The Custom of the Country, by 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. But in fact, Undine is the anti-muse, an arriviste in early 20th century Manhattan, a party girl whose loves to “go round” with the see-and-be-seen set. Besides her social network, money is of course Undine’s primary interest—large amounts of it.

Edith Wharton published The Custom of the Country in 1913, in New York’s Gilded Age, before the cataclysm of World War I descended. Ralph Marvell is the last of a breed, a gentle soul who comes from the very old variety, and whose musty peerage and links with the most aristocratic of the upmarket crowd attract the attentions of Undine.

And though opposites attract, as the old chestnut goes, it can be 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.

Even after Undine abandons him for the deep-pocketed Peter Van Degen, I had hopes for Ralph, since by then he’d finally begun the book he’d always dreamed of writing. Yet just when it seemed they might agree to separate lives, 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, the book was never finished. 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.

Wharton’s tale is a classic one of ambition and class striving, but clearly hits a contemporary chord. It was recently the inspiration for a Vogue fashion shoot, photographed by Annie Leibovitz on location at Edith Wharton’s New York estate, and it appears Scarlett Johansson has signed on to produce and star in an eight-episode period based on the novel.

—Lauren Alwan

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