Undine, for the Wharton Win


Annie Liebowitz VOGUE assignment at Edith Wharton’s The Mount home
in September 2012

My book group met on Zoom from April to December last year, and we’ll likely be doing the same for most of 2021. Struggling at the end of 2020 to choose a cheery title, we turned to a time-honored trick. Go back to a beloved author! Surely, Edith Wharton could  boost us during the dregs of Covid; so, in December we read Custom of the Country (1913).

We counted on Edith Wharton to deliver, but had no idea the sheer delight that would be involved. Over 100 years later, her ambitious, and decidedly dreadful, heroine – Undine Spragg – has contemporary ring and provokes chatter about society’s (still) degraded morals. Undine tromps through the plot with a selfish acquisitive streak that had us all laughing to the last page.

Little did we know that the whole world had chosen the same quarantine comfort novel. The T Book Club is featuring a conversation about the book with acclaimed author Claire Messud Tune in to hear this free conversation on January 28.

And Messud (accomplished author of The Emperor’s Children) wrote a comprehensive analysis of Wharton and this novel – with a well-argued, but possibly forced and unkind, attack comparing Undine to Mehgan Markle. Read that here. 

Also, from the T Book Club, a delicious article parsing the clothing that Undine so feverishly covets, comparing today’s prices to the past, and illuminating the rush by American’s to clothe themselves in Paris. For the most elite, not wearing the new clothes for a year turned out to be a way to demonstrate that they weren’t too busy chasing a trend.

Also, Sophia Coppola is adapting the novel for Apple. Coppola is the perfect person to pull Wharton’s observations into sharp 21st century focus.

Here is Claire Messud’s essay on the book (if you can’t make the lecture). And here is Penguin’s Reading Guide to help your own discussion.

Other excellent Edith Wharton novels that are worthy of more than one read: House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. I went back and watched the Martin Scorcese adaptation with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer, a sumptuous take on the gilded age. Much can be made of Wharton’s own history as a wealthy woman, who glided back and forth between Paris and New York. Those were the days.

Here is a link to Wharton’s historic home, The Mount,  in Massachusetts and a fun way to tour the Newport mansions -virtually, of course —  that she frequented.