Until I read The Custom of the Country, I had never met a literary character quite like Undine Spragg, nor encountered such an in-depth portrait of a classic antiheroine. Yet, we’ve all met women like her. We all know women who have transformed and reinvented themselves. Undine follows the trends carefully, without having anything unique to add, and unabashedly markets herself at the center of the world of high society that she longs to belong to.
I’ve always loved Edith Wharton’s writing, but The Custom of the Country is my favorite, and I think her funniest and most sly. As I’ve worked on adapting it into a screenplay, I’ve found it interesting to hear some men say that Undine is so unlikable, while my women friends love her and are fascinated by her and what she’ll do next. We’ve all seen her before, the way she walks into the room, her focus on men, and her ease with their gaze. We admire and are annoyed by her. While I’ve often worked on stories with more sympathetic characters, it’s been so fun to dive into Undine’s world and pursuits.
In his exquisite and anguished adaptation, from 2000, of Edith Wharton’s novel “The House of Mirth,” Terence Davies brings to life the book’s daring societal X-rays—the revelations of codes and norms, unspoken rules and silent judgments, that govern the glittering whirl of fin-de-siècle New York high society, especially those that limit women’s independence. Gillian Anderson stars as Lily Bart, the orphaned heiress to a vanished fortune, who depends entirely on an elderly aunt’s charity. The alluringly free-spirited Lily’s only hope to maintain her lavish life style is to marry into money, but the man she loves (Eric Stoltz), a lawyer, hasn’t got much, and she spurns rich men she doesn’t love. Pursuing her desires with an ingenuous sincerity, she risks exposing the falsehoods of other women, who eject her from their social ranks, sending her into free fall without a financial safety net. The tragic contradictions of Lily’s brilliant character—her refined aestheticism, lacerating wit, and heedless passion—are matched by Davies’s rapturous yet rueful display of the era’s sumptuous fashions and furnishings, which quietly shudder with the crushing power of the unwritten laws that sustain them. The movie, long unavailable, is streaming on Showtime and Prime Video. — Richard Brody
I thought it might interest some members of the Edith Wharton Society to know that the spring issue (n° 177) of the influential French review, Commentaire, has just published “L’Amérique en guerre” with a short introduction by Jean-Claude Casanova who read the translation in the February 2018 issue of the TLS and then found the original text in the March 1918 issue of the Revue Hebdomadaire. French admirers of Wharton (of which there are many) will now be able to acquaint themselves with another aspect of the talent of the “grande romancière, poétesse et essayiste américaine.”
Ghosts is a story collection originally published in 1937, shortly after Wharton’s death at age 75, and now reissued by New York Review Books. Its opening story, “All Souls,” was the last piece of fiction she completed. It tells the story of a stubborn elderly woman, living alone in a New England mansion, who sprains her ankle on Halloween and is soon after abandoned by all her servants, who are perhaps absorbed in occult activity. The same mix of a realistic social world and some eerie disruption therein is maintained throughout the collection. We meet a well-to-do New York lawyer who somehow receives letters from his dead first wife, and the ghost of a domestic servant who tries to warn her successor about her abusive employer. The stories are all suspenseful, but not grisly. The possible witchcraft in “All Souls,” for instance, is not the point of the tale, which derives most of its plot and horror from the protagonist’s painstaking, night-long investigation, which reveals the abject isolation of her twilight years.
Originally published between 1902 and 1937, the stories are also haunted by the ghosts of greater social change all around Wharton. They were written from the Progressive Era to the Great Depression, and through the First World War. Class conflict, the costs of new forms of business, the growing pains of a rapidly industrializing society, and the particular toll of all those things on women are central to these stories as well. For Wharton, the ghosts of the nascent American century were as much material as supernatural.
THEATER REVIEW: Anne Undeland’s ‘Mr. Fullerton’ an intriguing study of Edith Wharton
There’re lots of delicious ingredients in “Mr. Fullerton,” but like a good cassoulet, it needs maturation.BY DAN DWYER POSTED ON
Edith Wharton’s got man trouble. Not just with alcoholic and philandering husband Teddy, who takes off from their winter quarters in Paris, but also with a socially and sexually wily reporter for The London Times, Morton Fullerton, whose seductive charms plunge Edith into a torrid three-year affair. That’s the premise of playwright Anne Undeland’s new play, “Mr. Fullerton,” being staged for the first time at Great Barrington Public Theater. Indeed, the younger lover (four years Edith’s junior) takes Edith places in bed she’s never been before. In a state of post-coital bliss, Edith queries, “Where did you learn to do that?” “Friends” demurs Fullerton. Friends, indeed, as back in London, Fullerton has a string of dalliances with men (and boys) that makes him subject to blackmail.
Plays about writers, including “Mr. Fullerton,” a new potboiler probing Edith Wharton’s love life, too often undermine the real brilliance of their subjects.
By Jesse GreenPublished July 28, 2021Updated July 30, 2021
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Writing is boring. I should know. I just spent a half-hour revising that first sentence.
Playwrights nevertheless like to write about writers, perhaps because of their shared tolerance for tedium. Yet beyond that, what is there really to say? Anything that fleshes out the person beneath the words tends to diminish the artistry; anything that sticks to the unfiltered words is dull.
Edith Wharton Society members might be interested to read a previously unpublished short story Wharton wrote in French, entitled ‘La Famille’ which has been published with an English translation and introduction in Journal of the Short Story in English / Les Cahiers de la nouvelle (JSSE) I came across the story in her papers at the Beinecke library archives. To date, Wharton’s only published French short stories have been “Les Metteurs en Scène,” which appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes in October 1908 and her French version of Atrophy (1927) entitled “Atrophie” and also published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in July 1929.”La Famille” is the story of a young, independent American woman, Nina Alston, who is intending to marry into a titled French family. The choice to write in French is an apt one given the French setting and using this language allows Wharton to both playfully and subtly explore the clash between the respective cultures of the affianced couple. Wharton’s narrative mischievously sends up both the French family’s attitude towards tradition and form, and Nina’s newly-found American relatives’ love of all things modern combined with their misunderstandings of history. That is, if this rather odd group of people really are her family… Sarah Whitehead The story can be found at:https://journals.openedition.org/jsse/2904
Published in 1913, “The Custom of the Country” follows the social rise of Undine Spragg, a fictional character who, in many ways, feels very modern.
By Claire Messud
Jan. 20, 2021
This essay is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation, led by Claire Messud, about “The Custom of the Country,” to be held on Jan. 28.
“The Custom of the Country”(1913),like much that Edith Wharton wrote, can be described as a novel of manners. That’s to say, a social fiction in which the carefully observed customs of a particular society shape the characters’ actions and the plot. The designation somehow implies frivolity, or at least, traditionally, the feminine or domestic sphere (Jane Austen could be considered the first author of such works); and in this period of profound crisis in American society, it might seem easy to dismiss the relevance of such diverting works.
In this case, Wharton follows the social rise (and rise) of beautiful young Undine Spragg (named after her grandfather’s patented hair-crimper), who arrives in New York City from the fictional town of Apex City, Iowa, in the company of her newly moneyed, wide-eyed parents, Abner and Leota. She initially takes instruction on New York society’s hierarchies from gossip columns and her manicurist, but Undine’s looks soon gain her entrée into conversation with a fashionable portraitist named Popple, and then an invitation to dine at the home of the elegant Fairfords, where Mrs. Fairford’s brother, Ralph Marvell, pays her particular attention. On their eventual honeymoon, he’ll introduce her to European and in particular Parisian society, thereby widening the horizons of Undine’s social ambition: New York comes to feel provincial and dull next to Paris.
When she began writing “The Age of Innocence,” in September, 1919, Edith Wharton needed a best-seller. The economic ravages of the First World War had cut her annual income by about sixty per cent. She’d recently bought and begun to renovate a country house, Pavillon Colombe, in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, where she installed new black-and-white marble floors in the dining room, replaced a “humpy” lawn with seven acres of lavish gardens, built a water-lily pond, and expanded the potager, to name just a few additions. She was still paying rent at her apartment at 53 Rue de Varenne, in Paris—a grand flat festooned with carved-wood cherubs and ornate fireplaces. The costs added up.
The Atlantic has recently published a story from the Beinecke Library archives, “A Granted Prayer,” previously known primarily to Edith Wharton researchers who have read the many unpublished works available there. It’s a delightful story; thanks and congratulations to Sarah Whitehead for bringing it to a wider public!