Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Custom of the Country

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise everyone by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met ...
Undine Spragg has a dilemma. She has read in 'Boudoir Chat' that all the fashionable women in New York are using the new pigeon-blood red notepaper with white ink. Yet, elegant Mrs Fairford's invitation to lunch is written on plain old-fashioned white notepaper. Should Undine reply on red or white paper? Perhaps white paper is truly more stylish than red? Perhaps Mrs Fairford's use of white paper indicates that her social standing is not what Undine supposed?

Such are the difficulties faced by a wealthy Midwestern girl trying to move among New York's smartest set. Undine is always one step behind the Van Degens, the Driscolls and the Chauncey Ellings. I can't put Edith Wharton's brilliant satire The Custom of the Country down and I'll post more when I've read it.

11 comments:

A Bookish Space said...

This sounds delightful. I've not read any Edith Wharton, although I have Age of Innocence in my tbr pile.

Mad Housewife said...

I love your recap of the beginning. This is one of my favorite Wharton books. I THINK (though I'm not sure) that Margaret Drabble wrote an essay on this for a newspaper (The Guardian? The Times?) I know she wrote about ONE of Wharton's books.

Isn't Undine awful? But she's fascinating.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I am so glad you are enjoying this. I quite liked it myself. And I love the cover on your edition.

Elaine said...

This is one of my favourite Whartons and was recently serialised on the radio here in the UK. Beautifully done and kept me glued to the radio

callmemadam said...

The red writing paper reminds me of Mrs Pooter being persuaded by her friend Mrs James of Sutton to write in white on slate grey paper. Obviously a late nineteenth century obsession!
Black on white or cream, for me.

makedoandread said...

I'm so glad you're liking this. It's one of my favorite Wharton novels, and Undine is one of my very favorite characters.

Bloomsbury Bell said...

this sounds gripping - shockingly, I have never read any Wharton. I must change this soon!

Cath said...

Definitely a book I plan to read at some stage but first of all I need to get to The Age of Innocence. I thought The House of Mirth was fantastic.

花花美麗 said...
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Vintage Reading said...

A Bookish Space, I have really enjoyed this book, I liked Age of Innocence but not as much as this.

Mad Housewife, I'll try to source the Drabble essay. Undine is truly awful, but I suppose, a product of her upbringing. I suspect that Wharton half-admires her audacity, too!

Thomas, yes I love this cover, exactly as I imagine the terrible Undine to look!

Elaine, I caught some of the extracts on Radio 4, too. Brilliantly done.

callmemadam, I love little details, like the colour of notepaper in 19thC fiction. Yes, black ink on ivory, cream or white paper for me, too.

makedoandread, I adored this book, and I do think Wharton half wanted us to admire Undine! She was terrible to her son, though and I felt so sorry for her second husband, the lovely Ralph Marvell.

Bloomsbury Bell, you must read Wharton! House of Mirth is my absolute favourite with this a close second.

Cath, yes, I would say this is as absorbing as the House of Mirth although Undine Spragg (there's a name!) is not as sympathetic as Lily Bard. I don't mind Age of Innocence but I've never been really fond of it.

Mrs. B. said...

Interesting! What a life, to have to worry about which notepaper to use! So far I love Wharton, though I've only read 2 of her novels. This sounds like fun.