Frorm The Wall Street Journal
Bride and Conqueror
The Gilded Age has memorialized many successful and pruriently colorful businessmen in fact and fiction, but one of the canniest and most ruthless of them is a woman. Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” turned 100 this year, and the adventures of its heroine, Undine Spragg, remain as brazen today as when she first advanced upon the American scene.
Ms. Wharton set nearly all of her novels in the drawing rooms and country estates of the New York rich. In her hands, high society became a decorous killing floor, and a marketplace as freewheeling as the industrial postbellum economy in the U.S. at large.
The market in Ms. Wharton’s books is the marriage market. Ms. Wharton plumbed the analogy between the social and business worlds deeply, rendering courtship and marriage as cold and calculated exchanges for profit. “The emotional center of gravity’s not the same” as in the old days, notes one of the characters in “Custom.” Once it was love, but now it’s business. Ms. Wharton’s novels of manners are not marriage plots so much as business narratives.
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