"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Mop Philosophy Book Club: The Custom of the Country

"You come among us from a country we don't know, and can't imagine, a country you care for so little that before you've been a day in ours you've forgotten the very house you were born in- if it wasn't torn down before you knew it!  You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about - you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven't had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they're dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have - and we're fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us!"
-Raymond de Chelles, to Undine Spragg, Book V, Chapter XLII, The Custom of the Country

As the enchantment of Undine's beauty fades and the realization of what she truly holds dear seemingly slaps Raymond de Chelles across the face he is finally able to articulate what we, as readers, are thinking: Undine Spragg is a brittle shell of pretty hair and finery with a hollow centre.  She adores wealth, the "next thing", and is ruthless and clawing in her savage desire to be always the richest, the prettiest and the most socially accomplished.  Her shining moments involve sweeping into rooms, radiant and dazzling with beauty and wealth, a captivating vision which quickly dissipates as she opens her mouth... for she has nothing of any interest to say and her understanding does not extend past the superficial and the obvious.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the drawing rooms of Paris, where women are expected to be well turned-out but also to have cultivated their intellect through books and conversation.  Beauty inside and out as it were.

Why did Edith Wharton draw such a despicable character as Undine Spragg?  Does Undine represent everything Edith Wharton found alarming about her own country?

If Ralph Marvell represented everything that was good, solid and intelligent in New York society, why does he display a certain lack of courage when confronted with the hollow yet powerful Undine?  In taking his own life is he displaying weakness or is this a result of Undine's destruction of anything that blocks her ruthless path?

As a character I found Elmer Moffatt almost decent, did you find him at least honest and straight, or does he just seem this way when compared to the terror that is Undine?


What do you think Edith Wharton would say about the new social climbers?  Did you think this novel was prescient of our materialism, our current celebrity culture?  For an excellent perspective on this and to see how Undine is still being discussed today please read THIS ARTICLE, it was sent to me by our Wendy and I think you'll find it interesting...

Does Mrs. Heeny represent the media's participation in building a hollow celebrity culture, with her bag of clippings?  Is the heartbreak of Paul Marvell's life illustrated as Mrs. Heeny reads aloud the clipping she carries describing his mother's divorce from his beloved "French Father" and immediate remarriage to Elmer Moffatt?  Is Paul Marvell's sad and lonely life the ultimate criticism of Undine Spragg and her selfish, vacuous ideals?

Any and all thoughts you have on the book will be greatly appreciated, I feel a book like this leaves much to discuss and that conversation could go in many directions...
xoxDani



79 comments:

  1. I'll be serving drinks and canapés again and marvelling at all of the literary super beans in the room.

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  2. Oh damn! Blogger just ate my first comment, so I am going to be briefer this time!

    If there was ever a more villainess character, completely devoid of any good intention or character, it is Undine Spragg.

    Wharton portrays her as much as a parasitic bug in society as a beautiful wannabe society social climber. She is wholly lacking in all things true in the eyes of the old moneyed folks she runs into - little culture, reading the wrong novels that give her a simplistic view of love and society, caring only the next, best thing, with particular emphasis on material things and being "entertained".

    What I found somewhat frustrating was the lack of a real sociological or psychological analysis. Undine is roughly drawn - we do not know what could have created this monster, save our own sense of indulgent parenting, but surely that is not enough to create such a villain? The old money and culture is romanticized by Wharton, and yet no subtle recognition that the old money and culture were once new themselves...

    The last part of the book is most telling:

    "Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them."

    There is always more, more, more. In that Wharton has captured the essence of a person (or society) trying to fill up internal holes with things and in that, this is a very timely book indeed.

    I really enjoyed this novel. I would have liked a more nuanced approach here and there, but in general, really, really liked it. Can't wait to read the other comments!

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    1. "If she knew about them"-- imagine Undine with the interwebs!

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    2. Lane she was born too soon!

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  3. Tabs we are so lucky to have such a hostess, what are you passing around today, how about oysters rockefeller and champagne, that seems suitable!

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    1. I'm shucking as fast as I can, hmm, a light Cristal with the oysters? Oh no, we have cheese in there so I think I'll burst out the Dom P, excellent.

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    2. Tabs, I'll take care of the DP, now just go pour yourself into that 20yo dress I like and I won't need the oysters either.

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    3. Someone always hit on the waitress.

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    4. It is very seldom me as the women I'm attracted to don't have the temperament to be a waitress...although I have been known to fire on the hostess who coquettishly says: "ah Mr GSL your table is ready; right this way..."

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    5. Well I was a waitress through University and trust me, someone in a crowd always always hits on the waitress, but bartending was far worse, I'd say 1 in 3!

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    6. Dani, men would hit on you if you were serving them a subpoena. Lots of gals I know waitressed in college but that is far too young for me.

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    7. GSL, that is a scream! I was a terrible waitress, I still remember my first night of silver service, I was hopeless at it and dropped the lot on to gentleman's lap.

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  4. Wendy I agree she is roughly drawn and sort of half-formed. These days we might say she has borderline personality disorder or something... but EW was trying to make some sort of point by creating such a character? I think the contrast between appreciation and culture (ie French, as illustrated in that quote from de Chelles) and the American way of money and "things", building more, change rather than preservation, the old culture as compared to the new... though good point every culture was "new" once.

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  5. I will be brief but hopefully can come back later...very busy morning today. What a piece of work Undine is, I found myself rooting for her demise. I found Ralph's grandfathers speech about "the custom of the country" to ring true about the relationship between husbands and wives to ring true both then and in some degree now. Why we have workaholic husbands, shopaholic wives. Of course Undine wanted to be so big she actually was very very small. Is beauty THAT enchanting or are the men just as shallow? Besides Moffat, I found her men to live in the past, the ideal not the real...that is until she literally broke them. No honesty or humility in any of the characters...even Moffat.

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  6. BB - I agree - the earlier comment that I wrote and was eaten was that the men in Undine's life seemed content and wilfully stupid to mistake beauty and aloofness for something finer and deeper. They WANTED that beauty to be more than it was. de Chelles can be forgiven for that, since the French do love their beauty, but Ralph is quite naïve and silly.

    Dani - I think you are right that Wharton had made her a caricature, but I think she needed to be a little more nuanced here and there. I think it would have made the character richer. On the other hand (and I do love to argue against myself) - is there more to Paris Hilton that blonde hair, long legs, club openings and her infamous "That's Hot!" catchphrase? I think probably not... And it is certainly a damning indictment of a materialistic society that equates things, and the right things, with having class. I see this on the blogs and in the magazines all the time. It creates a want in others that perhaps would not have existed in their lives prior to seeing and thinking that one is nothing without a Birkin or Hermes...

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    1. Wendy there is nothing subtle about Undine, which leaves no chance for any sort of redemption. Materialism has never and will never, equal class... which in EW's characters is more about being decent, doing the right thing than anything else (and still true today I would say!)

      BB one has to wonder about the men... yup Ralph was very silly indeed. I think de Chelles assumed that there was more to Undine, and during those long evenings of their early marriage, when he wanted to read to her, converse with her, he quickly realized she was an empty shell (which results in Undine making the observation that he retreats into his books and letters, much as Ralph had done).

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  7. Undine was a caricature of all that was materialistic and shallow in American culture (her initials are U. S. for a reason). She was manipulative and passive-aggressive throughout ( "If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable"); stunning but dull ("Her entrances were always triumphs, but they had no sequel. As soon as people started to talk, they cease to see her.")
    Much as I wanted a happy ending for Marvell, his final act of sacrifice was true to form with his idealistic, dreamy and feeble nature. The Dagonets/Marvells/de Chelles (traditional NY and France) were dignity personified despite how their families were used by Undine. I agree the Dickensian Mrs. Heeny represents the media which foster the cult of the rich and famous. I actually thought Moffat's characterization was the weak one. He started out such a slimeball and ended agreeable. Was that because money brings one a false sense of decency?

    I have forgotten how powerful a storyteller she was. I could not put the book down, waiting for Undine to get her comeuppance. That she did not end up alone, destitute and repentant would have been too predictable an ending. The conclusion highlighted the bane of her existence, that nothing will make her really happy. The book is a satire after all.

    The book was written during a period of great change socially, economically, politically. It showcased the inevitable conflicts between Old NY and New NY; European tradition and American capitalism; Washington Square and Fifth Avenue. There were so many beautiful passages in the book, providing us with the 'feast of words' Wharton is hailed for. No one can write such biting observations as an insider with direct personal experiences in these societies. Dani, that beautiful paragraph you quoted resonated with me too.

    There were some painful and sad moments for me. I felt so bad about Undine's victims: her long-suffering parents, the two decent men Marvell and de Chelles who made the mistake of loving her, the lonely boy Paul who can't remember his real father and who was separated from people who really cared about him. It is to Wharton's credit that you come to care for these characters. Even if one abhorred Undine, one cannot remain indifferent to her.

    Overall a fantastic read. This book reminded me of another favorite author, Balzac, with his Comedie Humaine cautionary tales on the pitfalls of bright lights, big city and the destructive worship of lucre. Yes, I love me some melodrama.

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    1. Oh Marie - great connection to Balzac! I agree - Paul really broke my heart and the parents as well, though I wondered if they hadn't helped create her...

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    2. Marie, this was a mesmerising commentary.

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    3. Dani, your post too is so beautifully written.

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    4. Thanks Tabitha but I am an editor's nightmare, too wordy. I am a fan of your succinct and witty discourse, you cut to the bone so quick.

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    5. Marie you can keep writing as far as I'm concerned!

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  8. Marie, yes to Balzac! I found it a very sad story: Ralph, Mr. and Mrs. Spragg and of course Paul. One had the feeling that de Chelles survived after realizing his mistake... and it was a fantastic, addictive read. So well written and you're right, some passages of real beauty.

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  9. Marie well put on Moffatt's character as well, I couldn't quite get the essence of his personality but I think it was a fault in the writing, I think it would have been better if he had remained slightly menacing.

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    1. I found Moffat to be the male version of Undine. Scheming, scheming, scheming. Never enough and always wanting the best...offering the absurd price for the drapes just because he could.

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    2. BB yes I guess he was slightly less crabby with Paul at the end which made me see a soft spot, grasping as I was for anything human in either of them!

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  10. SELF-CENTRED SHORTLIST Just finished and now had an excellent read-along here. I vote Undine as the precursor of the Kardashian factor. Thanks for hosting these Dani, eye-opening as everyone picks up on different details, themes.
    VISUAL TREAT:
    http://www.vogue.com/magazine/article/the-custom-of-the-country-edith-wharton-estate-in-the-berkshires/#1

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    1. I used to appreciate James for his novel social commentary, but now, which I didn't as much after House of Mirth, think Wharton makes a brilliant illustrator of so many enduring cultural themes. Marriage and family, Europe vs. the US, the impact of money on society. Although she's scathing, it never feels contrived, preach-y or dated.

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    2. I've been wondering why/ what it was like for Wharton to create and detail these female characters of singular appearance when she herself was not known for her beauty. Oddly, she also apparently vehemently opposed the vote for women.

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    3. Freshy, Wharton not being a great beauty (though far from ugly) was essential for her to become a great writer as it allowed her to become an observer rather than the center of attention.

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    4. I didn't know about the voting rights opposition!

      Her interest in architecture seems to come into this book especially; what do castles in France, 5th ave mansions, hotels say about Undine's aspirations. She is unable to be happy in any of them, after imaging them to be her heart's desire. One hundred years later and the meaning of these monuments to achievement have barely changed.

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    5. Wharton nerd, here. After her experiences with the war, in her later works, she was more positive about the "customs of her country" --- American ideals of a democratic society, free-enterprise and the ambitious women she previously mocked. There was less emphasis on Europe as a refuge, with some characters going back to America. Many of her stories did not have happy endings (perhaps a product of her own unhappy marriage and bouts of depression with the death of Henry James) but her unfinished The Buccaneers seemed to end in a hopeful note. Alas, her later works did not get as much acclaim as the earlier ones.

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    6. EW's tireless and impactful work on behalf of refugees greatly impressed me. WWI profoundly changed the thinking of everybody closely involved who saw firsthand the destruction it wrought.

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  11. There are hints that Undine arose from her innate character disorder/total lack of empathy and was fanned into the monster she became when her 2 siblings died, leaving her parents to action her every wish. Her poor childhood friend, Indiana Frusk ( don't you love the names!), was thrown over early.

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  12. Okay I didn't read the book ,but after reading your reviews I am going to pick up a copy. Now does any one have dinner plans tonite ?

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  13. I could not put this book down, Dani! Undine truly is the epitome of the excesses in society! At the end when Moffat took advantage of her French husband's financial devastation and acquired the ancestral tapestries for Undine, her comment was not surprising.That they looked smaller than she remembered, and we see there is nothing that could ever satisfy her. She left devastation in her wake everywhere she stepped! Even more pertinent an account now than when it was written!

    xoxo
    Karena
    The Arts by Karena

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    1. Karena nothing made her happy, all of her striving and devastation resulted in emptiness... EW's revenge on her!

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  14. The dog ate my homework. I have been listening to this via audiobook from the very capable narration of Barbara Caruso and I'm around Chapter 11-12. Here are my early observations which I doubt will change. Given my very high regard for EW, I can't believe she has created such a thoroughly uninteresting protagonist as Undine Spragg (ahh, U. S= United States, oh thank you Marie!). I'm fine with avarice or deadly/non-lethal sins but boring is unforgiveable. Yes, there are beautifully written passages, astute observations, etc but I only wish to spend time with characters/people who intrigue me. EW's House of Mirth has Lily Bart who is mesmerizing. I've got to run some errands but I'm not done yet....

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    1. GSL it's true that EW doesn't give the reader a break when it comes to Undine, she's brutally boring without a single redeeming quality. A caricature as Marie so wisely put it!

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    2. Excellent post Dani!
      I too, have yet to finish but I thoroughly enjoyed my reading so far. But it is only the wonderful writing that I care about-I do not like any of the characters.
      I had no interest in Undines fortunes, she was just a ravenous force of greed and will continue to march along taking and ruining. My disdain is for the people who allowed it. The Spraggs were obviously inadequate, Ralph was a kind man but helpless (why?) in the face of Undines voracious selfishness, and her friends and acquaintances kept propping her up. I havent yet got to her marriage with Chelles but perhaps he will turn out to have a pair.
      Halfway through the book I wanted to find out a bit more about EW because (even though I live a mere two hour drive from The Mount), I haven't had much exposure to her and her writing aside from 'The Decoration of Houses'. I hoped to understand more about her motivation behind these characters.
      I think that EW made Undine a hollow character because any personality might have made her more complex and maybe forgivable and that would have obscured the message: that the confusion of class with wealth would be destructive to refined cultural standards. The old families of 5th Avenue and 'the high-walled houses beyond the Seine' are injured by Undine but this only serves to confirm their enmity towards her. Ralph's death is the warning against acceptance of careless avariciousness,consumption as an indicator of sophistication.

      Interestingly, this is similar to her design principle where she dismissed overly made-up stuffy Victorian decor resplendent in factory produced decor elements in place of more restrained design based on principles of beauty and uniformity rather than industrialization. The recent influx of mass produced products led to unrestrained design that EW wanted to curtail as the quality of beauty was at risk of being forgotten. It struck me that Custom of the Country was her Decoration of Houses-for humans.








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    3. In my mad dash I posted in the wrong place.I meant that as comment-not a reply. Apologies.
      (todays score: sm's0, gsl1)

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    4. Bebe, clapping here! How spot on! Excellent analysis. You have an explanation for the complete lack of redemption which most characters have at least s glimmer of in novels, just to flesh them out, and come on give us a bone Edith! Well she was truly making a statement against the hideous and thus it was painted so. I have not read The Decoration of Houses and obviously I should, I have to say I like a strictness in people and EW seems to have had that in spades...

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    5. You're fashionably late Bebe and I suspect that Monsieur Chelles (who I too have yet to meet) does indeed have a pair...and they're paper mache as I couldn't sit through dinner (sober) with Undine let alone marry her. I was thinking about EW's Decoration of Houses book and was going to take that angle as well but more as an indictment against how she constructed the novel since lacking an intriguing protagonist unbalances everything else.

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    6. Hmmm GSL good point on the unbalance. Yes he has a pair indeed, once he realizes what Undine is all about he just goes on with his own life, he does what he wants, she doesn't affect him much and he quickly loses interest even in the making of an heir. How that smarted for Undine, her only power after all.
      Bebe I've added your blog to my list, I love it, and your post on Alva was very appropriate to the subject at hand today.

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    7. Thank you Dani! I kept thinking of Alva and her set as I read.
      And gsl I agree about the unbalance-if I don't like the characters I don't care what happens to them and the story becomes pointless
      Im sorry if I scooped your angle, perhaps the score has changed: sm's 1-gsl 1?

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    8. Bebe, I've always got more than 1 angle and since you are such a promising writer, I'd advise against keeping score; you may find it demoralizing.

      What or who is "sm's" or are you trying on yet another identity?

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    9. Why thank you gsl, Ive not done much writing before I started the blog, so I'll take 'promising' as a delightful compliment. And I wouldn't worry your pretty little head too much -I am merely keeping track of your obeisance for Soccer Moms.

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    10. Ohhhh!!! I forgot about that! I knew that rattled your cage (and gave me such a giggle).

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  15. Dani, first of all another great intro and thanks for the NYT link above. I always like reading Guy Trebay and somehow had missed this.
    I suspect our Marie's natural habitat is the faculty lounge?...or maybe she's just a victim of it with her deconstructivist (and beauty killing) tendencies....!
    Back to EW and the novel in general as it points to why the novel's death may not be greatly exaggerated. For a novel to truly succeed, the protagonist must be intriguing as a personality not just placed in interesting surroundings. Martin Amis needs to figure this out as his recent efforts of supreme literary virtuosity crumble under the weightless protagonists. I just don't give a rat's ass about Lionel Asbo and refuse to spend more than 30 pages with him even with a gun to my head. Same with the narrator from House of Meetings where I unfortunately hung around until the end.

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    1. I have to say, I am with you GSL - I just felt the character lacked any nuance at all and that made the overall book, while a page-turner "less" in my eyes. I loved Lily Bart and one of my favourite books from the last year is Wharton's Summer, which is brilliant. I couldn't tell at some points if this was satire or a case of swatting a fly with a sledgehammer..

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    2. I've gotta think she just cranked this thing out in a hurry because she needed the money. She came from a prosperous family and lived grandly but her mercurial husband Teddy (so much more interesting than any of Undine's suitors) was a big drain in every way-when he was around. I think it was around this time when her finances were most pinched.

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  16. Oh dear, I am at work on a Saturday and have almost no time to participate. Just a few thoughts:
    I wish Edith were around to participate in this recent genre of "Frenchwomen do everything better." One observation I'd always appreciated is what she says of Raymond: If he had been an Englishman, he would have been a typical le rosbif--"a man of appetites but not tastes" or similar. Because he was French, his appreciation of history and ancestry is more refined.

    I don't see Undine as a villaness at all . . . I think she is a void. She reminds me of Scarlett Johansen, whom I think is a terrible and highly overrated actress. But because she is this beautiful blank, others are willing to project all kinds of aspirations on to her. Undine is an interesting contrast with another lovely nullity of Wharton's, May Welland in "Age of Innocence" (1920). Wharton's insights in the later novel are more astute; we understand why and how she was created.

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    1. Your assessment of Scarlett J is on the money and EW certainly could make mincemeat out of the Frenchwoman mystique.

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    2. Hex and GSL I just woke up from a nap and had that thought about the Frenchwoman aspect, EW would have been all over that and perhaps would have seen it coming, she could have made money on that one.
      Good point on the money-making novel, this was after all highly readable and entertaining as I'm sure it was in 1913. I'd like to read more about EW's husband.
      Maybe later this year we should do another Wharton novel to compare and contrast.

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    3. I think that's a great idea and since Wendy speaks so highly of "Summer", I'd suggest that if she didn't mind?

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    4. I'll read anything classic two, three, seven times!

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    5. Great idea and maybe let's read Summer in....summer. I hope everyone comes back for that one, EW was certainly a complex mind and I think we are all interested in her life as well as her work.

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    6. I agree with Undine being void, actually a black hole...literally

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  17. Agree with reading Summer in the summer, one of her more sensual works. Written after her affair with Fullerton, one can feel her longing in the writing. She keeps getting involved with philanderers. Teddy was a rat, had affairs and usurped her trust fund.

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  18. Great pick, Dani. I was a Wharton fan in undergrad but never read this book. What a treat. It felt so very modern in that I think there is a general distaste for that US (and Canadian) shallowness. Undine only needed a hedge-fund hubbie to qualify for RHONY. I think Woody Allen must have read this pre-Blue Jasmine: the two characters had more in common than Jasmine and Blanche DuBois.

    Everyone's so smart here. Given that I'm writing this poolside at Horseshoe surrounded by kids and a yucky tile floor, it's bringing the sublime to my ridiculous!

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    1. Jen, OT, but they still haven't re-tiled that hideous harvest gold surround pool. On dear. (It was already long overdue for a reno when I worked for the parent company that bought it few years ago.) Hope at least the hill was good! And that your next "poolside is lovelier and calm...

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    2. I feel like Ron Burgundy should be sitting next to me when I'm there! But the skiing today was as perfect as it gets in Ontario.

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    3. Jen I very much like the image of Ron Burgundy! Haha! Undine with a hedge fund hubbie: look out.

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  19. Dani,
    Not related to your book club but wanted you to check out blog habitually Chic on Sunday. Thought the fabric on ottoman reminded me of your new fabric on your furniture you showed us a while back! Check it out! Your a trend setter in home furnishings too!

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    1. Anon I did check it out and that is a very nice ottoman indeed, thanks so much! I love Heather's blog but I somehow missed that post.

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  20. Dani - I've been silently following your blog for some time and love it.

    First post because I'm a huge Wharton fan, though a very uneducated reader, and as my post will show, I definitely wasn't an English major. The following is my take on the book.

    Unlike most of you, I love the character of Undine. She is smart, she's a chameleon. I thought she was supposed to represent the new America as opposed to the America of Paul's family: old family and old money, though the money is going fast. If no one is willing to work, they are going to be in trouble pretty soon. Paul comes from "gentlemen," the new Americans aren't gentlemen. They are Moffat on their way to becoming Van Degans. They have no honor to speak of and no tradition. I wonder if the point is that there is no honorable way to make huge amounts of money? Undine is completely self-interested and living in a time where the only way a woman could get ahead was through marriage. She wants to get ahead, even though she isn't even sure what that means. She will never be satisfied. I laughed till I cried when she was so disappointed to learn the position of ambassador's wife is forever out of reach. She is the self-made woman of her time, the female counterpart of her father and Moffat and Van Degan. Although on one level she has no morals, she is scandalized by her new French friends. I found that fascinating. Her husband, de Chelles, seems to represent both very traditional European values and also a bit of hypocrisy that would be inconceivable to Paul. The French Gentleman vs. the American Gentleman?

    She has no education. That is a huge problem. When she is successful in obtaining what looked like prizes, she isn't happy because she doesn't understand or value what it was she was coveting. The tapestries are a perfect example, sort of the symbol of what it means at that time to be part of the old French family and she wants to sell them to acquire some new dresses and go out to parties and not have to sit around in the cold chateau.... filled with priceless antiques. She has no taste or discrimination whatsoever. She manages to corrupt whatever she touches. I think this is what Wharton sees her world becoming. Paul's time is over. De Chelles loses the tapestries. New America destroys them.

    I am not sure though that Whaton sees this as all bad. How useful are men like Paul to the rest of society? In my mind Undine and Lily Bart are interesting characters to compare. Lily is destroyed by the same society that Undine ultimately conquers. I always just want to shake Lily. Her sense of morality is so misplaced as to cause her untimely death. Lily values nice things and luxury in a different way than Undine. She does have some education. She would not have ever sold those tapestries.

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    1. Please replace "Paul" with "Ralph". As I wrote, not a very close reader.

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    2. Anon I find your point of view extremely interesting and I agree completely! A different yet accurate depiction of Undine, her ambitions only realized through marriage and her lack of an education the one thing that stops her in her tracks... really an argument for women's rights.
      Paul's time is over and I found him almost lazy, he really didn't make a success of himself in any way, not with his writing or in the world of business. Very true, what good was he even doing?
      Are you sure you weren't an English major? Thanks so much for your wonderful comment and I hope you will participate again.

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    3. Recently after dinner, and more than a few drinks, a group of my friends were discussing the concept of ladies and gentlemen and whether this ideal our parents had tried to teach us was practical or even possible if you don't come from a position of privilege and at least some money. And, if that is the case, whether it is even that admirable a quality. Who has the luxury of living an honorable life? This made me reconsider some of Wharton's characters.

      I do love this book.

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    4. one more thought having just re-read Candace Bushnell, who seems to think she is the modern Edith and, if so, Janey in "Four Blondes" is Undine. Janey's writer lover tells her something like his money is more pure than someone else's because it comes from his art, not any kind of nasty business. Janey is totally unconvinced. He can only afford a $750,000 apt in NYC. Only two bedrooms at the time the novel was written.

      Wharton made money on her writing and paid for many of her own luxuries. Her husband and brothers mismanaged her inherited property. She wasn't allowed to handle it herself. I have no idea what all that means but it is interesting to me to think about.

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  21. Undine Spragg is a brittle shell of pretty hair and finery with a hollow centre. OH my gosh, haven't you just described everyone with a reality show. The fame itself has become the career, not the acting or any other talent. Just read Anon above and must read latest Candace B. The Bling Ring movie was the worst excesses of this. Also did not know this about Wharton.

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    1. Jody so true, Undine would have been a big star today!

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  22. Golly gosh Dani - I sure missed out on all this action live - at least I recorded thankfully :) PS I have absolutely nothing original to add to all these insights however...

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  23. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/30/fashion/Drawing-Center-benefit-Winter-Antiques-Show-gala.html?ref=fashion
    How funny that Undine and the book is referenced in this article!

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    1. CSW,you show up late and bring old news? You're gonna have to do better than that! That great article by Guy Trebay was in Dani's fab intro silly which our Wendy sniffed out ages ago.
      Here's the dunce hat and take that corner stool.

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    2. GSL a bit hard on Naomi what!

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  24. Joining you all too late; apologies. GSL invited me a while ago after I mused on Undine here: http://misscavendish.blogspot.com/2014/01/of-art-novels-and-forgeries.html.

    One of my favourite approaches to the novel is through Elaine Showalter's article "Spragg: The Art of the Deal," which riffs on one of Donald Trump's books on business. Undine could be seen as a frustrated businesswoman; she can't participate in the men's world, so she cuts deals her own way. Notice how Peter Van Degen recognizes her as a peer at one point, then scurries away when he realizes that she is more ruthless than he.

    I also dwell on the ending, which is a perfect ending for Undine. She's got her tiara with its pigeon-blood rubies (recalling that tacky stationery from an early chapter), but as she realizes there's something more out there (the (im)possibility of being an ambassador's wife), we can see the cogs in her mind begin to turn again, and we leave her in medias res, which is, I think, Undine's preferred state.

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    1. Miss Cavendish thanks for joining us! You're right the ending was PERFECT. Those gears in Undine's brain all going again, if she was not scheming for wasn't very happy.
      I will look up that article, thanks very much!

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