In Saskia’s last post before the holidays, we left off with Woolf’s parting shot to Edith Wharton in her essay “American Fiction” – her accusation that Wharton was ‘obsessed with surfaces’, and that her representation of Englishness reflected a focus on the most superficial aspects of foreignness. This week, my task will be to grant Wharton her right to reply, by looking at our inaugural book for the series: The Custom of the Country, published in 1913. British identity was not the only one Wharton took an interest in, and The Custom’s heroine, Undine Spragg of Apex, ‘American-branded’ as she may be, leads a cosmopolitan life on both sides of the Atlantic, moving between New York and Paris. Edith Wharton’s love of France and Europe is well documented. A famous expat, she travelled multiple times to Italy, and lived in France from 1909 until her death. But how did she look at expatriation?
In The Custom of the Country, pre-war Europe, and France in particular, both feature primarily as a holiday destination for fashionable New-Yorkers. When she first sets off to Italy, Undine is appalled by this ‘dreadfully dreary’ country, and quickly leaves to console herself in Paris. No wonder she looks back rather bitterly on the first months of her stay on the old continent:
She knew now with what packed hours of Paris and London they had paid for their empty weeks in Italy.
Wharton’s portrayal of Undine’s ascent from ambitious debutante to femme du monde hints at unspoken cosmopolitan hierarchies. Upon arriving in Switzerland, Undine quickly befriends her fellow compatriots, only to ditch them when she eventually sets her views on the more desirable circles of the Parisian ‘Faubourg’ and their attractive whiff of ancient nobility. ‘The Faubourg’, which is short for the Faubourg Saint-Germain, now part of the 7th arrondissement of Paris, has a rich literary history, connecting Undine to the novelist Honoré de Balzac’s ambitious young heroes. This prestigious lineage is completely lost on Undine, for whom the Faubourg is only shorthand for the glamorous…
Indeed, through Undine, Wharton paints a rather damning picture of the ‘expat’: cynical, shortsighted, devoid of poetic sensibility and mingling with bland cosmopolitan crowds peopled with the likes of Mrs Shallum, a caricatural example of the species:
Mrs Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular, managed to express a polyglot personality as vivid as her husband’s was effaced. Her only idea of intercourse with her kind was to organize it into bands and subject it to frequent displacements…
Undine’s own ignorance is later exposed when she naïvely surmises that:
Paris existed for the stranger, that its native structure was merely an obscure foundation for the dazzling superstructure of hotels and restaurants in which her compatriots disported themselves.
In contrast with her heroine, Wharton took a deep interest in France and its culture. She even became involved in the French war effort between 1914 and 1918, an experience she drew on in her novella The Marne (1918), and which seems to redeem her from Woolf’s accusations of shallowness.
To Wharton, it is only by blending with the culture of one’s host country that one can hope to become a part of it. And yet those who, like Undine, adopt a utilitarian view of cosmopolitanism and only take in as much as they can use to reach their ends, seem to have the upper hand, while those who cling to their identity are fated to fade in the past. Wharton’s vision of France with its ancestral hierarchies and its Théâtre français is portrayed through the eyes of such characters as Ralph Marvell, the heir to the honourable but destitute Dagonet clan.
At the turn of the twentieth century, anxiety about national identity and culture is in the air. It was even a predominant theme among modernist writers. Critic Juliette Taylor-Beatty talks of the sudden peak in ‘awareness (…) of the condition of Babel’ to describe the pull of the theme of foreignness on the authors and thinkers of that time, where travelling is as frequently associated with linguistic and cultural creativity as it is with fear and hostility to otherness.
Wharton’s portrayal of Undine as the corrupt child of the century makes it very difficult to sympathize with her, and we are more inclined, as readers, to choose Ralph Marvell’s view of Europe over hers. And yet, if Undine’s behaviour betrays her ignorance and selfishness, Wharton’s elegiac view of France seems to preclude all possibility of mingling, of métissage – a surprising position considering her own cosmopolitanism. National identity and ancestral prejudices – the titular ‘Custom of the Country’ – weigh upon the protagonists with crushing ineluctability. In its loving homage to France, the novel does not entirely resist the temptation to reify the culture it reveres.
The Custom of the Country was, after all, published in 1913, and we cannot reproach Wharton for embracing the prejudices of her time. Still, not all writers agreed with her. In 1915, a young Katherine Mansfied published the short story, ‘An Indiscreet Journey’, where she took abundant liberties with France and French language by portraying a British woman travelling to the war front to see her lover. The story reveals a more intimate and questioning relationship to French identity and symbols: ‘But really, ma France adorée, this uniform is ridiculous’, the narrator muses when thinking about the French military uniform. A life-long expat, Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand, and does not quite qualify as a transatlantic woman. Still, her approach of foreignness reveals the playfulness with which writers, and especially women writers, in the early twentieth century, could assume new identities.
Undine’s transatlantic progress raises many questions on women, writing, and expatriation. We will broach this topic, and many other, over the next few months of our series, starting with our launch on January 16th: we hope to see you there!
Mansfield, Katherine, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Penguin Twentieth-century Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1981)
Taylor-Batty, Juliette, Multilingualism in Modernist Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
Wharton, Edith, The Custom of the Country (Penguin Books, 1987)