Litstack Recs | The Custom of the Country & Shakespeare in Kabul

by Tee Tate

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, 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, and set it in New York’s Gilded Age, before the cataclysm of World War I. Ralph Marvell is the last of a breed, a gentle soul whose musty peerage and links with the most aristocratic of the upmarket crowd attract the attentions of Undine.

edith wharton on stairway
A young Edith Wharton

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—but even then, Ralph never finishes the novel. 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 classic tale of ambition and class striving clearly hits a contemporary chord. It was recently the inspiration for a Vogue fashion shoot, photographed by Annie Leibovitz on location at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s Lenox, Massachusetts, estate. In 2020, Sofia Coppola announced she will develop Wharton’s novel as a series for Apple TV. “Undine Spragg is my favorite literary anti-heroine and I’m excited to bring her to the screen for the first time.”

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

—Lauren Alwan

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