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Undine Spragg

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A couple of days ago, I set out to write about Edith Wharton and The Custom of the Country, and I got sidetracked.

I’m now halfway through with this rereading of the book, and I’ve got some notes.

1) This is not a Victorian romance.  It’s a book more in the tradition of Vanity Fair, The Portrait of a Lady,  and Middlemarch–a novel about the career of one particular woman.

2) The woman, in this case, is Undine Spragg, child of a midwestern businessman who has come to New York specifically to launch her.  

Wharton has a lot more to work with by keeping most of the first two thirds of the novel in the United States.  There’s more going on here, in terms of clashes between classes, than was going on in Europe.  Henry James, Wharton’s idol and mentor, never could see it.  His American-set novels always shy away from dealing with the enormous chaos and variety of the fight between “old money” (people whose ancestors signed the Declaration), “new money” (like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, only a generation or two old, and made through industry), and “western money” (what was coming out of the regions outside of the Northeast).

3) Wharton does not shy away from these things, and because she doesn’t she manages to have a somewhat more balanced view of the world she’s looking at than either James or Trollope do.

Both James and Trollope mourn the passing of the old system, the gentlemanly lives and behavior of people of sensitivity and taste.  They do that even when they are forced to acknowledge–as Trollope is in The Way We Live Now–that the present representatives of the Old Families are a thoroughly useless lot.

Wharton can see, with clarity, that the society of the families of the Signers has become largely passive, and that passivity, no matter how gentile, cannot build a country. 

She doesn’t admire the men of the west–and she really doesn’t admire the equivalent of the Vanderbilts–but she also doesn’t think any injustice is being done when they win that particular war.  They are, after all, actually doing something.

4) Undine Spragg–like Becky Sharpe before her, and Scarlett O’Hara to come later–is a kind of force of nature, the pure distillation of the new order of ambition and energy.

And like them, she’s an utter and unabashed sociopath. 

I think it’s interesting that such disparate writers all conceived of the spirit of the spirit of the new industrial age as being not immoral, but amoral–a relentless drive to get what you want as you want it, with no thought (or even knowledge) of any other scale of values.

There are certainly people like that in the world.  My father used to say that anybody could get rich if that was all he wanted to be, and I finally figured that out when I hit middle age.

In my experience, however, people aren’t usually that simple, and it was definitely the case that the old robber barons weren’t that simple.  Carnegie founded libraries and universities and gave all his money away. 

Of course, the answer may be more simple than I’m making it.  The representatives of the robber barons someone like Edith Wharton was likely to have met would have been their children and grandchildren.  The family founders tended to have little to no use for “society,” and to have chosen their wives as good partners in the drive to make good. 

5) The tendency for all these novels to be written about “society” is, I think, not an indication that the writers thought “who got invited to whose party” was particularly important in itself, but a result of the fact that novels were mostly bought and read by women.

In an era when women had limited areas in which to exercise their ambition, “society” provided an arena for combat where no other could quite serve. 

This is especially the case in the lives of those women for whom public esteem was high on the list of what they were ambitious for.

And don’t say it’s trivial.  It was as true of many of the men as well, including many of the men who built great industries.  The Greeks built a whole society on the fact that men lusted after the esteem of their societies.

Undine Spragg cares about getting invited to the “right” parties–but her ideas of what makes “right” are her own, which is why she has so little respect for the Marvells and their ancestral connection to the Founding.

Wharton leaves it up in the air, though, as to whether this lack of respect is a good or a bad thing.   The Founders, after all, Did Something.  They went out and made the country.  The Marvells and the Dagonets are doing not much more than sitting home, being sensitive, and priding themselves on who they don’t know.

6) Wharton published this novel in the year that she divorced her Very Old New York husband and went to live permanently in Paris.  It was 1913, and she would be there–she lived until 1937–throughout the entire “lost generation” of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.  She would never be part of it.

It interests me that she wasn’t. 

My first instinct is always to say “age,” but Gertrude Stein was also younger than the new writers, and still very much a part of the Paris expatriate American literary scene.

Maybe it was just a matter of literary focus and literary style.  Wharton wrote “old fashioned” novels, rather than dabbling in the new currents of experimental writing. 

For whatever reason, it was just, as we say, not her thing, and there seems to be very little indication that she even met any of the people who made up that enormous scene.

Maybe she was just too thoroughly brought up to be Old New York, descendant of a Signer.

It’s hard to tell.

7) One of the things I like about this book is that it does not assume that we know everything and everything is fine as soon as we see our heroine safely married.

Edith Wharton’s married life was apparently a complete hash, and she sees no happily ever afters for Undine or anybody else.

I don’t know if that makes her books better or worse.

It certainly makes them interesting.

Written by janeh

June 14th, 2011 at 6:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Undine Spragg'

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  1. Gloria Steinem seems pertinent: “Women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.”

    Until fairly recently–say the last 50 years–I’m not sure it was possible to write a novel about a woman’s career if the woman had a happy successful marriage. Today it is. If you brought back Mary McCarthy and had her rewrite THE GROUP, setting it when the original was published instead of when the original was set, you might get something more like ONCE AN EAGLE–school rivalries playing out over a lifetime of professional careers and bureaucratic infighting. The men in their lives could be important to the women without necessarily being important to the story. This can’t be true if public status for a woman is derived from her ancestors and her husband.

    Maybe worth noting that a lot of novels aren’t careers but episodes: not an entire life, but courtship, say, or a particular struggle. And a novel of courtship is customarily called a romance, and implies a happy marriage to follow. If the marriage looks doomed–or even if a sequel shows a breakup–the romance is overshadowed. (An exception for Crusie’s FAST WOMEN, which really is about breakup, despite the engagements at the end. But it took several readings for the dime to drop. I kept seeing a below-par romance for some time.)

    It is proper, or at least understandable, to seek societal esteem based on one’s actions. The situation is different if the esteem is a thing in itself–Paris Hilton, perhaps? Beau Brummel?–and different still if derivative, based on ancestry or marriage. Which may be why some societies which had no public careers open to women–including the Greeks–felt having women named and discussed in public was inherently a bad thing. There weren’t good ways for a woman to become well-known.


    15 Jun 11 at 3:37 pm

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