Dear all,

On behalf of the team, I am happy to introduce the first event in our series for the Transatlantic Literary Women! At the core of this project is a motivation to bring literary women to a wider public through free and accessible events. What better way to do it than with a Book Club? In the next few months, we will nominate books written by transatlantic women.

The rule is simple: one month, one woman, one book.

For each nomination, we will explain what makes these women ‘Transatlantic’, and what contemporary readers will find in their writings. Each of these Book Club sessions will include a discussion with one or more guest speakers, and we are also currently putting our ideas together for a series of workshops throughout the coming year.

We will unite once a month, in a venue that we’ll confirm very soon. The provisional date for our first meeting is Monday, the 16th of January, at 5.15: save the date! We hope to see many of you!

As part of our wish to make this project as inclusive as possible, we want to allow for creative responses, and this is where you come in! We would love it if you could give us your suggestions and nominations: you can do it in the comments, or get in touch with us on Twitter.

And now, let’s open the book club with our first pick: Laura, the founder of the Transatlantic Literary Women project, introduces Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.

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Edith Wharton

The Custom of the Country, first published on 18 October 1913, has been described as Edith Wharton’s ‘most powerful’ novel, ‘her greatest book’, her ‘most ambitious masterpiece’, and a ‘tour de force’.[1] Charting the career of the American-branded Undine Spragg of Apex, Wharton presents her readers with the modern material girl, a young woman surrounded by dazzling lights and mirrors, her sights set firmly on the center of the social gaze. While the precarious insider Lily Bart of Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth fatally spirals down the social scale, ‘thrown out into the rubbish heap’ and all its attendant horrors, Undine Spragg, the outsider, indefatigably works her way up and forces a way in. Her career is one of acquiring and discarding husbands. But, without too many plot spoilers, is there a problem, has she debarred herself from the one part for which was really made?

While Wharton herself would come to regard The Custom of the Country as one of her finest works, its genesis proved the most protracted and disrupted of any novel in her long and prolific career. As the author toiled on the manuscript in fits and starts between 1907 and 1913, progress was regularly interrupted, and the novel intermittently set aside in favor of other writings. During the period in which The Custom of the Country took shape, Wharton published two collections of short stories (The Hermit and the Wild Woman and Other Stories, Tales of Men and Ghosts), a travel book (A Motor-Flight Through France), and a volume of poetry (Artemis to Actaeon and Other Verse) in addition to her novels Ethan Frome and The Reef. Yet, throughout, The Custom of the Country remained a work for which its creator had ambitious plans. In May 1908, Wharton wrote to her friend Sara (Sally) Norton of having ‘taken up again [her] sadly neglected great American Novel’.

‘Mrs Wharton has assembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page novel (…) – a set of vulgar Americans, blatant and pushing’

What did the critics make of Wharton’s new novel? The New York Herald promised ‘a graphic picture of modern life both here and abroad’, while a full page advertisement in The Atlantic Monthly opted for three punch lines: ‘Recounts the Career of a Beautiful, Ambitious American Girl / Forms a Graphic Revelation of American Society To-Day / Already the Most Discussed Novel in America’. Sections of the British press, meanwhile, smugly distanced themselves from American social conduct, with the Leeds Mercury pronouncing the novel ‘of American application …deal[ing] with the “habit” of divorce which prevails across the Atlantic’. The Saturday Review concluded ‘Mrs. Wharton has assembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page novel. It is a sordid society into which we are introduced – a set of vulgar Americans, blatant and pushing, whose only standard of values is the dollar’. Wharton herself was no stranger to the value of the dollar, Scribner’s paying a royalty advance of $7,500 for The Custom of the Country and $6,000 for serial rights.

Reviewers were both fascinated and repelled by the incessantly self-gratifying exploits of Undine Spragg.   She was perceived as ‘an ideal monster’, ‘sexless’, ‘absolutely unmoral [sic]’, ‘absolutely selfish, logical and repulsive’, ‘the most repellent heroine we have encountered in many a long time’, and ‘ a mere monster of vulgarity’.[7] In his essay ‘Justice to Edith Wharton’, Edmund Wilson sealed the deal, famously labeling Undine ‘the prototype in fiction of the “gold-digger,” of the international cocktail bitch’.[8] More recent readings highlight Charles Bowen’s observation to view the character not as a monster per se, but as ‘a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph.’ Readings with a greater social consciousness include Susan Goodman who concludes ‘…Undine is tragically limited by a society that does not value intelligence or eloquence in women until after they are safely married’; while Beth Kowaleski-Wallace regards her as a product of the reader’s own misogyny.[9]

A literally American-branded protagonist: Undine Spragg of Apex

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Giovanni Boldini – Portrait of Madame E. L. Doyen (1910)

‘If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable’, observes the narrator of the soulless Undine, the name inspiring both mythical water-nymph and hair-waver marketed by the Spraggs. Restless, relentless, Undine exists only for an audience. Wharton’s fiction parades a cast of versatile actresses, skillfully changing roles as the occasion demands. Undine lives for the limelight: ‘she might have been some fabled creature whose home is a beam of light’. As Undine’s performance in the opera box will illustrate, elaborate social scenarios are frequently enacted in the auditorium rather than on stage.[10]

As she moves her narrative from America to France, Wharton locates the action of The Custom of the Country in an early twentieth century world, her notes for the novel including a precise timing of important events, labeled the ‘Undine Chronology’. As noted above, our protagonist is literally American-branded: Undine Spragg of Apex – USA. The Custom of the Country’s explores remarkably prescient concerns: the rise of image, the media’s ability to shape human beings’ perceptions of themselves and their societies, economic and business shifts to a society of spectacle, corporate corruption, the portent of a future as shaped by Undine and her sort, a devastating critique of the marketplace. Read against the ongoing economic and banking freefall, does the novel appear alarmingly prophetic? Is there even a Trump figure in the mix? It’s yours to decide.

As the New York Times Review of Books had promised in October 1913, ‘The Custom of the Country is a book which will arouse some dissension and much discussion’.[11] Join us at our first bookclub meeting and enter the debate!

Notes

[1] R. W. B. Lewis. Edith Wharton: A Biography (London: Constable, 1975), p. 348; H. Lee, Edith Wharton (London: Chatto and Windus 2007), p. 399; C. G. Wolff, A Feast of Words: The Triumph of Edith Wharton, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, rev. ed. 1995), pp. 223; 227; R. Peel, Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, and Fiction Before World War I (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2005), p. 198.

[2] Letter of 29 May 1908, in R. W. B. Lewis and N. Lewis (eds.), The Letters of Edith Wharton (New York: Macmillan, 1989), p. 146.

[3] Letter of 15 May 1911, Letters, p. 241, fn. 9.

[4] Letter of 16 May 1911, Letters, p. 240.

[5] Letter to Bernard Berenson, 6 August 1911, Letters, p. 252.

[6] Letter to B. Berenson, 2 August 1913, Letters, pp. 303-4.

[7] ‘Critical Reviews of the Season’s Latest Book’, New York Sun (18 October 1913), p. 8; L. M. F. ‘Mrs. Wharton’s Novel: The Custom of the Country a Book Which Will Excite Much Discussion’, New York Times Review of Books (19 October 1913), p. 557; H. W. B. , ‘Mrs. Wharton’s Manner’, Nation, 97 (30 October, 1913), pp. 404-5.

[8] E. Wilson, ‘Justice to Edith Wharton’, in I. Howe (ed.), Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 24.

[9] E. Ammons, Edith Wharton’s Argument with America (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1980), p. 102; S. Goodman, Edith Wharton’s Women: Friends and Rivals (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1990), p. 62; B. Kowaleski-Wallace, ‘The Reader as Misogynist in The Custom of Country, Modern Language Studies, 21. 2 (Winter 1991), pp. 45 – 53.

[10] For a discussion of Wharton’s writing for the stage, see Laura Rattray ‘Edith Wharton as Playwright’, The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton, vol 1, pp. xxvii – l.

[11] L. M. F. ‘Mrs. Wharton’s Novel: The Custom of the Country a Book Which Will Excite Much Discussion’, New York Times Review of Books, 19 October 1913.

 

 

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