The Custom of the Country

In one of my Most Favourite Books Ever, Tam Lin, author Pamela Dean describes an English course that the protagonist, Janet, is taking, thus:

English class had by slow degrees attained the sixteenth century, marched with wary smiles through Volpone, gazed with horror and guilty laughter upon The Duchess of Malfi, and run aground on the enormous rock of King Lear. There was love poetry behind and before them, but Lear blocked their path like a broken statue in a narrow pass of the mountains.

Evans had cheerfully explained to them that Lear was for mature tastes and they were reading it for his pleasure, not for theirs.

Now, personally, Lear doesn’t bother me. I read it when I was the same age Janet is in this section, but to me it seemed perfectly comprehensible and tragically funny when it’s not being just tragic. It’s a story about inflexible people who won’t compromise, and the people who have to deal with such inflexibility finally throwing up their hands and saying “FINE, you’ve driven me to it, to the moors with you!”* There’s beauty and terror and nobility in the struggle, but it’s mostly a bitter family fight written across kingdoms and I read/watch it wincing at the parts that echo my own family’s struggles and breathlessly relieved at the parts that get really vicious, because there’s no echo of my family in those.

This is a long preamble to say that Wuthering Heights is my broken statue in a narrow pass of the mountains.

My tastes are just not mature enough, you guys! I hate this book.

But I have to finish this awful masterpiece because I promised you I would read all the Brontes, Internets, and read them I shall. It’s just that I tend to read a few pages and then realise I could be reading a book I do not hate!

And then I flick to another of the books Project Gutenberg, may they be blessed forever, made available for frees, because if I am not reading Wuthering Heights, at least I can virtuously read another old book, right? So on eyeteeth‘s recommendation, I read The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton, and WOW.

It’s like, okay, you remember Gossip Girl? The books, not the show, although I adore the show also. Okay, now you know how in Gossip Girl Serena is a kind of beautiful monster who wafts around breaking hearts and doing whatever the hell she wants to do and no one stops her because she’s so amazing and beautiful and she just gets whatever she wants, and sometimes people talk about her behind her back and she doesn’t get into the parties she wants to, but she just kinda bucks up and another hot guy totally falls in love with her and her social stock rises once more?

So that, only Serena is called Undine, and it’s the New York of the early 20th century, and instead of making out with dudes she has to marry them, or at least get engaged to them, and also she is ambitious. Because where Serena was born into high society, Undine desperately wants to rise into it. And she does, through scion of an Old But Not That Rich Society Family, Ralph Marvell, who, in a scene guaranteed to make me lose any sympathy I might have had for him, literally envisions Undine as a woman chained to a rock that he is going to rescue from the soulless monster of Bad Society with his heroic proposal.

Ralph, come on. Who do you think is the soulless monster here? HER NAME IS UNDINE.

There’s this moment, where she meets his family, and talking about a divorced friend of hers. And they are appalled! Divorce! My goodness! A divorced woman could never show her face in society!

She’s puzzled, and then she teases Ralph and says that as long as she gets what she wants she sure won’t divorce him.

And he asks what she wants, and she replies, “EVERYTHING.”

And his family laugh, oh what a funny joke!

She wasn’t joking, and she wasn’t lying. Undine Spragg wants everything, always, right now. So she spends Ralph into ruin and divorces him to grab a better catch, only he won’t be caught, so she goes back to Europe and catches a Comte.

But Catholics can’t marry divorcees! She needs to get an annulment of her marriage to Ralph, and that costs a lot of money. So she basically says, hey, you know how I have custody of our son Paul, but I’ve left him with you for years and never actually exercised that right? Well, I want him now. OR. You could give me enough money to get my annulment and I’ll sign custody over to you!

Ralph goes for help to a (clearly crooked) business acquaintance, who was! OMG so Gossip Girly! Actually married to Undine way back in the day!

Ralph learns this the same day he loses all the money he’d invested, and it’s actually kind of difficult to see which makes the most devastating impact on his already shaken psyche – that he’s lost all this money, and therefore his son, or that his wife WAS NOT A VIRGIN WHEN THEY GOT MARRIED. She was never a fair damsel he was saving! She lied to him!

Except she never said she was a damsel, Ralph. She told you she wanted everything, and you didn’t listen. HER NAME IS UNDINE.

Anyway, Undine fascinates me, because she is a total sociopath, but at the same time she’s not malicious about it. She just wants everyone to admire her and give her everything she believes is her due. As long as they do that, it can be all happy fun times! If they don’t, it’s because they are being willfully cruel to her, but she doesn’t want to punish them when that happens; she just wants them to recognise their wrongs and redress them, usually by giving her more money. Every now and then she has these vague notions of conscience or altruism, but they are always smothered by massive waves of self-regard.

She is a beautiful monster, and I find her so interesting.

But I feel sad for Paul.

* Damn straight I sympathize with Goneril, right up until she goes murderous. Lear and his followers are breaking shit and yelling when she’s trying to get some sleep! Doesn’t he ever think about who has to clear up the mess? No, he does not! It’s Goneril, that’s who! When you give someone half of your kingdom and then keep trying to act like you should still be in charge that is problematic behaviour.

It’s exactly like the time my mother bought these beautiful three hundred dollar boots but the heel aggravated her Achilles tendon problems so she gave them to me and every time we saw each other after that she’d be like, are you taking care of my boots? Are you cleaning them properly? What do you MEAN a button fell off? MUM YOU GAVE THEM TO ME, THEY ARE NOW MY BOOTS. AND SOMETIMES BUTTONS JUST FALL OFF OKAY.

Exactly like that, but with murder.

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