What Edith Wharton Knew, a Century Ago, About Women and Fame in America

From The New Yorker:

The first time I read Edith Wharton’s novel “The Custom of the Country,” which was published in 1913, I felt at once that I had always known its protagonist and also that I had never before met anyone like her. The values of Undine Spragg—who, in the course of the novel, makes a circuitous and sinister journey from Midwestern rube to ruby-drenched new-money empress—are repulsive, and her attempts to manipulate public attention are mesmerizing. For my money, no literary antiheroine can best Undine—a dazzling monster with rose-gold hair, creamy skin, and a gaping spiritual maw that could swallow New York City. People like her have been abundant in American culture for some time, but I never feel invested in their success; more often, I idly hope for their failure. With Undine, however—thanks to the alchemical mix of sympathy and disdain that animates Wharton’s language in the novel and allows her to match Undine’s savagery with plenty of her own—I find myself wanting her to get everything she desires.

When “The Custom of the Country” begins, Undine is a desperate newcomer to New York, two years sprung from the fictional town of Apex. A string of abortive attempts at romance and sophistication have landed her, and her parents—nineteenth-century A.T.M.s, who fearfully attempt to tranquilize their beastly daughter with diversion and finery—at a hotel called the Stentorian, in what they call the “Looey suites.” This is the fanciest setting to which their unconnected souls can lay claim. Undine and her mother are reliant on their masseuse and manicurist, Mrs. Heeny, to decipher the codes and hierarchies of aristocratic New York. A dinner invite from a Mrs. Fairford brings the deepest sort of existential consternation that Undine can muster: she’d read in the newspaper that “pigeon-blood notepaper” with white ink is the fashion, but Mrs. Fairford used plain white paper. Perhaps, Undine worries, the Fairfords are not the entrée into the society pages that she seeks.

. . . .

“Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative,” Wharton explains, in the first of many passages that, in Twitter parlance, might best be described as the author dragging Undine to hell. Wharton goes on: Undine “wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modeling 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.” The main thing Undine has going for her is that she’s gorgeous—her looks “as vivid, and almost as crude” as the electric lights that blaze in her arriviste hotel room. She “might have been some fabled creature whose home was in a beam of light,” Wharton writes. (She is, in fact, such a creature. Undine is at peace only when illuminated by attention: without it, the reader quickly comes to understand, our heroine would turn to dust.) Undine hangs out in front of her mirror, glittering at herself, picturing an imaginary audience: her “incessant movements,” Wharton notes, are the result of her belief that it was the “correct thing to be animated in society, and noise and restlessness were her only notion of vivacity.” She gets Mrs. Heeny to verify the precise social standing of Mrs. Fairford, and bullies her father into buying her a new dress.

Undine’s ascent begins with this delectable mismatch between her shallow, ridiculous perceptions and her unbelievably savvy instincts. It doesn’t matter that she’s tacky enough to find the Fairford home shabby, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and ferns and wood fire where (she thinks) elaborate gilding and orchids and a gas log ought to be. It doesn’t matter that she not only hasn’t heard of any of the new art exhibitions that are talked about at dinner but is barely aware that art exhibitions exist—or that she thinks Phèdre is pronounced “fade,” or that the only book she’s read recently is “When the Kissing Had to Stop.” Undine gets the essentials: that to be beautiful, for a woman, is to be seen, which is to be wanted, which is to be handed the ability to exploit an economic system. She knows that she can parlay one material commitment from a man into another, as if she were at a medieval marketplace exchanging salt for bread. And, crucially, Undine’s insight into the machinery she manipulates is largely unconscious. As she “often told her parents, all she sought for was improvement; she honestly wanted the best,” Wharton writes.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker