Volume VII, Number 1, Spring 2011

"The New American Woman: Edith Wharton’s accounts of French and American Women in her The Custom of the Country" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is a senior assistant professor at the University of Szeged. She received her PhD from the same university with her thesis titled The Power of the Imagination in Henry James: a Contextual Model of Undferstanding in 2004. She has published two books (The Construction of a Civilized Experience in Henry James (2006) and Literature in Context (2010)) and several articles in the field of American literature. Currently she is researching travel writing by Henry James and Edith Wharton. Email: agnes.zsofia.kovacs@gmail.com

Introduction: Undine Spragg, the hard-headed pragmatist

Undine Spragg from Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) is a ruthless opportunist: she goes through four husbands in quick succession who help her reach her social and economic aims. Wharton’s representation of Undine is highly critical: Undine stands for the Modern American nouveau riche whose abundance of energy and money threatens the 19th c. genteel New York City cultural elite with extinction. However, Undine does learn a lot about New York City social life, European customs, and Parisian manners. In this paper I wish to investigate what it is that Undine actually learns in the course of her marriages, and whether her new knowledge modifies the initial nouveau riche cultural position assigned to her in the text.

I suggest that we look at Undine’ position in the context of Wharton’s ethnographically oriented writing on American women. I claim that Wharton’s criticism of American women in her French Ways and their Meaning (1919) fits Undine’s position to perfection. However, looking at Undine as a middle class uncultivated social upstart disregards the alterations she undergoes and the skills she does acquire through the story. To me, during her social ascent she becomes a businesswoman, and one should account for the skills of her profession as part of the story of her ascent.

The paper is divided into three parts. In the first section, I frame the problem of Undine’s professionalization as a problem at the intersection of gender and class that is framed in a dual rhetoric of criticism and acceptance following Nancy Bentley’s example. In the second section, I go on to present Undine’s position as a socially ascending American woman according to Wharton’s French Ways. Eventually, I rearticulate Undine’s position in terms of professionalization, pointing out her new qualities as a businesswoman relying on Elaine Showalter. This inquiry may make the reasons of Wharton’s criticism of Undine more clear.


Wharton the professional American female author

In Wharton criticism, there is a tendency to look at Wharton the critic of culture rather than Wharton the feminist author. In 1988, Amy Kaplan discussed Wharton’s problems with traditional gender roles for upper class American women in terms of professionalization. In 1995, Nancy Bentley showed Wharton’s interest in American and European ways as an ethnographically oriented project that both criticizes and accepts the changing of manners. In 2004, Jeannie Kassanoff pointed out Wharton’s conservatism in her cultural politics.

Nancy Bentley’s The Ethnography of Manners, Amy Kaplan’s The Social Construction of American Realism and Jeannie Kassanoff’s Edith Wharton and The Politics of Race all approach Wharton’s fiction as social practice that produces a discourse of culture (Bentley 1995a 3, Kaplan 1988 7, Kassanoff 4). Moreover, they all find a double strategy at work in Wharton’s texts. Amy Kaplan locates a double strategy in Wharton’s early short stories about women artists that represent her attempt “to write herself out of the private domestic sphere and to inscribe a public identity in the marketplace” (Kaplan 1988 67), neither being active against a male tradition of writing nor being a representative of a separate sphere of women’s writing. Instead, she wrote realistically as part of her struggle to define the nature of professional female authorship by relying on traditional male genres and rhetoric. This vision of the link between domestic space and public space represents the core of Kaplan’s current analyses of the dynamic of imperial expansion both in domestic and foreign policies of the US in the 19th century (Kaplan 1993 11 and Kaplan 2005 25), with a focus on how deeply the rhetoric of domesticity permeated debates about national expansion. (Kaplan 2002 115)

Bentley asserts that Wharton’s fiction performs an ambiguous strategy of representation, as her texts both “critique and preserve the authority of the late 19th century elite class, a double strategy that finally serves to accommodate the very social changes the class appeared to oppose” (Bentley 1995b, 49 and Bentley 2003, 151), in other words they do not only criticize but also accept the overwhelming social and cultural changes late 19th century American modernization has triggered. More recently, Kassanoff identifies Wharton’s conservative theory of race and also attests to her texts’ hybrid force that fails to authenticate Wharton’s conservative notion of American (racial) identity (Kassanoff 7).

Accepting this approach as valid for Wharton’s fiction, one is encouraged to see Wharton’s specific text as a social discourse possibly engaged in the construction of a double rhetoric concerning gender, class, cultural norms and professionalization.


The critique of Undine Spragg articulated from the perspective of French Ways

Undine Spragg’s four marriages and her notions about manners, entertainment, motherhood, sexuality, and, last but not least, money, represent an attitude to American marriage that is thoroughly criticized in the book. I wish to show the link between this criticism and Wharton’s ideas of the New Frenchwoman in her French Ways.


i. The problem: changing American customs

Early on in the novel one character, Charles Bowen points out the main problem behind Undine’s behavior. The omniscient observer character of the novel discusses the custom of the country, the US, regarding the relationship between an American man and his wife. Bowen the quasi scientist ethnographer claims that ’Homo sapiens Americanus’ does not take enough interest in his wife. He has his real life, the real business of life he considers serious. Also, he has his life of the home, but his domestic context remains unaware of his hard work at the office. The wife knows nothing about her husband’s public business life, because although the husband slaves away at the office, sacrifices himself at work, — he has nothing to communicate about this to his wife. Bowen thinks this attitude reflects the man’s indifference to his wife. For the man, the primacy of business has brought his inability of knowing how to spend his money, therefore it is the wife who spends the money without a single idea of its origins. Yet, the man makes only material sacrifice for the women, no ideal or romantic ones. He is too preoccupied to share his real life, and instead he tosses money, motors, clothes to his woman to make up for the absence of the real. This, for Bowen, is humbug, a big bribe paid for women for keeping out of man’s way. It is the custom of the country not to bore the women with business matters, but this custom practically boils down to American men’s indifference to wives and eventually results in the wives’s sham pretentious notion of life.

For Bowen, this division of gender roles has come to being recently with the emergence of men of business in the social scene. Before, the emotional center of a man’s life was ‘love’. Today, the emotional center of man’s life is ‘business.’ Because of this shift, there is a breach between the hemisphere of men and women, with their different emotional centers, business and love, respectively.


ii. Undine’s case

Ironically, in the case of Undine Spragg and her marriage to the effete Washington Square gentile, Ralph Marvel, it is the woman who has switched to a new understanding of public and domestic spheres, while her husband, Ralph is still burdened by the old notion of love. This setup has disastrous results when Ralph has to go to business. He can not adopt business and money-making as the emotional center of his life, while his wife expects him to excel in this new sphere and provide for her domestic existence plentifully. His allusions to love in the old sense carry no meaning for her, while his inability to make money makes her impatient for her chance of life in terms of money, motors, and clothes. The same clash of roles is valid for the relation of Clare van Degen and Peter van Degen. Here it is the wife who has the old notion of love as the emotional center for the lives of the partners, while Peter has already switched to a businessman’s attitude to his most precious asset, his wife. Peter, then, floods his wife with money, motors, and clothes and does not care to know why she still seems discontent.

Undine’s divorce from Ralph is the inevitable result of this incommensurable distribution of roles. However, her next divorce from her French aristocrat of a husband, Raymond de Chelles, is also connected to their different ideas about roles in matrimony. Undine breaks the laws of French social life by getting married to de Chelles in the first place. As an American divorcée, she would be welcome to be the ’friend’ of the man provided she keeps up appearances. But she is determined to play the game according to her own rules and coaxes the Frenchman into marrying her. Then she is appalled to learn the roles she has to perform as the wife of a French nobleman. Her main grudge is her husband’s relation to money. He is happy to invest and spend money on his estate, but he is more than unwilling to pay Undine’s bills. Also, they have an hôtel in Paris, but they only live in its back quarter for two months of the year. The main apartment is let, and anyway, ten months of the year are spent in an ancient castle in Burgundy, without proper social life, and also without proper piping, electricity, and heating. Also, there is an expectation for family loyalty, which primarily means an active participation in social activities connected to family relations. Moreover, it does not help that Undine is unable to join conversations on literature, arts, politics that are going on in the French salons associated with her new family. From her perspective, she is prevented from the pursuit of other, for her more enjoyable, social activities during the short two months in Paris: dining out in restaurants, motoring about, wearing splendid clothes in the company of her compatriots.

The different ideas of social propriety the spouses cling to result in a swift estrangement between husband and wife, culminating in the argument about the family tapestries. The de Chelles family possesses ancient tapestries from the age of Louis XIV hung in the draughty halls of the castle in Burgundy. Raymond would be happy to miss one Paris season to save some money, but Undine rejects this proposition wholeheartedly. Instead, she invites a salesperson to estimate the value of the tapestries. When Raymond learns of this, he tries to explain the symbolic importance of the tapestries, the family tradition they stand for, but Undine does not understand. This incompatibility of opinion also represents the breach between the two. He goes off on errands to his ’friend,’ leaving Undine without the chance to conceive the heir expected of her. She meditates on her unhappiness and the chances of divorce.

Undine is content to join her last husband (who was also her first husband to divorce), Moffatt, the successful American businessman who finally shares her social code. She does not seem to understand where the money comes from but is an expert in spending it on social entertainment. They have a house in NYC on Fifth Avenue, a mansion in Paris, and they travel around a lot, in the company of their compatriots. The husband remains indifferent to his wife’s sphere and her way of spending money — the way Bowen had described the relation. At the same time, Moffatt is involved in spending money on art objects he has an unsuspected but excellent taste for. His aesthetic sense is not parallelled by that of his wife, but this has no effect on their matrimonial bliss.


iii. Marriage and French women in French Ways

This story of changing and incompatible gender roles is a familiar theme from Wharton’s novels and short stories. In her study of French customs, French Ways and Their Meaning, she lays out the difference between current American gender roles and French ones, also indicating her preferences.

In French Ways, Wharton distinguishes the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of marriage. In the Anglo-Saxon world, marriage is supposed to be determined solely by reciprocal inclination, and to bind the parties not only to a social but also to a physical lifelong loyalty. In this system, love which never has accepted and never will accept such bonds (as Wharton claims), immediately becomes a pariah and sinner when experienced outside marriage. Conversely, in the Latin world, a marriage is founded for the family and not for the husband and wife. Marriage secures husband and wife as associates in the foundation of a home and the creation of a family. It is a kind of superior business association based on community of class, of political and religious opinion, and an exchange of advantages. Love is not expected in the association neither as an emotion nor in the form of physical loyalty. In other words, Wharton defies the old stereotype of the immoral and sensuous Frenchman and woman by placing the phenomenon of illicit sex into a social context quite incomprehensible for the average American.

For Wharton the French businesslike association of man and woman, interestingly, is a sign of more superior interpersonal relations between them than the relation between married man and woman in the Anglo-Saxon world. In France the idea of equality extends to the relation of man and woman, she claims. Here the married woman becomes a full social partner of the man, she is not only socially free to take part in the intellectual life of the salons. Rather, in many cases she rules French life through the important relations she can establish with men in her circle. Wharton calls these relations “frank social relations” (112) and contrasts them to the relations an American woman has both to her husband and to men in general. In the US, a girl is free to romp around in society until she becomes married: then she is cut off from men’s society in all but the most formal ways. An American woman is listened to by women, because women are restricted to the domestic sphere where they are engaged by questions of art and the home. In America, the result of the clear division of roles between domestic and public spheres is an odd Anglo-Saxon view that a love of beauty and an interest in ideas imply effeminacy.

In The Custom of the Country, Undine Spragg seems to represent the American wife criticized in French Ways. Undine romped around freely with young men as a girl, as a married woman she is expected to learn stricter rules of associating with men. She does not understand the business sphere of her husbands’ life, and leads her pretentious one centered on flimsy social activity and a display of money. Also, she remains ignorant of French expectations of behavior as well, she has not been able to interiorize the value attached to family loyalty, tradition, culture, and economy that are the chief characteristics of the French system of values.


The critique of Undine Spragg articulated from the perspective of professionalization

Elaine Showalter points out that Undine in fact lives a freer life than a French woman, and learns not only a new social language characteristic of her new set but also a skill to bargain and negotiate, the art of the deal (91). These new skills are acquired as part of her story of adaptation. I wish to link this idea to Wharton’s criticism of Undine’s ways so far.

Apart from her beauty, it is Undine’s flexibility to learn and adopt to her surroundings that singles her out for social success. Her first appearance shows her as a flexible, doubling and twitching person (7) who likes to dress up and play lady for her mirror (16) and also for an audience like the one at the Opera (37). Her only problem is that once she has acquired a certain behavior, she always realizes there is something even better beyond that: „it was her fate to find out just too late about the something beyond,” (34) and accepted values are reversed again and again (164). What are the ways of behavior she learns? Out in Apex she wants something else already: she goes for holidays to lakes, to the East, to the sea to see social life unattainable to her. The family’s departure for NYC in search of a husband is part of this scheme. After her marriage to Ralph, she is quick to adopt to the Marvel’s codes but sees she has chosen the wrong set, as she joined “the exclusive and the dowdy of the past instead of the showy and the promiscuous,” who possess the future (111). Then she learns the possibilities open for a divorcée in America and in France. She goes on to join an aristocratic French social system but its actual code of behavior does not fit her, so she quits again, this time for the glittering promiscuous fast world of the rich American businessman.

Undine changes from an invader in the making to an invader at its most active. At the outset, when she has not learnt the language of her new class yet, Ralph wants to teach her something about an inner life that does not exist in the glittering world of surfaces. Yet Undine is made out for adapting to her actual context in minute detail and has no eye for the interior. She notices new tones and is quick to pick them up to attain her own end: entertainment. For instance, at her first dinner with the Marvels, she is silent and takes in „the world of half-lights half-tones, eliminations and abbreviations, gradations of tone” ( ) but it is all alien to her – later when she has to evade her husband’s queries as to her use of time, she applies these methods for not giving straight answers. It is always her who hits the nail on the head when a problematic situation is to be solved. She picks up ways of thinking from her male friends. Her male friends like Peter van Degen and Elmer Moffatt tell her about business dealings and even give her advice she can make good use of. Peter gives her money with the intent to make her his mistress eventually, to buy her body, as it were – a deal she is careful to keep with the code of the honest married woman, only desiring a new marriage, not an extramarital affair. She is effective in her dealings with tradesmen. She pleads for money from the right people, she drains the Marvels from their last dollar blackmailing them by threatening to take her son away from them. She wins Peter van Degen’s offer for marriage as the result of a tricky business negotiation where she pulls threads and plays with emotional pressure consciously as if winning a bargain (168). She follows a similar method when she makes de Chelles ask to marry her: she explains the stakes and creates a business negotiation where she wins the deal. So she makes use of the social knowledge she acquired in the exclusive Washington Square context to realize her 5th Avenue aims.

She seems to be a counterpart of Elmer Moffatt, the successful American businessman. Yet, Undine lacks several characteristics that make Elmer different from the rest. Elmer is detached, ironic, sees through his partners motivations. He has an irreverent sense of humor and no respect for sham social life. Ralph likens him to a director of a play and even to a novelist, who sees the psychology of his business partner as a novelist sees his characters and makes them act and speak with a view of the larger design of the novelistic plot. (132, 150-1) Apart from his intelligence, Moffatt also possesses an involuntary aesthetic sense triggered by art objects. Undine learns Elmer’s methods but she does not possess his intelligence and aesthetic sense. Undine has no social charm to accompany her actions.


Conclusion: the critique of Spragg as the professional American businesswoman

What does this mean from the perspective of the Whartonian conflict between Invaders and Aborigines? Is Moffatt’s kind of doing business and making money acceptable, while Undine’s way of social bargaining without charm is not? From the perspective of the usual Whartonian double rhetoric of criticizing and negotiating the shock of the American modernization, Undine’s representation in The Custom of the Country fits in perfectly. Her social manner is criticized both from an elite New York City perspective and a traditional European perspective, but even from that of the new American hero, the successful businessman. It seems that the new American businesswoman needs to learn even more from her male counterparts. In turn, the manners of new American businessmen represented by Moffatt can be synchronized with the requirements of the old elite (Ralph) and European tradition (Raymond).

Another way to think about Undine’s social ascent is in terms of architectural metaphors Wharton is so fond of. Undine’s social ascent can be characterized by the spaces she occupies. Her years in New York spent waiting for a husband and presenting an attractive surface is contextualized by the Sentorian Hotel. Her next stage, the marriage to Ralph, can be characterized through her relations to the ancient Marvell house at Washington Square, her friends’ houses on 5th Avenue, and to her own house way off West. Her aim to become free is worded in her Paris hotel room. Her French phase and difficulties are expressed by her understanding of the Paris mansion and the Dordogne castle. Eventually, the new Paris mansion and the New York City house on 5th Avenue represent her social ideals most perfectly. Yet, she cannot sit still and stick to any of these symbolic spaces, as being on the move and staying at a hotel (in the American sense) is her most natural environment that reflects her superficial interest in interiors.


Works Cited

  • Bell, Millicent, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.
  • Bentley, Nancy. “Hunting for the Real: Edith Wharton and the Science of Manners” In The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1995. 47-67.
  • ——. The Ethnography of Manners: Hawthorne, James, Wharton. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.
  • Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture. Camb., MA: Harvard UP., 2005. (2002.)
  • ——. “Manifest Domesticity“ In The Futures of American Studies. Eds. Donald E. Pease, and Robyn Wiegman. Durham: Duke UP., 2002. 111-134.
  • ——. “Left Alone With America: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture” In Cultures of US Imperialism. Eds. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 3-21.
  • ——. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: CUP, 1988.
  • Kassanoff, Jennie A. Edith Wharton and the Politics of Race. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
  • Showalter, Elaine. “Spragg: The Art of the Deal” In The Cambridge Companion to Edith Wharton. Ed. Millicent Bell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 87-97.
  • Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989.
  • ——. French Ways and Their Meaning. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1919.