Ruthless and predatory, Edith Wharton’s seductive young heroine Undine Spragg exploits a series of husbands from the American west to New York and France in her search for one with the ideal combination of social power, money, and material possessions—something “more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her!” Wharton’s criticism of the leisure-class marriage market becomes a brilliant satire on the nature of desire, as the novel links marriage and divorce with selfish ambition and the culture of consumerism.
This Broadview edition provides a critical introduction and appendices that include Wharton’s outline for and correspondence about The Custom of the Country, excerpts from Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella Undine, and passages from works by Charles Darwin, Emma Goldman, Henry James, and Thorstein Veblen, among others.
“The Custom of the Country is Edith Wharton’s most American novel, giving readers what Scribner’s promised in its blurb, ‘a graphic picture of modern life.’ Sarah Emsley gives readers in the twenty-first century the novel in its various cultural, intellectual, and biographical contexts, providing early drafts, letters to friends and editors, contemporary reviews, and essays on notions of marriage. Wharton chronicles marriage in an age of transition when a heroine may use divorce and remarriage to rise socially, and would agree with Emsley’s conclusion that Undine Spragg fails because ‘she does not want enough.’ The rich selection of contextual materials allows the reader to judge both the novel and the culture that produced it.” — Katherine Joslin, Western Michigan University
“This is an excellent edition of what I consider to be Wharton’s best novel, and it is supported by very valuable supporting material. Arguing that the novel is a satire of consumerism, Sarah Emsley offers a particularly good analysis of Raymond de Chelles as one of the few positive forces, and a husband who acts as a counter to the rampant material ambitions which dominate other parts of the novel. Emsley’s introduction also provides a succinct and successful summary of Wharton’s life and a good survey of the relevant criticism. The edition ends with a series of extremely useful appendices, including Wharton’s outline for the novel, examples of contemporary reviews, extracts from Darwin, Veblen and Santayana and sections on Aestheticism and Women and Marriage.” — Robin Peel, University of Plymouth
“The Custom of the Country satirizes much that Wharton thought was wrong with the US at the turn of the century: serial divorce, rampant consumerism and materialism, indifference to art and literature, and a proudly provincial attitude toward the traditions of Old New York and European culture. Combined with Sarah Emsley’s incisive and well-researched introduction and notes, this excellent new edition of the novel includes well-chosen readings ranging from selections by Charles Darwin and Thorstein Veblen to excerpts from novels by Harold Frederic and Anita Loos that shed light on Wharton’s audacious protagonist, Undine Spragg. The result is a volume that not only restores the social and economic contexts for the novel but sharpens the reader’s appreciation for Wharton’s satire in this book, the most savage—and the most humorous—novel of her long career.” — Donna Campbell, Washington State University