30 January, 2023

Litstack Recs | The Custom of the Country & The Resisters

The Custom of the Country Edith Wharton

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!”

edith wharton on stairway
A young Edith Wharton

Novelist, biographer, and critic Margaret Drabble 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 the couple, 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.

Read Penguin’s Reader’s Guide for The Custom of the Country.

-Lauren Alwan


  • TS Tate

    Tee received a Master of Arts in English in 2008 from Southeastern Louisiana University. She has studied under Edgar nominee Tim Gautreaux, Booksense Pick novelist Bev Marshall and Clarion West graduate and World Fantasy nominee, Cat Rambo. She has more than ten years of documentation and editing experience and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at LitStack.com.   She has spent the past nine years in the corporate environment as a Technical Editor and has previously edited for Christine Rose, Phoebe North, Heather McCorkle, Laura Pauling, Anne Riley, Christine Fonseca and UF writer Carolyn Crane. With Heather McCorkle, Tee co-founded the #WritersRoad chat on Twitter.  In addition, she is working on several creative projects, including her second novel and various short stories. Her flash fiction, "Street Noises," was included in the Pill Hill Press anthology "Daily Frights 2012: 366 Days of Dark Flash Fiction (Leap Year Edition)" and her short "Til Hunt Be Done," was included in the Winter Wonders anthology from Compass Press.  A diehard New Orleans Saints fan, Tee lives with her family in Southeast Louisiana.