The Female Character and French Aristocracy in Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ and ‘The Reef’

By Samantha Seto

In Edith Wharton’s American novels, the heroines are part of the French aristocratic milieu. The American expatriates, Undine Spragg and Anna Leath, are situated in France and characterized by attributes that suggest French influence through literary elements such as narration and dialogue in The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Reef (1912). Wharton reveals an implicit feminism in a patriarchal society and thematic marital relations drive the plot, which indicates the conventional role for women dedicated to the social traditions of the aristocracy. The French have their own code of manners in society, idealised aesthetic of female beauty, and their honour resides in the social expectations of probity. In my narratological analysis of character identity, French cultural norms and the common French aesthetic blends into the portrayal of the primary female characters. Wharton interweaves a French theme into the narratives which shape the portraits representing aristocratic women and particularly their romantic conflicts that arise at the turn of the century. In the novels, Wharton establishes heroines characterised by attributes that belong to the French aristocracy.

The Custom of the Country introduces the American woman Undine who acquires French influence while ascending in aristocratic society through marriage. The Oxford English Dictionary defines her given name undine as “a female spirit or nymph inhabiting water,” which alludes to her submersion into a nouveau riche lifestyle and drifting movement in upper class New York society and the French aristocracy.[1] In the first part of the novel, Undine is married to Ralph Marvell, and she depends upon her husband’s riches although he cannot always provide for all that she desires. The etymological root of undine has a Latin origin meaning “a wave,” which may symbolise her marital status that ebbs and flows in that she gets remarried twice. Her divorces and remarriages characterise her with infidelity. In France, adultery is tolerated and “a sin against the individual is less grave than an offense against the form of manners or codes of society.”[2] In the narration, Undine’s character is unveiled to match an idealised French aesthetic through Ralph’s comparison of the beauty of her female figure to her given name. In Chapter XI, Undine’s feminine beauty is illustrated as a “glimmering submarine light,”[3] which may refer to her radiant figure among other aristocratic women. To further elaborate on the parallel between her graceful appearance and name, the narrator explains that she appears like a sea nymph, or the French term sirène, presenting an image of a beautiful maiden in nature. Ralph describes Undine as “Ariel-like” expressed through the “coolness of the element from which she took her name.”[4] Undine metaphorically emerges with natural feminine beauty, and she gradually attains the French standard for upper class women as she immerses herself in elite society. When she travels to Paris, she culturally assimilates to achieve the conventional image of an early twentieth century French woman. Thus, Wharton creates the reflection of a young, beautiful lady with the French female aesthetic and marriage status that she uses for her aim to rise to the top of the aristocratic social class.

Furthermore, Undine travels to the enchanting city of Paris in Chapter XII of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, and the only way she may afford her extravagant lifestyle is by depending entirely upon her husband, Ralph, for financial support. After she arrives in Paris, Ralph observes “her innocence, her high spirits, her astounding comments and credulities,” which “renovated the old Parisian adventure and flung a veil of romance over its hackneyed scenes.”[5] Undine’s spirits are lifted, and she seems to have an intuitive sense to navigate Paris. The narrator details “she seemed to have mastered her Paris by divination, and between the bounds of the Boulevards and the Place Vendôme she moved at once with supernatural ease.”[6] As Undine becomes acclimated to the Parisian setting, she recognises their financial issue due to the expensive daily cost of living although she learns that Paris has more to offer than her homeland. She is concerned with materialism and the economical exchange of her clothing, which testifies to the fact that her character is inclined to French culture. Undine informs Ralph that “the advantage of going to the French dress-makers is that they’ll wait twice as long for their money as the people at home.”[7] Undine shares a similar lavish taste as other French women and men in Paris. Mrs. Harvey Shallum is characterised as “a showy Parisianized figure, with a small wax-featured husband whose ultra-fashionable clothes seemed a tribute to his wife’s importance rather than the mark of his personal taste.”[8] Although Undine feels a sense of belonging in French culture and admiration for the Parisian aesthetic, she must depart from Paris because their European journey had become unaffordable.

Due to the lack of riches, Undine and Ralph must end their travels and return to America. The scholar Alan Bellringer from the University College of North Wales claims, the French are “frank in money matters and so may appear niggardly in their desire to avoid falling into poverty.”[9] Similarly, Undine and Ralph are concerned with their finances and avoid poverty by returning to America. Undine tries to assist with their plans to travel to their homeland. In France, “marriage enables a girl to count ‘as a social factor,’ to engage in free conversation with men.”[10] Undine convinces Peter Van Degen to allow her and Ralph to travel from Paris en route to New York via sailing on a steam-yacht known as the Sorceress. Ralph disagrees with Undine’s proposal. Bellringer states that “financial misfortune, therefore, is a more tragic prospect to a Frenchman than marital failure.”[11] After Undine becomes a divorcée, she falls from her high position in aristocratic society, but she begins a love affair with Peter, and then marries the French count, Raymond de Chelles. She returns to French countryside of Saint Désert to live with her husband, yet she dreams of visiting Paris. The wealth of the de Chelles are in their land, art, and antiques that they do not consider selling to obtain a profit. In Chapter XLII, Undine tries to subvert the de Chelles family’s financial policy by wishing to sell tapestries that had been the gift of King Louis XV to the ancestor Marquis de Chelles. Her husband retorts, “we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us,” which signifies the clash of French and American culture.[12] Undine’s identity includes her American expatriatism and her acculturation into the French aristocracy. Her husband represents the French traditions that Undine must learn to accept. According to the literary historian Elizabeth Ammons, Undine only has two options: “she can conform to the implicit cultural ideal of acquiescent femininity and thus perpetuate the aboriginal leisure-class ideal of feminine self-effacement and conspicuous leisure” or “she can marry new money and express her ambitious nature vicariously but publicly as her husband’s conspicuous consumer,” and she chose the latter.[13] Her presence is defined by egocentrism and unpracticality in financial matters as she wishes to sell valuable possessions that belong to her French husband. William Cloonan, a Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics, notes that Undine is a quintessential “female American social climber” who marries a Frenchman and invents her own Nouveau Luxe vision of Paris.[14] She ambitiously hopes to be at the top of the aristocratic social class, and her character flaw is being drawn to powerful status and wealth. This leads to her next marriage to a gentleman from Apex, Elmer Moffatt, who is her previous lover. Her methods of achieving riches creates tension in her marital relations even to the point of death in that Ralph commits suicide, which has left her with their son, Paul, and her transformation into a widow, although, she is a remarried woman with high social status.

In The Reef, Anna is an American émigré who lives in the French countryside in a château at Givré. The University of Cambridge Emerita Jean Gooder proposes that the vision of the nature of a reef, which reflects the novel’s title, “stands for what is hidden and dangerous in the currents of life, yet close enough to the surface to wreck the unwary.”[15] The heroine, Anna, is metaphorically at the edge of the reef and her romantic interest and marital ambition are in the currents that may potentially produce inner turmoil and broken relations in France. Bellringer claims that the novel has a “brilliantly visualized French setting against which the characters define themselves.”[16] Anna parallels Undine in that she is a widow with a young daughter, Effie, and the epitome of a French woman due to her adherence to French cultural norms. Anna is a literary representation of an aristocratic woman in early twentieth century France during the progression of the conventional marital model developing with a modernised style. The novel begins with George Darrow taking a boat-train from Victoria Station in London to Paris. He hopes to travel to Givré until he receives a telegram from Anna that asks him to wait until the “thirtieth” to visit her in France. Anna’s writing to her former lover symbolises her desire to be a remarried woman, conforming to French culture in which marriage is attractive and widely accepted. George interprets Anna’s telegram asking for his patience as an unloving message and imagines that she does not want to marry him. In Dover, George meets Sophy Viner, an American woman who aspires to become an actress, on his journey to Paris. George’s romantic affair with Sophy clearly portrays his infidelity. In France, men may have mistresses, but his affair stirs emotional tension for Anna. George considers that he and Anna were “like the ghostly lovers of the Grecian Urn, forever pursuing without ever clasping each other.”[17] After her revelation, Anna contemplates her engagement to marry George because she no longer trusts that he truly loves her, nor will he be faithful in their marriage.

In addition to the marital conflict at the heart of the novel, the French cultural norms and female aesthetic construct the character of French aristocratic women. Anna has a distinctive French social instinct. She speaks the French language fluently with a Bostonian accent, and she demonstrates her ability when she converses with others, particularly the French servants. In the past, Anna’s husband, Fraser Leath, had gifted her with a French poetry anthology, and when “she showed a discriminating pleasure in the gift,” he said, “‘I know no one but you who would really appreciate it.’”[18] Anna’s appreciation for French literature is present in her memorable exchange with her husband. Other characters represent the Gallic nature of the French aristocracy. At a hotel in Paris, Sophy wears a Parisian dress to match the aesthetic for a French aristocratic woman. Sophy presents her dress to George and with “a hand at her waist she spun about as if to show off some miracle of Parisian dress-making.”[19] Her fashion is identical to Undine’s style because they both admire the beautiful French dresses. George and Sophy walk and dine along the River Seine in the direction of Notre Dame. Sophy reflects, “cooking always expressed the national character, and that French food was clever and amusing just because the people were.”[20] The characters learn to become accustomed to French cuisine, which illustrates their acceptance of French culture. Moreover, the Farlows are Americans who “lived in Paris as if it were a Massachusetts suburb.”[21] Mrs. Farlow is a “magazine writer” drawing on the “Inner Glimpses of French Life” for “a leading New England journal.” Adelaide Painter, an American friend of Madame de Chantelle, is a spinster originally from South Braintree, Massachusetts. Adelaide detests the French for their corrupt morals, and her “long residence on Gallic soil had not mitigated her hostility toward the creed and customs of the race.”[22] She is a Parisian resident who may not agree with the French politically, but she has a genteel manner and is confined to the role of nursing a brother through an illness. In Chapter XVI, Anna’s mother-in-law, Madame de Chantelle, identifies with her “husband’s nationality completely and ‘adopted French habits and prejudices.’”[23] Although Madame de Chantelle does not agree with Owen, Anna’s stepson, marrying Sophy, she is characterised as a French woman by making bridal arrangements without their confirmation of marriage along with a close-knit bond with her daughter-in-law.

To conclude, Wharton’s portrayal of heroines in the novels are thematically united by their French attributes. Through a feminist lens, Wharton historicises the French aristocracy by reflecting on women at the turn of the century. Marital relations give rise to conflict that is central to the lives of the female characters empowered with agency. The novels present portraits of “women who scorn furtive sexual infidelity, who seek honest relationships with men, and who learn there is no point in an affair – or in a marriage – from which love and commitment are absent.”[24] Wharton’s novels consist of French settings, which “provides a necessary contrast with the shallows and wreckage of the individual characters’ lives”[25] as the heroines grapple with their marriages. As marriage is engrained in French culture, the female characters traditionally engage in relations, and they are the masters of determining their fate.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, September 2021, Oxford University Press.

[2] Alan W. Bellringer, “Edith Wharton’s Use of France,” The Yearbook of English Studies 15 (1985): 115.

[3] Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (1913) (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 144.

[4] Ibid. 152.

[5] Ibid. 168.

[6] Ibid. 167.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 156.

[9] Bellringer, “Edith Wharton’s Use of France”: 115.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. 116.

[12] Wharton, The Custom of the Country: 545.

[13] Elizabeth Ammons, “The Business of Marriage in Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country,’” Criticism 16, no. 4 (1974): 338.

[14] William Cloonan, “The American Woman and the Invention of Paris: The Custom of the Country” (Frères Ennemis: The French in American Literature, Americans in French Literature, Liverpool University Press, 2018), 72, 85.

[15] Jean Gooder, “Unlocking Edith Wharton: An Introduction to The Reef,” The Cambridge Quarterly 15, no. 1 (1986): 47.

[16] Bellringer, “Edith Wharton’s Use of France”: 121.

[17] Edith Wharton, The Reef (1912) (London, New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 29.

[18] Ibid. 87.

[19] Ibid. 35.

[20] Ibid. 41.

[21] Ibid. 38.

[22] Ibid. 152.

[23] Bellringer, “Edith Wharton’s Use of France”: 123.

[24] Margaret B. McDowell, “Viewing the Custom of Her Country: Edith Wharton’s Feminism,” Contemporary Literature 15, no. 4 (1974): 524.

[25] Bellringer, “Edith Wharton’s Use of France”: 123.

Samantha Seto is a PhD student in English Literature at King’s. Her research interest is primarily in the study of female characters, narratology, and the French aristocracy in nineteenth and twentieth century American and French novels. Samantha graduated with a MA in History and Literature from Columbia University and studied at the École normale supérieure and Université Paris IV-Sorbonne in Paris, France. She is from Washington, D.C.

Blog posts on King’s English represent the views of the individual authors and neither those of the English Department, nor of King’s College London.

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