I knew from the start that things would go badly for Ralph Marvell. He’s a writer who spends more time thinking about writing than actually doing it. “’You ought to write’; they had one and all said it to him from the first; and he fancied he might have begun sooner if he had not been urged on by their watchful fondness.” Enter Undine Spragg, a small-town girl from the ironically titled town of Apex, North Carolina, and soon enough he mistakes her for his muse. In fact, Undine is an anti-muse, an arriviste in early 20th-century Manhattan, a party girl who loves to “go round” with the see-and-be-seen set.
“She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.”
Besides her social network, money is, of course, Undine’s primary interest—large amounts of it—and Ralph is a gentle soul who happens to come from the very old variety and whose musty peerage is linked with the most aristocratic of the upmarket crowd. Opposites attract, as the chestnut goes, but it’s hell living together, as Ralph soon finds out. He’d rather retire to the family library and ponder his poetry than squire Undine, the golden-haired, glittering It-girl to another midnight supper or night at the opera. Yet there’s a flaw in Ralph’s desire to write, and Wharton’s prose suggests the threat excess comfort poses to the writer: “-he could do charming things, if only he had known how to finish them!”
Margaret Drabble, novelist supreme, described The Custom of the Country as “one of the most enjoyable great novels ever written.” Wharton, after all, knows well the New York world Undine seeks to penetrate. Wharton was born into the Gilded Age world of privilege, with its philanthropy, old money, and social elitism, and in her own way, forged her own path through its austere establishment: one can imagine no better correspondent from the front. As Drabble writes, “Where Henry James dimly suggests, Wharton analyses and illustrates. She knows the world in a way that few novelists do, and it is a privilege to see the world in her company. “
Even after Undine abandons Ralph for the deep-pocketed Peter Van Degen, I had hopes for them, since by then Ralph had finally begun the book he’d always dreamed of writing. Yet just when it seemed they might reconcile, Undine divorces Ralph and wins custody of their only son, Paul, via marriage to a hidebound French aristocrat. P.S., as my grandmother used to say, Ralph never finished the book. Undine’s lesson in greed may come to a bad end, but Ralph’s bad end is a lesson in what not to look for in your muse.