I hope you’ve all had a good Christmas break, and have now made it back to university, or work, or whatever it is that keeps you busy these days. If you have been following the Transatlantic team on social media lately, you will have noticed that we have been quite busy ourselves, so here’s a short summary of what we have been up to, and of what you can expect from us.
The latest – and best-looking – addition to our project has come from lovely Katie Falco, who has been working with us to design our new logo and posters. We are really proud of the result, and Katie’s evocative work will set the visual trend for the rest of the series. If you have been walking around Glasgow, or at the University, you may have seen some of our posters popping up here and there…
The second great news is that, well, we are getting started at last! We are now counting the days to our launch, and we are looking forward to welcoming you, and to imagining the future of this series with you. Remember we will be giving some free copies of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country! We have been thinking about different ways we could talk about women writers, the transatlantic relationship, and mobility, starting with a free afternoon of talks on Modernism on February 8th, and an all-day symposium at the Glasgow Women’s Library in June. This gives us plenty of time to explore possibilities for the series, so we would really love it if you could think about ideas you would like us to tackle, or even ways you would like to get involved. It could be by coming up with a theme or writer you’d really like us to put on our book club selection!
Finally, we are now expecting you to get writing too! We currently have two writing opportunities open: an Edith Wharton competition, and a collaborative creative writing showcase with the Scottish Writers Centre. We are already receiving some really great texts, and the winning submissions will be published here. Our showcase, which will be on February 28th, will also be a great opportunity to perform / read your work to an audience.
I hope that I’ve said enough to make you curious! If you have time, or ideas, or both, please drop us a line at @atlantlitwomen or at email@example.com. We’d be particularly keen on knowing your thoughts for books and authors you’d like us to celebrate together.
At this point all I have left to say is that I look forward to seeing how the series will unfold in the next few months, and that I hope to meet you next Monday at 5.15 in Room 203, 10 University Gardens, University of Glasgow.
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)
Plenty of transatlantic women writers including Edith Wharton visited, lived in, and wrote about both Europe and the US. One famous writer, however, published work on America despite having never crossed the pond. In 1938 an American magazine, Hearst’s International, asked Virginia Woolf: ‘What interests you most in this cosmopolitan world of today?’ She replied with her article ‘America, Which I Have Never Seen’. To read it in full check out The Dublin Review. Woolf’s article gives me the perfect excuse to write about my favourite author.
So how do you write about a place you’ve never visited? Apparently you ‘Sit on a rock in Cornwall’ and let Imagination (‘not an altogether accurate reporter’), ‘fly to America and tell you’ all about it. Woolf claims that ‘America is the most interesting thing in the world today.’ Given the recent US elections, some might agree with this sentiment, though for reasons altogether different from Woolf’s.
In her article, Imagination flies across the Atlantic, passing fishing boats, steamers and a cruise ship, until she finally sees ‘the Statue of Liberty. Liberty introducing America!’ In New York ‘everything shines bright’, the city ‘is made of immensely high towers, each pierced with a million holes.’ Here, ‘The old English words kick up their heels and frisk. A new language is coming to birth –’
Woolf interrupts Imagination, she wants to know more about how people live. Imagination replies, ‘The houses stand open to the road. No walls divide them; there are no gardens in front and no gardens behind.’ Imagination sees a building which in England ‘would be the King’s palace. But here are no sentries; the doors stand open to all.’ Perhaps things were different when Woolf wrote this article in 1938, or perhaps she was being naïve. I doubt it, given that she wrote her pacifist manifesto Three Guineas that same year. She certainly wasn’t ignorant of exclusionary politics and rejected nationalist boundaries, claiming that ‘As a woman I have no country, as a woman I want no country, as a woman my country is the whole world’ (Three Guineas, p. 234). Woolf uses Imagination to remind her readers of the values the nation is built on, and what life could be like, what the alternatives could be. In her article she says that ‘America has room for all ages, for all civilizations’ and from ‘this extraordinary combination and collaboration of all cultures, of all civilizations will spring the future –’ And here we are, in what was then the future.
Well. That was 1938. Back then, Woolf asked Imagination to ‘tell us about the Americans in the present – the men and women. What are they like now, the inhabitants of this extraordinary land?’ That question is just as pertinent now as it was then. The answer is complex, and we have an exciting series ahead of us to help navigate our understanding, not just of Americans, but of Europeans, and the transatlantic relations that shape our cultures. There are new boundaries, yes. But there are also new connections. Woolf says that, while the British ‘have shadows that stalk behind us’, Americans ‘have a light that dances in front of them. That is what makes them the most interesting people in the world – they face the future, not the past.’ Bringing transatlantic women writers together we can look at both the past and future, and reassess the shadows and light of the present.
At the close of Woolf’s article, she says ‘we must remember, Imagination, with all her merits, is not always strictly accurate.’ The accuracy or inaccuracy of Woolf’s Imagination probably had a lot to do with the books she read by or about Americans. After all, she’d never visited the USA. So what does Woolf think of American writers, specifically American women writers? Our answers might be found in Woolf’s article ‘American Fiction’. In it, she praises Willa Cather and a few other women writers who I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of, including a Miss Canfield and Miss Hurst. Woolf claims that ‘Women writers have to meet many of the same problems that beset Americans’, as they stumble, ‘eager to shape an art of their own.’ They have some of the same opportunities too, as each is ‘the worker in fresh clay’. She waxes lyrical about Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman: ‘the real American undisguised’.
Woolf is not so generous when it comes to Edith Wharton, who we’ll be discussing at our first reading group. Woolf claims that Edith Wharton and those like her are ‘not Americans; they do not give us anything that we have not got already.’ She accuses Wharton of having an ‘obsession with surface distinctions’ and of ‘exaggerating the English culture, the traditional English good manners, and stressing too heavily or in the wrong places those social differences which, though the first to strike the foreigner, are by no means the most profound.’
Is Edith Wharton as shallow as the lead character of her novel Custom of the Country? We wouldn’t have selected it for our book club if we thought so, but the best way to find out is to read the novel and discuss it with us. Whether you side with Woolf of Wharton, or neither, there’ll be plenty to talk about. We’ll be holding our first book club session on January 30th but in the meantime, give our Edith Wharton competition a go, and make sure you keep an eye out for the series launch on January 16th too. See you soon!
Virginia Woolf. ‘American Fiction’. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf. Hastings: Delphi Classics, 2014.
We hope you are well! The Christmas break is drawing near, and we are looking forward to seeing you at our launch in January.
Many of you are following us on social media, and we decided we’d give you a chance to get creative. As the countdown to our first event is on, we are very excited to present you with our very first writing competition! If you haven’t opened it yet, this might give you the extra push you need to start reading our first pick for the Book Club, The Custom of the Country…
Enter our customised competition on Wharton’s most controversial female protagonist Undine Spragg. We’re even giving you a choice!
A. Write an online dating profile for Undine. It can be written by Undine herself or by any other protagonist. Maximum 150 words.
B. Create one of Mrs. Heeny’s newspaper clippings: Write a journalistic report on one of Undine’s parties. Maximum 150 words.
Pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink not essential.
Please send your entries to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org by 30 January 2017. Open to all, one submission per person for each category. Please include your name and email address. If you’re from outside Scotland, please let us know where you’re based. Entrants must be willing to have their submissions posted online, so that we can share the top picks. And yes, there will be a prize!
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.
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’. 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’. 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’. 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.
A literally American-branded protagonist: Undine Spragg of Apex
‘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.
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’. Join us at our first bookclub meeting and enter the debate!
 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.
 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.
 Letter of 15 May 1911, Letters, p. 241, fn. 9.
 Letter to Bernard Berenson, 6 August 1911, Letters, p. 252.
 Letter to B. Berenson, 2 August 1913, Letters, pp. 303-4.
 ‘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.
 E. Wilson, ‘Justice to Edith Wharton’, in I. Howe (ed.), Edith Wharton: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962), p. 24.
 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.
 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.
 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.