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

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my recent reading in quotes…

….There was a line-up at the luggage counter, and they took their places at the end of it. To Mrs. Hamilton, who was quick to sense atmosphere, the big room had an air of excitement gone stale, anticipation soured by reality.
….Journey’s end, she thought. She felt stale and sour herself, and the feeling reminded her of Virginia; Virginia at Christmas time, the year she was eight. For weeks and weeks the child had dreamed of Christmas, and then on Christmas morning she had awakened and found that Christmas was only another day. There were presents, of course, but they weren’t, they never could be, as big and exciting and mysterious as the packages they came in. In the afternoon Virginia had wept, rocking herself back and forth in misery.
….“I want my Christmas back again. I want my Christmas!” Mrs Hamilton knew now that what Virginia had wanted back were the wild and wonderful hopes, the boxes unopened, the ribbons still in bows.

~ Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

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From Churchill’s tribute in the House to Neville Chamberlain, on his death…

….At the lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with the shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

~ Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill

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….Emily Gaunt was coming down the stairs to her bedroom, fresh from her bath. Emily Gaunt was a pleasant person, well-proportioned, and, for a housemaid, unusually fair to see. Her eyes, like her hair, were a very dark brown, and there was a certain refinement in her features. Her hair was hanging about her shoulders and her face – usually pale – was rosy from her bath. In the absence of a dressing-gown or kimono, she wore an old coat of Cook’s over her night-gown. Cook was skinny and Emily was plump, so that Cook’s coat was far from meeting where it ought to have met. There was a great deal of Emily’s neck and Emily’s night-gown to be seen.
….Stephen, so far, had taken little notice of Emily, except that one evening he had smiled at her for some reason and she had smiled at him; but at this moment, in the special circumstances of this lovely evening, she seemed in his eyes surprisingly desirable. In the half-light from the dining-room it was easy to forget that she was a servant. She was merely a warm young female creature, plump and comely, and scantily clad.
….And there was no one else in the house.

~ The House by the River by A.P. Herbert

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….She turned back into the room, and going to her writing-table laid Mrs. Fairford’s note before her, and began to study it minutely. She had read in the “Boudoir Chat” of one of the Sunday papers that the smartest women were using the new pigeon-blood notepaper with white ink; and rather against her mother’s advice she had ordered a large supply, with her monogram in silver. It was a disappointment, therefore, to find that Mrs. Fairford wrote on the old-fashioned white sheet, without even a monogram—simply her address and telephone number. It gave Undine rather a poor opinion of Mrs. Fairford’s social standing, and for a moment she thought with considerable satisfaction of answering the note on her pigeon-blood paper. Then she remembered Mrs. Heeny’s emphatic commendation of Mrs. Fairford, and her pen wavered. What if white paper were really newer than pigeon blood? It might be more stylish, anyhow. Well, she didn’t care if Mrs. Fairford didn’t like red paper—SHE did! And she wasn’t going to truckle to any woman who lived in a small house down beyond Park Avenue…

~ The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

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….The sea was no longer oil-smooth. Little waves were forming on the tops of the swell, making patterns of white as they broke. I knew I hadn’t much time. I cupped my hands round my mouth and shouted: “Mary Deare! Ahoy! Is there anybody on board?” A gull shifted his stance uneasily on one of the ventilators, watching me with a beady eye. There was no answer, no sound except the door to the after deck-house slatting back and forth, regular as a metronome, and the bump of the lifeboat against the port side. It was obvious that she was deserted. All the evidence of abandonment was there on the deck – the empty falls, the stray pieces of clothing, a loaf lying in the scuppers, a hunk of cheese trampled into the deck, a half-open suitcase spilling nylons and cigarettes, a pair of sea boots; they had left her in a hurry and at night.
….But why?
….A sense of unease held me for a moment – a deserted ship with all its secrets, all its death-in-life stillness – I felt like an intruder and glanced quickly back towards Sea Witch. She was no bigger than a toy now in the leaden immensity of sea and sky, and the wind was beginning to moan through the empty ship – hurry! hurry!

~ The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 319…

Episode 319

I suddenly finished a couple of lengthy reads and, along with my usual shorter ones, that meant a big slide in the TBR since I last reported – down 5 to 178! Good excuse for one of my favourite gifs!

Here are a few more I’ll be diving into soon… 

Winner of the People’s Choice

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

The winner went into an early lead this month and, despite valiant attempts by both Angelou and Simenon, neither was able to catch up. It was close in the end, though – The Custom of the Country won by just two votes! An excellent choice, People! I so nearly put this one on my new Classics Club list but just didn’t have room for it, so I’m glad of the push to read it anyway. It will be a May read.

The Blurb says: Considered by many to be her masterpiece, Edith Wharton’s epic work is a scathing yet personal examination of the exploits and follies of the modern upper class. As she unfolds the story of Undine Spragg, from New York to Europe, Wharton affords us a detailed glimpse of what might be called the interior décor of this America and its nouveau riche fringes. Through a heroine who is as vain, spoiled, and selfish as she is irresistibly fascinating, and through a most intricate and satisfying plot that follows Undine’s marriages and affairs, she conveys a vision of social behavior that is both supremely informed and supremely disenchanted.

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American Classic

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

A few weeks ago Mallika at Literary Potpourri posted about some upcoming literary anniversaries, one of which is the centenary of Jack Kerouac’s birth, which will fall on 12th March. So since this one is on my new Classics Club list I thought I’d try to co-ordinate my review for his big day. IF I manage to finish the book in time, that is, and IF I like it – it would be rather mean to celebrate the day with a ranting one-star… 😉

The Blurb says: On The Road swings to the rhythms of 1950s underground America, jazz, sex, generosity, chill dawns and drugs, with Sal Paradise and his hero Dean Moriarty, traveller and mystic, the living epitome of Beat. Now recognized as a modern classic, Kerouac’s American Dream is nearer that of Walt Whitman than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, and the narrative goes racing towards the sunset with unforgettable exuberance, poignancy and passion.

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The Cult by Abby Davies

Courtesy of HarperCollins. An unsolicited one that I probably wouldn’t have chosen for myself. However I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying Davies’ last book, Mother Loves Me, also sent on spec, so I’m keen to see if she can surprise me again!

The Blurb says: A hidden community…

Thirty years ago, in the English countryside, a commune was set up. Led by Uncle Saviour, it was supposed to be a place of love, peace and harmony. But what started out as paradise turned into hell.

A shocking abduction…

Now, two young children have vanished from their home in the middle of the night. Their parents are frantic, the police are at a loss.

A twisting case…

DI Ottoline is leading the search – her only clue a mask found in the woods. Could the key lie in events that took place decades ago, when a dream of a new way of life became something far more sinister?

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Christie on Audio

Miss Marple’s Final Cases narrated by Joan Hickson

I’m still enjoying Wolf Hall but sometimes I’m not in the mood to listen to something that requires that much concentration, so I’m alternating it with this one. Ms Hickson and Ms Christie are a more delicious combination than even coffee and chocolate cake…

The Blurb says: First, the mystery man in the church with a bullet-wound. Then, the riddle of a dead man’s buried treasure…the curious conduct of a caretaker after a fatal riding accident…the corpse and a tape-measure…the girl framed for theft…and the suspect accused of stabbing his wife with a dagger.

Here are six gripping cases with one thing in common: the astonishing deductive powers of Miss Marple.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?