Everyone who attended the reading group meeting thought that The Custom of the Country was a highly accessible read and very well written. It was witty and incisive with all of the characters clearly defined. It was agreed that Undine Spragg, the main character in the book, had no redeeming qualities whatsoever: utterly selfish and self- serving, her only “positive” attribute was her beauty.
One member of the group considered it a very brave move, by the writer, to make her leading lady so unremittingly unattractive in character. Most main characters in a novel learn something through the narrative, reflect on or moderate their behaviour (Jane Austen’s Emma would be an archetypal example). Undine, at the beginning of the novel, was incapable of reflecting on her behaviour. She remained incapable throughout seeing herself as victim and deprived. Through clinically dissecting her social climbing, Edith Wharton satirised the mores of a society in which a creature like Undine Spragg could “develop”, thrive and damage those around her.
The group felt that Charles Bowen’s critical observations on the relationship between men and women in the novel were really those of Edith Wharton’s and that if the author were alive today there would be much material for her acerbic pen. A member of the group pointed out that the novel was over 100 years old, but was depressingly pertinent today. Having no wit, intelligent conversation or interests, Undine’s sole aim was to mix in fashionable society, being noticed for her beauty whilst wearing the most fashionable outfits. In our age of “celebrity”, the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Jordan etc, what has changed?