THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY BY EDITH WHARTON

I have a saying which is that the greatest trick that man has ever pulled is to convince women that they are free. I’m sure many of you are raising your eyebrows at that. I’m serious though. Years ago men tried to control women by keeping them locked up in housework, in children, in piety. Then we realised that by doing so, although we posses them, we aren’t benefitting from it in the way that we would like. No, what we want, what we have always wanted, is for them to look nice, to leave us alone to pursue our own interests, and yet to give us what we desire when we desire it. For that women needed to be convinced of their emancipation.

This freedom, in my opinion, is a mirage. I believe that women are socialised to exercise their ‘free will’ in a way that most pleases men, i.e. they are taught to be promiscuous, to not want commitment, to be ok with all kinds of sexual congress, to be obsessed with their appearance, etc. Furthermore, they have been taught to be satisfied with scraps of attention, to appreciate the glittery, the sparkling, the bright and blinding; which are all things that men can give them with little effort on their part. Of course, not all women fall for the trick, I’m not saying that, but that doesn’t call into question the entire theory. Just look around you, at TV, at pop stars, and so on. Society is ordered in such a way as to create vacuous, easy, and lovely looking women. And this situation is getting worse, the numbers are growing with each new generation. Take it from a man, someone who has been dating girls for a number of years. I’m not taking the moral high ground here, I’m as bad as anyone; I, too, have benefited.

Remarkably, these ideas, which have played on my mind for quite some time, form the basis of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which was published in 1913. In fact, one character, Charles Bowen, engages in a conversation, about half-way through the novel, in which similar points to my own are raised:

“I want to get a general view of the whole problem of American marriages.”

Mrs. Fairford dropped into her arm-chair with a sigh. “If that’s what you want you must make haste! Most of them don’t last long enough to be classified.”

“I grant you it takes an active mind. But the weak point is so frequently the same that after a time one knows where to look for it.”

“What do you call the weak point?”

He paused. “The fact that the average American looks down on his wife.”

Mrs. Fairford was up with a spring. “If that’s where paradox lands you!”

Bowen mildly stood his ground. “Well–doesn’t he prove it? How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgment and help in the conduct of serious affairs? Take Ralph for instance–you say his wife’s extravagance forces him to work too hard; but that’s not what’s wrong. It’s normal for a man to work hard for a woman–what’s abnormal is his not caring to tell her anything about it.”

“To tell Undine? She’d be bored to death if he did!”

“Just so; she’d even feel aggrieved. But why? Because it’s against the custom of the country. And whose fault is that? The man’s again–I don’t mean Ralph I mean the genus he belongs to: homo sapiens, Americanus. Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in THEM.”

Mrs. Fairford, sinking back into her chair, sat gazing at the vertiginous depths above which his thought seemed to dangle her.

“YOU don’t? The American man doesn’t–the most slaving, self-effacing, self-sacrificing–?”

“Yes; and the most indifferent: there’s the point. The ‘slaving’s’ no argument against the indifference To slave for women is part of the old American tradition; lots of people give their lives for dogmas they’ve ceased to believe in. Then again, in this country the passion for making money has preceded the knowing how to spend it, and the American man lavishes his fortune on his wife because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.”

“Then you call it a mere want of imagination for a man to spend his money on his wife?”

“Not necessarily–but it’s a want of imagination to fancy it’s all he owes her. Look about you and you’ll see what I mean. Why does the European woman interest herself so much more in what the men are doing? Because she’s so important to them that they make it worth her while! She’s not a parenthesis, as she is here–she’s in the very middle of the picture. I’m not implying that Ralph isn’t interested in his wife–he’s a passionate, a pathetic exception. But even he has to conform to an environment where all the romantic values are reversed. Where does the real life of most American men lie? In some woman’s drawing-room or in their offices? The answer’s obvious, isn’t it? The emotional centre of gravity’s not the same in the two hemispheres. In the effete societies it’s love, in our new one it’s business. In America the real crime passionnel is a ‘big steal’–there’s more excitement in wrecking railways than homes.”

Bowen paused to light another cigarette, and then took up his theme. “Isn’t that the key to our easy divorces? If we cared for women in the old barbarous possessive way do you suppose we’d give them up as readily as we do? The real paradox is the fact that the men who make, materially, the biggest sacrifices for their women, should do least for them ideally and romantically. And what’s the result–how do the women avenge themselves? All my sympathy’s with them, poor deluded dears, when I see their fallacious little attempt to trick out the leavings tossed them by the preoccupied male–the money and the motors and the clothes–and pretend to themselves and each other that THAT’S what really constitutes life! Oh, I know what you’re going to say–it’s less and less of a pretense with them, I grant you; they’re more and more succumbing to the force of the suggestion; but here and there I fancy there’s one who still sees through the humbug, and knows that money and motors and clothes are simply the big bribe she’s paid for keeping out of some man’s way!”

I’ve included the discussion in its entirety because it is so fabulous. Reading it was one of those miracle discoveries that you get every so often in literature, when someone articulates almost exactly your own thoughts and feelings.

The focus of the novel is Undine Spragg, a self-centred but very beautiful young woman. She is a poster-girl for the dangers of socialisation; she embodies my, and Charles Bowen’s, ideas about the way that women are raised and taught to behave. Her mother is weak and subservient, maybe even intimidated by her daughter; her father appears to believe that she should have everything she wants, no matter how unreasonable. Indeed, Abner Spragg does exactly what I was talking about at the beginning of this review: unable to engage with his daughter properly he simply throws something shiny or new and expensive her way in order to pacify her. He doesn’t do so for sexual gain, of course, but he is putting in place a pattern of behaviour and creating and re-enforcing an attitude towards relations between men and women that will carry the girl throughout her life. Later, when she starts forming serious relationships, she brings the same expectations to them, which is that the man ought to always satisfy her desires. In these relationships, the male concern is sexual, but they take on the paternal role: they keep their true thoughts and feelings to themselves, they shelter her from business matters, and so on. Undine’s role, both in her own mind and in the minds of the men she encounters, is simply to look beautiful.

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In a way, you could call The Custom of the Country a feminist novel, because, of course, socialisation of women, male attitudes towards women, are feminist concerns. However, Wharton is too clever and too deft a writer to fall into the trap of writing a political tract. She appears to be saying it is a great shame that women are kept at arm’s length, are taught and encouraged to be beautiful and little else, but she does not ever really blame anyone for this state of affairs, she is entirely even-handed, and she certainly is no man hater. Ralf, one of Undine’s husbands, is, for example, probably the most sympathetic person in the whole novel; he is shown to be truly in love in with his wife and devoted to his son. Yet, Undine’s and Ralf’s marriage is not on an equal footing either. He doesn’t want to bore her with financial or business matters, while she thinks it his responsibility to ensure her amusement. Crucially, Undine doesn’t want a relationship on an equal footing: she wants to be pampered and spoiled and allowed to do what she likes

Undine Spragg is one of the most extraordinary characters in literature. It would be easy to see her as a typical conniving, scheming femme fatale, but she isn’t really. What is most interesting about Undine is that she truly believes that she has a right to what she wants, that no one and nothing ought to be able to stop her. That is not the same as a traditional femme fatale, a Becky Sharp, who know that they are bad or that they are doing bad things, and don’t care. Undine thinks she is absolutely in the right; she would be mortified to think that she is in the wrong. There is, in fact, a great deal of naivety and innocence in her. She twice marries the wrong kind of man, not exactly for money as you might anticipate, but because she doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between her desires and money [i.e. that the things she wants cost a lot of money and that money doesn’t simply come to hand when it is called for]. Both men aren’t rich, and yet Undine thinks they should still do all they can to please her and cannot comprehend why they are unable to. She also makes many social faux pas; she does not use society, or manipulate it; she is essentially clueless, but eager to learn. The upshot is that Undine is both monstrous, almost sociopathic, and yet somehow strangely charming, strangely endearing. And, I think, that the sympathy I felt towards her comes from me being a man, because, again, being a man I like, I respond to, beautiful but child-like women, just as the male characters in the novel do.

If this is all the book had to say it would still be a brilliant, forward-thinking novel. However, it raises many other fascinating questions, deals with other engrossing themes, such as money, divorce, family, parentage, duty etc, etc. Perhaps the overriding theme, the one that ties many of the other themes/ideas together, is that of old vs new. Undine’s battles, her disagreements with the grand old families, the Marvells and de Chelles, is indicative of the tension that Wharton sees between old values and new, the old world and the new world. However, Undine is not quite as modern as she may seem at first glance. She instinctively respects these traditional families, although only because she feels them to be important and respected by others. It is Elmer Moffatt, my favourite character in the novel, who truly embodies the new age. Moffatt is unrefined, he has no great name or heritage behind him; he is brash and loud and straight-talking; he is a speculator, a self-made man. He is, in fact, The American Dream.

There is a poignant scene towards the end of the novel, although in order to understand it some explanation is required. Undine has married a French aristocrat, who, albeit titled, and therefore giving the appearance of wealth, has very little ready cash. Undine, needing money for her trips to Paris, arranges for a man to come and view and put a value on some very expensive de Chelles family heirlooms; and Moffatt is the man who comes to buy them. He offers two million dollars, but de Chelles turns the offer down. The Frenchman is incredulous, he cannot fathom why Undine would even have the heirlooms evaluated; there is no question, he says, of them ever being sold. For Undine, however, they are merely objects, which are pleasant to look at but only if they are not taking the place of other, more pressing, desires. Anyway, eventually, right at the end of the book, Moffatt is seen bringing these heirlooms home. He has, of course, bought them. de Chelles and his set, his values, his way of life even, is on the way out.

If I have any criticism to make of The Custom of the Country it is that Undine’s second marriage too closely resembles her first. Consequently, you feel as though it is unnecessary, as though you’ve already been through this already, that Wharton had made the same points previously, and this makes the novel drag a little bit in the final third. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense that Undine would make the same mistake twice, i.e. that she would again marry someone who is seemingly well-to-do, but financially in dire straights, because she would foresee, you’d imagine, that she would find herself in the same position that she so loathed before. I feel as though Wharton could have cut the de Chelles marriage out completely, and if she had done so the novel would have been even more wonderful, more brutal. In any case, this minor quibble about pacing aside, The Custom of the Country is one of the few genuinely great novels I have read this year.

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