I’m reading Edith Wharton this week; specifically, her novel The Custom of the Country. My introduction to Wharton came several years ago, when I read her Pulitzer Prize winner, The Age of Innocence. For some reason, I remember very little about it and based on recent experience, I really must re-read it someday. In the past year I’ve enjoyed two other Wharton novels:
- The Reef (my review for The Classics Circuit also described my visit to Wharton’s estate, The Mount)
- House of Mirth (my review)
The Custom of the Country is like House of Mirth, in that both focus on New York society, and involve young female protagonists. But where the latter has an air of desperation; The Custom of the Country is more satirical. I love the way Wharton portrays her heroine, the beautiful but frivolous Undine Spragg:
Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses. (p. 10)
And her description of “how things are done” among gentlemen of good breeding:
Nothing in the Dagonet and Marvell tradition was opposed to this desultory dabbling with life. For four or five generations it had been the rule of both houses that a young fellow should go to Columbia or Harvard, read law, and then lapse into more or less cultivated inaction. The only essential was that he should live ‘like a gentleman’ — that is, with a tranquil disdain for mere money-getting, a passive openness to the finer sensations, one or two fixed principles as to the quality of wine, and an archaic probity that had not yet learned to distinguish between private and ‘business’ honour. (p. 41)
And finally, Wharton’s painfully accurate philosophy, delivering perhaps my favorite quote in the novel so far:
The turnings of life seldom show a sign-post; or rather, though the sign is always there, it is usually placed some distance back, like the notices that give warning of a bad hill or a level railway-crossing. (p. 123)
Isn’t that marvelous? I’m within 100 pages of finishing this book, and I don’t want it to end. Every time I sit down to read, I get through about 10 pages and then I have to set it aside, just to savor its brilliance.
Clearly I need to read more Edith Wharton, soon. And this is where you come in. I have three of her books on my shelves. Which one should I read next?
I thought it would be fun to take a vote … thanks for playing!