“THE CUSTOM OF the Country,”Wharton’s novel of divorce, was among her favorites. Begun in 1908 and published in 1913, the book took her an uncommonly long time to write. She was distracted by other projects — in those years, she produced “Ethan Frome” (1911) and “The Reef” (1912) as well as short stories — but most significantly, Wharton and her husband, Teddy, themselves divorced, after twenty-eight years of marriage, in part because Teddy had stolen significant sums of money from his wife. Although born into an eminent Yankee family with a great deal of wealth, and consequently in a considerably better position than most divorcées (then or now), she nevertheless found herself, as Martin-Wagner puts it, “something of a social outcast,” and left the United States for France, where she would live until her death in 1937. At the same time, her biographer R. W. B. Lewis writes, she “felt propelled out of her metaphorical prison,” able to “exercise what Henry James had called a fantastic freedom.”
Undine’s repeated unions and their dissolutions — by the novel’s end her full name is Undine Spragg Marvell de Chelles Moffatt, though strictly speaking Moffatt should be listed twice — are on the one hand socially unsettling to (though ultimately accommodated by) New York and Paris societies, and on the other constitute for Undine that “fantastic freedom.” It’s perhaps not totally surprising, then, that, as Lewis notes, Undine shares a number of key traits with her creator, including their childhood nickname, Puss. Wharton understood well the personal costs of marriage for women, and the limits society placed upon them. She surely put something of herself into Undine. At the same time, she knew intimately the suffering of poor Ralph Marvell, scion of old New York, who, upon reading about his divorce in the newspapers, felt that “the coarse fingering of public curiosity had touched the secret places of his soul, and nothing that had gone before seemed as humiliating as this trivial comment on his tragedy.”
Wharton’s genius lies in her novelistic ability to allow her characters their perspectives while seeing the situation from all sides. Both in her lifetime and since, she has been maligned for being born rich (Franzen complains that “privilege like hers isn’t easy to like; it puts her at a moral disadvantage”); and Janet Flanner accused her, in a waspish 1929 New Yorker profile, of lacking sensuality and sympathy, of “formally proving that the wages of social sin were social death.” But in fact Wharton — who could well have sat around in her fancy houses eating bonbons with her feet up rather than writing wonderfully entertaining, humanly true novels that have stood the test of time — turned her critical eye equally upon transgressors and upholders of convention alike. That’s not to excuse her snobbery or to overlook the limitations of accounts of high society; but now, as then, we’re fascinated by the lives of the wealthy, and shouldn’t project our own secret shame about it onto Wharton. Her sharp wit is hard on all her characters, and crucially, she captures also their redeeming qualities, their humanity. She sees and understands Undine’s laser-focused ambition, her parents’ trembling and self-sacrificing indulgence, Ralph’s highly cultured but weak romanticism, Elmer’s robust desire for material success. And she appreciates also Undine’s splendor, her vitality and allure, Ralph’s delicacy and tenderness, Elmer’s frankness and generosity. Like the novel’s discreet and cheerful Mrs. Heeny, masseuse and manicurist to the rich, who travels from house to house with her bag full of press clippings, Wharton observes and records it all. In this new Gilded Age, when the disparities between rich and poor are again, and disastrously, as great as they were in Wharton’s time, we could do with such a novelist, a cultural anthropologist who might hold up a mirror to our failings and our future, with eagle-eyed clarity and a small measure of compassion.
Claire Messud is the award-winning author of eight books, including “The Burning Girl” and, most recently, “Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: An Autobiography Through Essays.”