The Custom of the Country
The Spraggs, a family of midwesterners from the fictional city of Apex who have made money through somewhat shady financial dealings, arrive in New York City at the prompting of their beautiful, ambitious, but socially-naive daughter, Undine. She marries Ralph Marvell, a member of an old New York family that no longer enjoys significant wealth. Before her wedding, Undine encounters an acquaintance from Apex named Elmer Moffatt, a character with "a genuine disdain for religious piety and social cant", as the scholar Elaine Showalter observes. Undine begs him not to do anything that will endanger her wedding to Ralph. Elmer agrees.
Although Ralph dotes on Undine, his finances do not permit the extravagant lifestyle Undine desires, and she feels that her in-laws scorn her. When she becomes pregnant, she is disconsolate; and she neglects her son, Paul, after he is born. Alone in Europe, Undine begins an affair with the nouveau riche Peter Van Degen, who is married to Ralph's cousin, Clare. She then divorces Ralph in the hope of marrying Peter, but this does not work out: Peter seems to want nothing more to do with Undine, and Clare will not grant him a divorce anyway. As a divorcee, Undine loses her high position in society, and spends a few years living in North Dakota, New York, and Paris, scheming to scramble up the social ladder again.
In Paris, a French count, Raymond de Chelles, falls in love with Undine. They desire to get married, but, as a Catholic, Raymond cannot marry a divorcée. To procure enough money to bribe the Pope to annul Undine's previous marriage, Undine blackmails Ralph. Having been awarded custody of their son, but allowing him to live with Ralph (it was inconvenient for her to raise him in Europe), she demands that the boy be sent to her. It is clear that she will let him remain with Ralph only if he sends her a large sum of money. Ralph does not have sufficient funds of his own, so he borrows money from friends and family and invests it in one of Elmer Moffatt's business deals. The deal does not go through in time to meet Undine's deadline, and Moffat also informs Ralph that he had once eloped with Undine and then was divorced from her—the secret she feared that New York society would discover. Shocked, and also distraught at the thought of losing his son, Ralph commits suicide. Undine is able to marry Raymond as a widow, though this would not be possible if Raymond knew of her first marriage to Moffat.
Undine is soon dissatisfied with Raymond, too. The de Chelles are hidebound aristocrats, their wealth tied up in land and art and antiques that they will not consider selling, and Undine cannot adjust to the staid customs of upper-class French society. She also resents having to spend most of her time in the country because her husband cannot pay for expensive stays, entertainment, and shopping trips in Paris. Ultimately, she divorces Raymond in order to remarry Elmer Moffatt, who by now has made a fortune. Now, married to the crass midwestern businessman who was best suited to her in the first place, Undine finally has everything she ever desired. Still, it is clear that she wants even more: in the last paragraph of the novel, she imagines what it would be like to be an ambassador's wife – a position closed to her owing to her divorces.
Characters in "The Custom of the Country"
- Undine Spragg, a young woman, the protagonist
- Mr. Abner E. Spragg, a financier
- Mrs. Leota B. Spragg, a housewife
- Elmer Moffatt, a cunning financier from Apex whom Undine marries
- Ralph Marvell, a New York society gentleman who marries Undine, has a son with her and is then divorced by her
- Peter Van Degen, a man with whom Undine has an affair
- Clare Van Degen, married to Van Degen, unhappy with their marriage; she is Ralph Marvell's cousin who is deeply in love with him
- Charles Bowen, an elderly man from New York City, who acts as a kind of observer; friend of Laura Fairford
- Raymond De Chelles, a French aristocrat who marries Undine after she is widowed; he is her third husband
- Paul Marvell, Undine's and Ralph's child, Raymond's stepson
- Laura Fairford, Ralph Marvell's sister; due to the customs of the era, she needed to invite Undine to dinner in order for Ralph to indirectly see her again
- Henley Fairford, husband to Laura Fairford
- Claud Walsingham Popple, a painter who paints a portrait of Undine
- Mrs. Heeny, a masseuse who keeps company first with Undine and Mrs. Spragg and later with Undine and her son; she also keeps clippings of all high society events
- Celeste, Spragg family's French maid.
Allusions to other works
- Edith Wharton said the title of the novel came from a play by English playwrights John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, entitled The Custom of the Country, in which the term 'custom' referred to the money paid by a master to get a girl's maidenhead. The title has been suggested as coming from Montaigne's essay "On Husbanding Your Will".
Gerard Sweeney has claimed a connection between the "Pure Water Move" and Wharton's cousin Joseph Wharton's interest in Philadelphia water supplies but Hollis Robbins suggests that Wharton knew her cousin's plan was tragically inadequate and would not have prevented typhoid deaths, arguing that "Edith Wharton's practical grasp of late-nineteenth-century municipal water problems suggests how to account for the novel's reward of circulation" as public health measure. Bill Gleason reads anxieties about masculinity in "The Phantom Toothpick: Men's Mouths in The Custom of the Country." Maria DiBattista calls Undine "The Serial Bride."
In popular culture
The September 2012 issue of Vogue included a series of photographs by Annie Leibovitz of scenes from the book, shot at The Mount, Wharton's Berkshire estate. Models included actors Elijah Wood and Jack Huston.
Julian Fellowes has cited The Custom of the Country as an inspiration for his creative work, including Downton Abbey. Upon receiving the Edith Wharton Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 in Boston, Massachusetts, Fellowes said: "It is quite true that I felt this was my book; that the novel was talking to me in a most extreme and immediate way. I think it's a remarkable piece of writing. In Undine Spragg, Wharton has created an anti-heroine absolutely in the same rank as Becky Sharp, Scarlett O'Hara, or Lizzie Eustace. Undine has no values except ambition, greed and desire, and yet through the miracle of Wharton's writing, you are on her side. That's what's so extraordinary about the book...I decided, largely because of her work, that it was time I wrote something."
- Hollis Robbins, "Flushing Away Sentiment: Water Politics in The Custom of the Country". Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country. Eds. Isabelle Boof-Vermesse and Anne Ullmo-Michel. Paris: Ellipses, 2000.
- Donna Campbell. "Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country: A Selected Bibliography". Wsu.edu. Retrieved 2014-08-05.
- The Custom of the Country, de E. Wharton. Eds. Isabelle Boof-Vermesse and Anne Ullmo-Michel. Paris: Ellipses, 2000. 40-47.
- The Custom of the Country, de E. Wharton. Eds. Isabelle Boof-Vermesse and Anne Ullmo-Michel. Paris: Ellipses, 2000. 128-137.
- The Custom of the Country, de E. Wharton. Eds. Isabelle Boof-Vermesse and Anne Ullmo-Michel. Paris: Ellipses, 2000. 61-68.
- Colm Tóibín. "The Custom of the Country: Vogue Recreates Edith Wharton's Artistic Arcadia". Annie Leibovitz, photographer. Vogue. Retrieved 2014-08-05.
- Fellowes, Julian (2013-02-20). "Julian Fellowes: 'Abbey' owes much to Wharton - Berkshire Eagle Online". Berkshireeagle.com. Retrieved 2014-08-05.
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- The Custom of the Country at Project Gutenberg
- The Custom of the Country audio book at Librivox
- The Custom of the Country Map
- Ellipses: Edition devoted to scholarship of The Custom of the Country