Book diary: The Custom of the Country

Finished Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country this morning. I really got the sense that Wharton knew the settings of this book intimately, each one a slightly bigger gilded prison than the last.

That prison is what the title refers to: the rules of polite society that bind Undine Spragg, the main character. She’s a “main character” in today’s sense as well, pretty much only alive when she’s the center of attention. What a wonderful character. Sure, she is a horrible shallow monster, but what she’s fighting against, the weight of tradition amongst the rich, is terrible too, so it’s quite easy to root for her to succeed.

Apparently Julian Fellowes was inspired by Custom when he created Downton Abbey, though I wish that he had included characters as good as Undine and the various husbands she burns through…

The character names are great, as I mentioned before. I particularly like Wharton’s (maybe not very nice, but funny, so it’s okay?) parody of “Midwestern” names. Most of the characters from the fictional Apex City have brutal, simple last names like Spragg, Binch, and Frusk. Having young Mabels, Millards, and Elmers running around is delightful, too. That type of name might now suggest “old person,” but once they were at the height of fashion!

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