The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

She ain’t no Becky Sharp…

😐 😐

Undine Spragg has been spoiled by her pathetic parents to the point of becoming barely functional as a human being. Greedy, shallow, brain-dead, common as muck, amazingly men fall for her because she has red hair. Because, let’s face it, the men are all shallow and brain-dead too, though far too classy to be greedy or common. No, the men are quite contented to amble pointlessly through life, living off the wealth of their relatives. Undine always wants something she can’t have – baubles, mainly, and bangles and beads. And admiration. And when she can’t have it she throws a tantrum because she has the mental capacity of a not very bright two-year-old. Surprisingly this behaviour appears to work, and people give her whatever she wants simply to shut her up, much in the way a stressed mother might shove a dummy in the mouth of a screaming child. And yet men love her…

This dismal, tedious tome is touted as a brilliant satire of American high society at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Brilliant” is a subjective term, so I’ll confine myself to subjectively disagreeing, wholeheartedly. “Satire”, however, has a specific meaning…

Satire: A poem or (in later use) a novel, film, or other work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

The problem with the book is that there is no humour in it, no irony, not much exaggeration that I could see, and the very occasional attempt at ridicule doesn’t come off because they’re all such tedious people – not even worthy of ridicule. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) is a brilliantly drawn central figure in a satire, because she is witty, intelligent, manipulative and determined, and because she starts with nothing, making the reader have more sympathy for her than for the immoral, feckless snobs she makes her victims. Undine, on the other hand is dull, stupid and talentless, and comes from a background where her every whim has been met. Why would anyone sympathise with her?

Becky’s victims are indeed exaggerated, often to the point of caricature. Who can forget the awfulness of miserly, lascivious Sir Pitt the elder, or the sanctimonious hypocrisy of Sir Pitt the younger, or the gullible vanity of poor Jos Sedley? Simpering, snivelling Amelia is the Victorian heroine taken to extremes, and Thackeray’s demolition of the reader’s initial sympathy for her is masterly. And so on.

Undine’s victims are typical, unexaggerated society wastrels, living on inherited wealth and contributing nothing of either good or ill to the society they infest. They are dull in themselves, and therefore dull for the reader to spend time with. Can one ridicule someone with no outstanding characteristics? I guess it’s possible, but there are few signs of it happening here. Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

Edith Wharton

I seriously considered abandoning the book halfway through on the grounds that I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom. But I decided to struggle on in the hope that perhaps there would be a whole marvellous cast of caricatured eccentrics waiting on the later pages, and maybe Undine would become deliciously wicked rather than depressingly selfish, and all the humour might have been saved for the later chapters. But sadly not, despite her following Becky Sharp’s career closely. Remarkably closely, actually, up to the very latter stages, which is why I have chosen to compare the books. I think the major difference is Becky enjoyed her life, so we enjoyed it with her, and despite her treatment of them she brought some fun and excitement into the lives of her victims – Undine is miserable pretty much all the time, empty and miserable, and she brings nothing but emptiness and misery into anyone’s life, including this reader’s. She sure ain’t no Becky Sharp, though it felt clear to me from the plagiarising mirroring of the plot that Wharton intended her to be.

Book 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May – sorry, People! Never mind – it’s the first loser this year, and next month’s looks great… 😀

Amazon UK Link

51 thoughts on “The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

  1. What a shame! Thankfully the Wharton book I have left on my classics club list is a different one – I definitely won’t be rushing to pick this up. Great review though and I love the comparison with Vanity Fair.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happily this is an exception for me – I’ve enjoyed the Wharton books and stories I’ve previously read. But this one just really didn’t work for me at all! And I’m pretty sure it was because of how much I loved Vanity Fair and how recently, that I was so aware of all the similarities, and that did not work to Wharton’s advantage.

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  2. Having thoroughly enjoyed Vanity Fair, I have no desire to read this much lesser version! I was reviewing authors recently to see if there were noted authors I wanted to add to my classics reading, Edith Wharton did not appeal at the time.

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    • I’m pretty sure the fact that it’s so recently that I re-read and re-loved Vanity Fair didn’t help with this one – the similarities are glaring in terms of plot but sadly she hasn’t been able in anyway to emulate the sheer enjoyability of Thackeray’s novel. I think I’m probably finished with Wharton now too. I did enjoy the previous books that I’ve read but didn’t really love them, and there are plenty of other authors I’d rather spend time with. She is good at spooky short stories though, so she may appear again in that guise at some point!

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    • The fact that I had re-read and re-loved Vanity Fair so recently certainly didn’t help with this one – the plotting similarities are so obvious but she just hasn’t managed to get the sheer enjoyability of Thackeray’s novel. But I have read and enjoyed other stuff by Wharton so this may simply be a blip, and every author is allowed one or two of them in their career! Plus, as usual, loads of people love this, so maybe it’s just me… 😉

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  3. Oh dear, this does sound bad, and a poor immitation of Vanity Fair. I wonder why Whartan chose Becky’s story as the template for her own rather than coming up with an original idea. I have a couple of her books on my TBR, and will still give her a go, but I think I will give this particular title a miss.

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    • It was really astonishing just how many similarities there were in the plots between the two books – far too many for it to have been coincidental! And yet unfortunately she hadn’t managed to copy any of the humour or sheer enjoyability of the original. However, although I’ve never quite loved them, I have enjoyed some of her other books in the past, so hopefully you’ll get on fine with the ones that are already on your TBR!

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    • Haha, thank you! I’m not quite sure how I managed to finish it either – it’s another of these ones where I abandoned it halfway through, wrote a stinging review, and then decided that I really ought to finish the book. I don’t know why I ever do that because no book ever wins me back over after annoying me that much in the first half! 😉

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  4. That first para had me laughing–thank you 🙂 But sorry you had to bear with this one which I see I no longer have to add to any lists (thank you once again). I did enjoy Vanity Fair very much (despite how bland Amelia was), so can safely put away versions with brain-dead avatars!

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    • Haha, thank you – glad you enjoyed it! Yes, this simply wasn’t a patch on Vanity Fair. Apart from the awful Undine all the rest of the characters have already faded completely from my mind whereas Thackeray’s characters are still vivid although it’s several months longer since I read that book. I found Amelia quite entertaining in the end – I got to the stage that every time she cried, I laughed… 😉

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  5. I think your most important point here, FIctionFan, is that if you’re going to have a satire, it’s got to be funny. Admittedly, it’s not easy to achieve the sort of satire you see in Vanity Fair, but still, that’s satire. It sounds as if this tried and fell very (very) short. One I’m not putting on my wish list….

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    • Yes, it surprises me how often authors forget to put the humour into satire! I didn’t even really feel with this one that Wharton was trying to be humorous – in fact, she didn’t seem to be doing anything very much except showing the fecklessness of high society which, while certainly true, didn’t feel like enough to make a whole novel out of. But as usual loads of people love it, so maybe it’s just me! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Looking at your review, you definitely enjoyed it far more than me! I honestly don’t think that you or I did miss the satire though. I just don’t think there’s any real satire in it, and I don’t know why it has developed a reputation as a great satire. If there’s one thing satire shouldn’t be, it’s so subtle that you miss it! However I have enjoyed other Wharton books in the past and every author is allowed at least one blip! 😉

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  6. Oh my! I never dreamed it would be this bad!!! Though your review made me laugh, especially this:

    Ridicule should surely make you laugh at the object, or perhaps if you’re a nicer person than I, wince in sympathy. It shouldn’t make you curl your lip disparagingly while trying to stifle a yawn…

    Hilarious! 😁 😆 I guess Thackeray just had the right touch for this sort of thing.

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    • Haha, nor me! I was rather rude about it though, although not nearly as rude as the first draught of my review, which I felt needed to be considerably edited before I posted it! 😉 No, she’s certainly no Thackeray and I don’t think satire is her main strength.

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    • I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of her in the past too, so I was really expecting to enjoy this one. But I’m afraid I don’t think this works as satire at all and if you take the satirical element out, then it just becomes the story of a pretty awful, unlikeable woman, told at far too great a length! However, as usual, loads of people love it, so maybe it’s just me… 😉

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  7. I’ve always felt at tad guilty that I haven’t read any of her work. Clearly this is not the place to start!

    I think I mentioned before that there was an Undine in a series I read. I’ve just been down the Google rabbit hole and see that it’s not such an uncommon name/word!

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    • To be fair, I’ve enjoyed other stuff by her before, although she’s never become a favourite author for me. There are plenty of other authors I’d rather be reading.

      That is odd, because Wharton gives the impression that she made the name up, and the character is so revolting that I just can’t imagine anyone deciding to call their daughter after her! Unless they really hate their daughter… 😉

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    • Haha, I forgive you! 😉 To be fair I’ve enjoyed the couple of her novels that I’ve previously read far more than this one – Ethan Frome and the House of Mirth. However I never quite love her books so I think her style just doesn’t really fully work for me. But loads of people love her so as usual it’s all subjective!

      Liked by 1 person

    • To be fair, I’ve enjoyed the other couple of her novels that I’ve previously read far more than this one – Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth. However, I never quite love them, so I think her style just doesn’t fully work for me. But loads of people love her, so as usual it’s all subjective!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh no! I keep meaning to read more Wharton but it sounds like here is definitely not the place to start. Wonderful review FF, I especially enjoyed “I have sworn an oath that, whatever I die of, it won’t be boredom” 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, thank you! I must admit that boredom is the cardinal sin as far as reading is concerned – I’d much rather be reading a book I hate than one that I’m finding tedious. And sadly I found this one exceptionally tedious! 😉 But I have enjoyed other novels by her in the past, and every author is allowed at least one blip… 😀

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  9. When I wrote my review of this book I said Undine Spragg must be in the top ten of most disliked protagonists in literary history. She is a superficial gold digger who only cares about moving up in society no matter who she hurts in the process. Yet, Wharton uses her perfectly as a symbol of the ill-bred new money vs. the tradition and stability of old money. Wharton really got that right in this awful character!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, Wharton is certainly observant about both old and new money, but for me she failed to make it entertaining. I was ready to laugh, sneer or even be made to feel sorry for them all, but I fear they simply bored me. Oh well, these things are always subjective, and plenty of people love the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Ouch, this one sounds like an exercise in misery! Probably the best thing, though, is reading your delightful review which has convinced me to spend my time elsewhere. I’m seriously surprised you trudged through it, and really, shouldn’t The People be ashamed for sticking you with something this tedious? I can say that because I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote for it, hee hee!

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    • Yes, I think the People should pool together and send me chocolate as an apology for this one! 😉 I kept reading a bit more in the hopes of seeing why so many people apparently love it, but I fear it seemed like a case of Emperor’s New Clothes to me. Oh well, the next one sounds much better! 😀

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  11. I haven’t read anything by Wharton and maybe at this point I never will, since I already have too many books. Except that I may give Ethan Frome a try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I enjoyed Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth, although I didn’t love either of them. But I think I’m probably finished with her now – there are lots of other authors I’d rather be reading.

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  12. Oh my, your first paragraph did have me chuckling as I began to see Undine as the nineteenth century version of a certain tv family who sound just like what you described…without the red hair though!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I enjoyed Edith Frome and The House of Mirth, but not really enough to turn me into a fan. I suspect I just don’t gel completely with her style, so I think I’ll abandon her now – so many other authors vying for my attention! 😉

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