The Custom of the Country

The Custom of the Country

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by Edith Wharton
     
 

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First published in 1913, Edith Wharton's The Custom Of The Country is scathing novel of ambition featuring one of the most ruthless heroines in literature. Undine Spragg is as unscrupulous as she is magnetically beautiful. Her rise to the top of New York's high society from the nouveau riche provides a provocative commentary on the upwardly mobile and the

Overview

First published in 1913, Edith Wharton's The Custom Of The Country is scathing novel of ambition featuring one of the most ruthless heroines in literature. Undine Spragg is as unscrupulous as she is magnetically beautiful. Her rise to the top of New York's high society from the nouveau riche provides a provocative commentary on the upwardly mobile and the aspirations that eventually cause their ruin. One of Wharton's most acclaimed works, The Custom Of The Country is a stunning indictment of materialism and misplaced values that is as powerful today for its astute observations about greed and power as when it was written nearly a century ago.

Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Hardwick
Edith Wharton's finest achievement.
From the Publisher

The Custom of the Country is Edith Wharton’s most American novel, giving readers what Scribner’s promised in its blurb, ‘a graphic picture of modern life.’ Sarah Emsley gives readers in the twenty-first century the novel in its various cultural, intellectual, and biographical contexts, providing early drafts, letters to friends and editors, contemporary reviews, and essays on notions of marriage. Wharton chronicles marriage in an age of transition when a heroine may use divorce and remarriage to rise socially, and would agree with Emsley’s conclusion that Undine Spragg fails because ‘she does not want enough.’ The rich selection of contextual materials allows the reader to judge both the novel and the culture that produced it.” — Katherine Joslin, Western Michigan University

“This is an excellent edition of what I consider to be Wharton’s best novel, and it is supported by very valuable supporting material. Arguing that the novel is a satire of consumerism, Sarah Emsley offers a particularly good analysis of Raymond de Chelles as one of the few positive forces, and a husband who acts as a counter to the rampant material ambitions which dominate other parts of the novel. Emsley’s introduction also provides a succinct and successful summary of Wharton’s life and a good survey of the relevant criticism. The edition ends with a series of extremely useful appendices, including Wharton’s outline for the novel, examples of contemporary reviews, extracts from Darwin, Veblen and Santayana and sections on Aestheticism and Women and Marriage.” — Robin Peel, University of Plymouth

The Custom of the Country satirizes much that Wharton thought was wrong with the US at the turn of the century: serial divorce, rampant consumerism and materialism, indifference to art and literature, and a proudly provincial attitude toward the traditions of Old New York and European culture. Combined with Sarah Emsley’s incisive and well-researched introduction and notes, this excellent new edition of the novel includes well-chosen readings ranging from selections by Charles Darwin and Thorstein Veblen to excerpts from novels by Harold Frederic and Anita Loos that shed light on Wharton’s audacious protagonist, Undine Spragg. The result is a volume that not only restores the social and economic contexts for the novel but sharpens the reader’s appreciation for Wharton’s satire in this book, the most savage—and the most humorous—novel of her long career.” — Donna Campbell, Washington State University

Robin Peel University of Plymouth
This is an excellent edition of what I consider to be Wharton's best novel, and it is supported by very valuable supporting material. Arguing that the novel is a satire of consumerism, Sarah Emsley offers a particularly good analysis of Raymond de Chelles as one of the few positive forces, and a husband who acts as a counter to the rampant material ambitions which dominate other parts of the novel. Emsley's introduction also provides a succinct and successful summary of Wharton's life and a good survey of the relevant criticism. The edition ends with a series of extremely useful appendices, including Wharton's outline for the novel, examples of contemporary reviews, extracts from Darwin, Veblen and Santayana and sections on Aestheticism and Women and Marriage."
Donna Campbell Washington State University
"The Custom of the Country satirizes much that Wharton thought was wrong with the US at the turn of the century: serial divorce, rampant consumerism and materialism, indifference to art and literature, and a proudly provincial attitude toward the traditions of Old New York and European culture. Combined with Sarah Emsley's incisive and well-researched introduction and notes, this excellent new edition of the novel includes well-chosen readings ranging from selections by Charles Darwin and Thorstein Veblen to excerpts from novels by Harold Frederic and Anita Loos that shed light on Wharton's audacious protagonist, Undine Spragg. The result is a volume that not only restores the social and economic contexts for the novel but sharpens the reader's appreciation for Wharton's satire in this book, the most savage–and the most humorous–novel of her long career."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307949547
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/05/2012
Series:
Vintage Classics Series
Pages:
432
Sales rank:
167,733
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Book One

1

"Undine Spragg!-how can you?" her mother wailed, raising a prematurely wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid "bell-boy" had just brought in.

But her defense was as feeble as her protest, and she continued to smile on her visitor while Miss Spragg, with a turn of her quick young fingers, possessed herself of the missive and withdrew to the window to read it.

"I guess it's meant for me," she merely threw over her shoulder at her mother.

"Did you ever, Mrs. Heeny?" Mrs. Spragg murmured with deprecating pride.

Mrs. Heeny, a stout professional-looking person in a waterproof, her rusty veil thrown back, and a shabby alligator bag at her feet, followed the mother's glance with good-humored approval.

"I never met with a lovelier form," she agreed, answering the spirit rather than the letter of her hostess's inquiry.

Mrs. Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites,and the drawing room walls, above their wainscoting of highly varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the center of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs. Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a waxfigure in a show-window. Her attire was fashionable enough to justify such a post, and her pale soft-cheeked face, with puffy eye-lids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially melted wax figure which had run to double-chin.

Mrs. Heeny, in comparison, had a reassuring look of solidity and reality. The planting of her firm black bulk in its chair, and the grasp of her broad red hands on the gilt arms, bespoke an organized and self-reliant activity, accounted for by the fact that Mrs. Heeny was a "society" manicure and masseuse. Toward Mrs. Spragg and her daughter she filled the double role of manipulator and friend; and it was in the latter capacity that, her day's task ended, she had dropped in for a moment to "cheer up" the lonely ladies of the Stentorian.

The young girl whose "form" had won Mrs. Heeny's professional commendation suddenly shifted its lovely lines as she turned back from the window.

"Here-you can have it after all," she said, crumpling the note and tossing it with a contemptuous gesture into her mother's lap.

"Why-isn't it from Mr. Popple?" Mrs. Spragg exclaimed unguardedly.

"No-it isn't. What made you think I thought it was?" snapped her daughter; but the next instant she added, with an outbreak of childish disappointment: "It's only from Mr. Marvell's sister-at least she says she's his sister."

Mrs. Spragg, with a puzzled frown, groped for her eye-glass among the jet fringes of her tightly girded front.

Mrs. Heeny's small blue eyes shot out sparks of curiosity. "Marvell-what Marvell is that?"


From the Paperback edition.

Copyright 2001 by Edith Wharton

What People are saying about this

Anita Brookner
As long as men and women seek to use each other -- and to use each other badly -- Edith Wharton can be counted upon to provide the ideal commentary.

Meet the Author

Sarah Emsley is a Preceptor of Expository Writing at Harvard University and the author of Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
January 24, 1862
Date of Death:
August 11, 1937
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
Place of Death:
Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France
Education:
Educated privately in New York and Europe

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The Custom Of The Country 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It's interesting to read how ruthless and unscrupulous people can be for their own self-preservation. Undine is a character I loved to hate. This novel could be a social commentary of life today. Fabulous vocabulary! It is a slow read, but worth it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was a literature major in college a long time ago: I'd never heard mention of this novel. She is such a fine author and this is my favorite of all! If you like her work, if you like American literature, you won't be disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Timeless wisdom about women's issues in the society of consumerism as we see as the American Dream.
Eowyn24 More than 1 year ago
Undine reminds me in a way of Scarlet O'Hara. The author lived at the same time period she placed the story and was divorced as well as the main character - so you have to wonder if this is an insight to how divorce was thought of in the different social groups as the time. Had some slow parts, but was a good read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love Edith Wharton books, but this is my favorite by far. The characters are well developed and the story is spell binding if you like that era.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
But a pretty good soap opera. The protagonist, Undine, can be a bit tiresome, but Wharton's handling of her life is pretty clever, especially at the end! I had never heard of this book before reading about it in a recent issue of the New Yorker. That writer said that it was very relevant to the Wall Street shenanigans, consumerism, and divorce in today's society. This claim is largely true, and the book is interesting in that regard.
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