Old New York, New Herland: Two Novels

As some of you may have noticed, I am engaged in a concerted effort to read every single thing Edith Wharton ever wrote (well, every piece of fiction--I draw the line at The Decoration of Houses). Having early on gone through her most famous works--her two masterpieces, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, as well as Ethan Frome, a novella inflicted upon unsuspecting high school students all across the U.S. by people who apparently don't feel that being a teenager is quite depressing enough--I spent a portion of the last year making my way through various short stories, novellas, and lesser known short novels. This year, I've begun my efforts with a work that's somewhere in between the two extremes, fame-wise--Wharton's third-most famous full-length novel, The Custom of the Country.

Anyone coming to Wharton's lesser known work having read nothing but Innocence, Mirth, and Frome will be in for a bit of a surprise. If those works concentrated on moral-yet-weak individuals being crushed by a hypocritical social machine indifferent to their wants and needs, Wharton's stories and novellas feature a less clear-cut division between good and evil. In her stories, people whose moral rectitude prevents them from taking what they want are not grandly tragic figures, but pathetic ones, and though she continues to criticize the puritanical ethos which governed old New York, she is no less critical towards the invasion of nouveau riche industrialists and businessmen, whom she on several occasions literally calls barbarians at the gate, threatening to trammel everything that was good and beautiful about New York society in their zeal to belong to it. There's a darkly humorous tone that crops up quite often in Wharton's shorter fiction, sometimes resulting in overtly humorous stories like "Xingu" or "The Mission of Jane," but mostly underlying them, and quickly coming to seem like a deep, fathomless bitterness.

The Custom of the Country is very much in the vein of these stories. It tells the story of Undine Spragg, the daughter of a successful Midwestern businessman who comes to New York desperate to penetrate the highest stratums of its society, and through her the story of an entire social class, men and women new to affluence and eager to translate it into respectability, and the alternately baffled and greedy New Yorkers who welcome them in. Undine captures the heart of Ralph Marvell, the scion of one of old New York's oldest and most respectable families, but the point which seems like the happy conclusion to her efforts is really just their beginning. Though her beauty and charm quickly make her a social leader, Undine is hampered by the Marvell family's limited financial means, and turns to increasingly dubious methods to supplement them while neglecting her doting husband and young son. She accepts loans from a notorious womanizer, whom she tries, and fails, to separate from his wife, and later marries a French aristocrat who turns out to be even more impoverished than her husband. At the novel's end, Undine is right where she started, in the arms of an amoral Midwestern businessman who has struck it rich and whom the by now completely debased New York society has embraced as a social leader.

If this plot description is ringing any bells, you may have already hit on the main reason that The Custom of the Country is not an entirely successful novel--its inability to hold a candle to the masterpiece of social climbing novels, Vanity Fair. There are so many similarities between Wharton's and William Makepeace Thackeray's novels--mainly in Undine and Becky Sharp's similar mercenary attitudes, and in the way that their creators use that attitude and their journeys to paint a panoramic and unflattering portrait of society in a moment of flux--that one almost wonders how Wharton, who must surely have been familiar with Vanity Fair, could have justified her own novel's existence. Was she writing an homage to Thackeray's novel? Did she think that her variation on it had enough of its own flavor to stand beside it? I suspect the latter is the case, as the crucial difference between the two novels is that, whereas Thackeray poured equal amounts of scorn on social climbers of Becky's ilk and the aristocracy they sought to penetrate, in The Custom of the Country Wharton seems to have chosen a side. She excoriates the crass, amoral invaders, in spite of the fact that in her hands, the invaded relics of old New York, as represented by Ralph Marvell and his family, are portrayed as weak and bloodless, too caught up in their ancient rituals and prejudices to survive. The Custom of the Country becomes, therefore, an all-out tragedy, as opposed to Thackery's wryly humorous tale, which ultimately concludes that society, in any guise, is but a foolish puppet show, and that the most sensible approach to it is to sit back and enjoy the show.

That said, if Vanity Fair is a more successful portrait of society, The Custom of the Country is a better character portrait. One of the glaring absences in Thackeray's novel is that of the characters' interiority, and this Wharton provides plenty of. Undine is a fascinating little monster, whose greatest asset, aside from her beauty and her willingness to use it to get what she wants, is her capacity for self-willed ignorance. Though cunning and capable of managing money when it suits her, she chooses not to understand when her father and later her two husbands tell her that the manner to which she wishes to become accustomed is beyond their means. The former two are driven by a combination of love and fear of Undine's furious temper to hard work, self-denial, and shady dealings in order to provide her with what she wants. The latter simply attempts to explain to her that there are things that matter to him more than money, and that he will not, for example, sell his crumbling ancestral home, or the treasures within it, to satisfy her wishes. When she refuses to understand this, he freezes her out. The chapters which describe her entombment in his mouldering castle, trapped in the company of his disapproving, tradition-bound family and reduced to tiny, insignificant rebellions such as ordering a fire lit in two rooms instead of the traditional one, are among the most terrifying in the book, and almost enough to make Undine pitiable.

When Undine rebels against her financial restrictions and takes up with those who can overcome them--the notorious New York playboy who reneges on his promise to leave his wife for her, or the businessman with whom she ends the novel--she finds herself missing the social acceptance she had abandoned. What Undine wants, Wharton tells us, are entertainment and respectability, which is to say, wealth and class. The crux of The Custom of the Country is that these two are rarely found in the same place, and that the former is winning out over the latter. For Undine, however, life is a constant see-saw between the two, and the novel's ending finds her, rather than finally happy with her lot, already starting to chafe against her wealthy yet crude third husband. Undine, Wharton concludes, is never going to change and never going to learn. She will always want what she doesn't have, and, once she has it, lament what she sacrificed in order to get it.

It's an effective portrait, and it's matched by the character of Ralph Marvell, who is, I suspect, the most nakedly autobiographical character in Wharton's bibliography. In order to support Undine's expensive habits, Ralph buries himself in an occupation he finds boring and tedious, and the combination of this drudgery with his increasing disillusionment with the woman he fell in love with take a terrible toll on him. His marriage becomes a crushing emotional burden, but its dissolution is just as shameful and debilitating, and one wonders how much of Wharton's own pain at the difficult ending of her marriage (she divorced the mentally unstable Teddy Wharton after 28 years of marriage) was poured into Ralph. Ralph is also, like Wharton, a writer, and though her stories often feature characters who are writers they are usually humorous caricatures, producers of populist junk more concerned with publicity than art, or else they're upper class dilettantes who have the will to create but not the discipline. For Ralph, however, writing is an outlet and a salvation. It's through writing that he begins to recover from the shock of Undine's betrayal, to come back to life after the long slog through the emotional wasteland that was his marriage. This is the first time that I've encountered anything that feels like a true depiction of the creative drive in Wharton's writing, and I have to wonder whether she wasn't drawing on her own experiences for it.

Most of all, The Custom of the Country finally confirmed me in my belief that Wharton is far from a feminist writer. The main tension in the novel, as I've said, is between wealth and class, and the new social order it describes, following old New York's capitulation to the nouveau riche, is one in which men go downtown to produce wealth and women take that wealth and create a society, full of diverting entertainments, out of it, in which they and the men can enjoy themselves. In what is clearly a naked authorial intrusion, one of the minor characters in the novel diagnoses the core sickness of their society--the titular custom--as a money cult, which produces men who have nothing to give women but money, and women like Undine, who have no comprehension of there being any value in anything beyond the monetary kind, and yet don't truly understand the value of money, expecting it to be provided on cue.

What Wharton fails to consider that Undine's ignorance has been carefully bred in her and in women like her, as well as the fact that she has been trained to be both useless and ornamental. The greatest contribution that Undine can make to her own financial well-being--apart from marrying someone wealthy--is not to spend too much. She is a consumer, never a producer, and Wharton unthinkingly accepts the unspoken assumption that this is how things are supposed to be. In her other novels, women are victimized by a society that won't allow them a full expression of either their desires or their abilities--Lily Bart, who is forced to choose between a mercenary marriage or principled poverty; Ellen Olenska, looked down upon for leaving an abusive husband--but to Wharton these are class issues, never gender issues, and there's an undertone of resentment towards women as a group that permeates her novels. It's women who keep society going, women who maintain the smothering traditions and enforce the cruel social code that most of her writing rails against, and she never considers that they are also its victims.

It therefore made sense to follow up The Custom of the Country with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. Gilman and Wharton were both female American writers of the same era, if not the same region or social set. Gilman's most famous piece, the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," was even published around the same time as Wharton started writing for publication. (Interestingly, whereas Gilman's story mirrors her own experiences while undergoing the 'rest cure'--in which women were supposed to be cured of nervous exhaustion by allowing their intellect to atrophy and burying themselves in domesticity--Wharton was urged to write by a doctor who felt that doing so might help to combat her own emotional problems--as Ralph Marvell is in The Custom of the Country.) Gilman, however, was a feminist, and Herland is indisputably a feminist tract. Its narrative is the recollection of one of three young American men who discover a secluded country peopled only by women, deep in the South American jungle. Deprived of all their men by war and cut off from the rest of the continent by a volcano eruption, the inhabitants of this nation miraculous developed the capacity for parthenogenesis, and have for two thousand years maintained an entirely female society.

The worldbuilding segments of Herland are exactly what one would expect them to be--a misty-eyed utopia in which everything is peaceful and orderly, and everyone loves one another and works towards the greater good. The most interesting aspect of Gilman's utopian vision is that, in order to achieve it, she had to do away with female sexuality. The women of Herland love one another as sisters and feel a communal sense of motherhood towards their daughters (in fact, motherhood is their driving impulse and their highest ideal), but there are no individual romances between them, nor any indication that they have sexual urges that need gratifying. A significant portion of the end of the novel is taken up with the narrator trying to persuade his beloved that sex is worthwhile for reasons other than procreation, and the novel climaxes with an attempted sexual assault by one of the other men, so it can't be said that Gilman is unaware of or choosing to ignore this aspect of the human experience. She just seems to believe that humanity would be better off without it, and that women in particular have no need of it.

Far more successful than Gilman's imaginary female society are the male characters who encounter it and their reactions to it. Though hardly original--the three men fall into easily recognizable stereotypes of male attitudes: one of them is an adventurer for whom women are something be conquered and mastered, another idolizes them as guardians of everything good and pure, and the third, the narrator, is the most open-minded and genuinely interested in the sociological implications of an all-female society--Gilman's portrait of the men's inability to comprehend Herland rings true. Their insistence that women can't cooperate, or that they lack the drive and ambition to achieve anything on a communal or national scale, is familiar and believably sketched--so much so as to elicit the kind of rage that almost justifies Gilman's unrealistically perfect response to these derogatory assumptions--and their responses to being gently yet irresistibly imprisoned by creatures whom they have been trained to think of as inferior are equally believable.

Herland put me very much in mind of the James Tiptree Jr. story "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", which also imagines three modern men encountering a society that has evolved past them and demonstrating a range of responses to it that runs from rage to capitulation--so much so that I strongly suspect the Tiptree story was written with Gilman's novel in mind. Whether or not it was, the fact remains that both pieces--one of them written nearly a century ago--diagnose the core fallacy that leads to misogyny and sexism--the insistence that women are women first and people second, if at all--and attempt to combat it by positing a society in which 'people' and 'women' mean the same thing, in which men have no role and women no reaction to them.

I found it interesting to consider Herland alongside The Custom of the Country because, just as Wharton's novel mistakes gender issues for class issues, Gilman makes the opposite mistake. Her female utopia is predicated on a myriad unthinking assumptions, most of which are related not to gender but class. Herland functions because of the attention and care it lavishes upon every one of its citizens as they grow up, carefully moulding them into intelligent, well-informed, well-adjusted members of society. Gilman acknowledges that such devoted individual education is only possible if a society's population doesn't exceed its resources (though she is flat out opposed to abortion, and instead decides that Herland's residents can decide not to get pregnant), but doesn't make the required leap to realizing that the ills of our society are rooted not simply in misogyny but also in acquisitiveness and lust for power. She unthinkingly equates one with the other. When the visitors admit that the poorest women in their country have the most children and the least support (servants), Gilman treats this as a problem afflicting women, not poor people. There's even a brief but ugly specter of racial prejudice, when Herland's narrator hurries to assure us that the nation's inhabitants are not just white but Aryan.

It should come as no surprise when I say that Wharton's novel makes for a better read than Gilman's tract--for one thing, Wharton is by far the better prose stylist--but in both cases one comes away from the novel with the powerful sensation of having stared too long through a microscope, concentrating on a single element in a vast tapestry far more complicated than either of these authors allowed their work to be. It's that complexity that makes Vanity Fair a masterpiece, and it is apparent in Wharton's better work. Hopefully I'll find it again, as I continue my journey through her catalogue.


Anonymous said…
I haven't read nearly enough Wharton to comment intelligently -- only Ethan Frome, which I read in my 30s and quite liked -- oh, and I saw and much enjoyed the film The Age of Innocence -- but I did skim a biography of her. And what I gathered from that is that when she needed money she wrote frankly commercial pieces. Perhaps some of that explains what she was up to in The Custom of the Country. Not that it was written purely for money (though, pace Samuel Johnson, if so, so what -- she was no fool), but that if not wholly successful she would still have happily been paid for it.

Rich Horton
There's no question that there was a significant financial aspect to Wharton's writing. She was a prolific short story writer, for example, which at the time was a good way to make a living, and she wrote genre pieces - ghost stories, if memory serves - as well as the psychological kind. The House of Mirth was a runaway bestseller, especially when it was serialized. There's some very pointed skewering of the publishing business in some of her short fiction (there's one story in particular, whose name presently escapes me, in which a scientist writes a spiritual book as a joke, which then makes him a ton of money, preventing him from ever disavowing it), which I believe is as firmly rooted in her own experiences as the description of Ralph Marvell's awakening through creation.

The question whether The Custom of the Country was less successful than it might have been because of financial considerations strikes me as more tangled. I don't know that much about Wharton myself, but I've been planning to read Hermione Lee's recent biography of her when it comes out in paperback. Perhaps there will be more information there.

The film version of The Age of Innocence is quite wonderful, isn't it? It's what got me into reading her in the first place. The adaptation of The House of Mirth, starring Gillian Anderson, is also very good.
Foxessa said…
Wharton may well have been influenced as well by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Pink and White Tyranny: A Society Novel (1871)
and Flaubert's Emma Bovary (1857). Actually the one time I read The Custom of the Country those two books came to mind more quickly than did Vanity Fair, particularly as she'd just begun to "adopt" France in the early 1900's -- and had spent so much time there already, starting when she was 4 and her family lived in Europe for 5 years.

Love, C.
Interesting. I'm not familiar with the Stowe (though from the plot description I just tracked down it does seem to have intersection points with Custom) and Emma Bovary is on the enormously long list of novels I mean to read some day. I'll have to keep Custom in mind when I finally do.

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