable or not for whom; women are much less forgiven than men, money mistakes vs. morality are judged differently, appearances are all. It's a glittery, shaky world that Wharton examines.
And of course the writing is supremely clever. Wharton's turns of phrase, her descriptions that are ironic and amusing, and her clear eye on this society of facades all make this book feel modern and relevant. She features characters of all kinds of social classes and it's fascinating. I really, really enjoyed this one, and think it might top my Wharton reads so far.
This reminds me a little of Henry James' The Bostonians in its lively American-ness and focus on women's constrained lives in settings not quite Upper Tone. And the great female leads.