The Custom of the Country [NOOK Book]

Overview

Edith Wharton's satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century appeared in 1913; it both appalled and fascinated its first reviewers, and established her as a major novelist. The Saturday Review wrote that she had 'assembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page novel', but concluded that the book was 'brilliantly written', and 'should be read as a parable'. It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York...
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The Custom of the Country

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Overview

Edith Wharton's satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century appeared in 1913; it both appalled and fascinated its first reviewers, and established her as a major novelist. The Saturday Review wrote that she had 'assembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page novel', but concluded that the book was 'brilliantly written', and 'should be read as a parable'. It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York from the Midwest and determined to conquer high society. Glamorous, selfish, mercenary, and manipulative, her principal assets are her striking beauty, her tenacity, and her father's money. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by disillusion. Wharton was re-creating an environment she knew intimately, and Undine's education for social success is chronicled in meticulous detail. The novel superbly captures the world of post-Civil War America, as ruthless in its social ambitions as in its business and politics.
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Editorial Reviews

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

"A well-presented edition. Orgel's introduction is superior."--Marvin Magalaner, NYU

"An excellent edition, with just the right amount of apparatus."--Burton Raffel, University of Southwestern Louisiana

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."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307950581
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/5/2012
  • Series: Vintage Classics
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 904,487
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

America's most famous woman of letters, and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, Edith Wharton was born into one of the last "leisured class" families in New York City, as she put it, in 1862. Educated privately, she was married to Edward Wharton in 1885, and for the next few years they spent their time in the high society of Newport, Rhode Island, then Lenox, Massachusetts, and Europe. It was in Europe that Wharton first met Henry James, who was to have a profound and lasting influence on her life and work. Wharton's first published book was a work of nonfiction in collaboration with Ogden Codman, The Decoration of Houses (1897), but from early on, her marriage had been a source of distress, and she was advised by her doctor to write fiction to relieve her nervous tension. Wharton's first short stories appeared in Scribner's Magazine, and although she published several volumes of fiction around the turn of the century, including The Greater Inclination (1899), The Touchstone (1900), Crucial Instances (1901), The Valley of Decision (1902), Sanctuary (1903), and The Descent of Man and Other Stories (1904), it was not until the publication of the bestselling The House of Mirth in 1905 that she was recognized as one of the most important novelists of her time for her keen social insight and subtle sense of satire. In 1906 Wharton visited Paris, which inspired Madame de Treymes (1907), and made her home there in 1907, finally divorcing her husband in 1912. The years before the outbreak of World War I represent the core of her artistic achievement with the publication of Ethan Frome in 1911, The Reef in 1912, and The Custom of the Country in 1913. During the war she remained in France organizing relief for Belgian refugees, for which she was later awarded the Legion of Honor. She also wrote two novels about the war, The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923), and although living in France she continued to write about New England and the Newport society she knew so well and described in Summer (1917), the companion to Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence (1920), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. Her other works include Old New York (1924), The Mother's Recompense (1925), The Writing of Fiction (1925), The Children (1928), Hudson River Bracketed (1929), and her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934). She died in France in 1937.

Biography

Edith Newbold Jones was born January 24, 1862, into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family's return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith's creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton's novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton's first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable Literary Success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton's reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.

In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 -- the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.

Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Age of Innocence.

Good To Know

Upon the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905, Wharton became an instant celebrity, and the the book was an instant bestseller, with 80,000 copies ordered from Scribner's six weeks after its release.

Wharton had a great fondness for dogs, and owned several throughout her life.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edith Newbold Jones Wharton (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 24, 1862
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      August 11, 1937
    2. Place of Death:
      Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, France

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 wax figure 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 Trade Paperback edition.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction
Edith Wharton: A Brief Chronology
A Note on the Text
The Custom of the Country
Appendix A: Edith Wharton's Outline and Notes for The Custom of the Country
Appendix B: Edith Wharton's Correspondence about The Custom of the Country
Appendix C: From Edith Wharton's Autobiography, A Backward Glance (1933)
Appendix D: Contemporary Reviews
1. Nation reviewer, "The Custom of the Country" (1913)
2. 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 (1913)
3. Independent reviewer, "Customs of Two Countries" (1913)
4. Athenaeum reviewer, "Fiction" (1913)
5. From Frederic Taber Cooper, "The Custom of the Country," Bookman (1913)
6. From Henry James, "The Younger Generation," Times Literary Supplement (1914)
7. From James Huneker, "Three Disagreeable Girls," Forum (1915)
Appendix E: Women and Marriage
1. From Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Undine (1811)
2. From Robert Grant, "The Art of Living, IX: The Case of Woman" (1895)
3. From Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware or Illumination (1896)
4. Letter from Edith Wharton to John Hugh Smith (1909)
5. From Emma Goldman, "The Traffic in Women" (1910)
Appendix F: Competition and Consumerism
1. From Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859)
2. From Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
3. From George Santayana, "Materialism and Idealism in American Life" (1920)
4. From Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926)
Appendix G: Aestheticism
1. From Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)
2. From Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware or Illumination (1896)
3. From Henry James, The American Scene (1907)
Select Bibliography

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Reading Group Guide

1. Some critics consider The Custom of the Country an epic tale, complete with a hero (in this case, a heroine) and various battles (that is, her marriages). Do you agree? What aspects make the novel epic? Which aspects refute this idea?

2. What do the novel’s descriptions of marriage and divorce tell us about Wharton’s views on the subject?

3. Are we to look at Undine as a sympathetic character? Consider women’s roles at the time of the novel. Was Undine forced to be the person she was?

4. In contrast to Wharton’s other New York—set novels, there is no dominant moral character in The Custom of the Country to oppose the selfish Undine. Why did Wharton let Undine go unchallenged? What is she saying about New York–and, by extension, American–society?

5. Wharton consistently presents Undine as monstrously acquisitive, yet Undine seems to get these characteristics from her father, who uses them in business. Does Wharton approve of these behaviors at all? What is she saying about the gender differences of the time? If Undine had been allowed to use these characteristics in business, would she be a different person in her personal life?

6. Do you think Wharton hates Undine? If she does, how does this affect the narrative?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2003

    Scathing!

    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!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2013

    Still relevant

    Timeless wisdom about women's issues in the society of consumerism as we see as the American Dream.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2012

    Excellent read.

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Undine the terrible!

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2012

    Becomes a soap opera

    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.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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