Thursday, November 20, 2014

Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Earlier this year, I read House of Mirth in which Lily Bart is very much of New York society. On the other hand, Undine Spragg, the main character of Edith Wharton's Custom of the Country (published in 1913), is an outsider from the fictional town of Apex. Undine is spoiled, self-centered, shallow and exasperating, and I couldn't put the book down.

Undine has come to New York City with her parents because she wants to move up the social ladder. Along the way, she makes mistakes but somehow always manages to regroup and formulate a plan to gain back the ground she's lost, whether it's in Apex, New York City, or Paris. Her beauty and charm carry her a long way, but to get what she really wants, Undine needs money and lots of it.

Part of the fun in reading Custom of the Country is seeing how Undine gets herself out of her current situation and into another that she thinks will be more advantageous. Undine gives no thought as to how her actions affect those around her, and she has no problem going through her father's money or her current husband's money. She's a bit naive in not realizing how getting a divorce or taking a married lover might affect her standing in society. And she has a secret. Once the secret is revealed, it has ramifications that Undine didn't plan on, especially for her ex-husband, Ralph Marvell. In the end, Undine may think that she has finally gotten what she wanted, but has she?

I enjoyed Custom in the Country. Although the book has its humorous moments, it's not the kind of satire that I expected and sometimes seems like Wharton's comment on society. The story of Undine is timeless. If it were told today, Undine would be the star of her own reality show. 

I love the plot and the characters, and I also love Wharton's writing. There are passages in the book that make me happy because the writing is so exquisite. Needless to say, I highly recommend Custom of the Country.

If you've read Custom of the Country, I'm interested to know what your thoughts are.

About the painting: In Custom of the Country, Mr. Popple, a character based on the artist John Singer Sargent paints portraits of society ladies, including one of Undine. The painting above is Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent, 1893, Scottish National Gallery, © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons.


  1. "If it were told today, Undine would be the star of her own reality show."

    Yes, definitely! I don't watch reality TV, but would certainly make an exception for Undine. The Custom of the Country is my favorite Wharton novel and I think Undine is one of literature's most memorable characters. So glad you enjoyed this one, too.

  2. I've read several by Wharton, but not this one. Sounds like one to add to the list.