Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country).

 

Undine Spragg, together with Madame Bovary are definetely two of literature’s most self-absorbed and self-righteous -and thus, despicable- female characters. Edith Wharton’s craftmanship, though, has made “The Custom of the Country” such a pleasure to read and Undine Spragg a vivid character that stays with you long after you’ ve finished the book. The novel’s up-to-datedness is impressive and for that, credit is due to Wharton’s sharp eye for detail and social observance. At the dawn of the twentieth century, where the new comers aka the invaders aka the new money struggle with the initiated of old New York and Washington Street to take the lead, the Custom of the Country chronicles the human greed to climb to the top and stay there. A greed that has stayed with us ever since.

opera_box

Handy advice for social climbers by Undine Spragg- to follow at your own risk.

  1. Marry either to wealth or to social title. Divorce to obtain the other half.
  2. Skip the opera boxes. But if you do hire an opera box, don’t do it on the wrong night.
  3. Don’t be ashamed to sell what you can’t afford to keep. Yes, even your husband’s historical estate tapestries Louis the Fifteenth had given to his great-great grandfather. Declutter.
  4. Live up to your opportunities and divorce.
  5. There is a lot to learn from your manicurist & masseuse. Hire one with the natural  talent of having manicured some really high-class nails.
  6. Change continents with the ease of changing dresses.
  7. Give your marriage a chance before you reach any conclusions or take any action. Go as far as to use honey moon as a trial period.
  8. When everybody around you is saying that this is the end of the world as we know it, just go out and buy another pair of shoes.
  9. A divorce is always a good thing to have: you never can tell when you may want it.” Still: “Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.” So, think big and proactively. Get a lover before the divorce. It speeds up the process.
  10. You’ll need your parents on board in this. You must be on the same page here. Rather they must be on the same page with you. No need to be overtly hostile or intimidating to them, a passive-aggressive behavior will do.
  11. Make sure a fashionable artist does your portrait. Pick the one who knows how to “do pearls” and who “keeps his studio tidy enough for a lady to sit to him in a new dress”.
  12. If a very wealthy man offers you a ride with his car on the day of your son’s birthday, trust your instinct to choose- not the maternal the other one, the raw, that of social survival. And if you feel “that rush of physical joy that draws scruples and silences memory”, then you know you’ve made the right decision.
  13. Of course you can miss out on your kid’s birthday. There is always next year. Kids forget.
  14. Don’t settle. Divorce.
  15. Invest in your looks. Not your books.
  16. When your mother says “How could you?” it’s not that she didn’t expect it from you. It’s that she can’t help feeling stupefied every time it happens.
  17. Don’t think low of marriage. One couldn’t be divorced without it.
  18. Talk nonsense as long as you look nice on your new dress.
  19. Discard whatever smells of history. Old Newyorkers, European titles, whole Italy.
  20. Live beyond your means and divorce.

Madame Bovary: a fairytale gone bad.

madame bovary

If we had to come up with literature’s top 10 narcissistic female characters, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary would have probably topped the list (with Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg following her close- from the novel “Custom of the Country”). Self-centered, conceited and ultimately self-destructive, Emma Bovary is still a character we keep returning to not only for the pleasure of indulging in Flaubert’s unparalleled prose but because once exposed to the unbearable lightness of her romanticism, there is no going back.

Below are some random musings after rereading the novel which after its scandalous publication (1856) would become the template for all literary depictions of adultery and female struggle with conventional family life.

The love scene in the carriage

Flaubert seems to be doing cinema here, long before it was invented. You almost see and hear the carriage with Emma and Leon (her lover) that wanders about Paris’ streets for hours condemning the coachman to physical exhaustion. With hardly a description of what is happening inside that carriage-cab, you can experience its urgency, extremity, gravity and inescapability. This is perhaps the most underdescribed and insinuated love scene in classic literature which is so felt that once read, it gets under your skin.

The protagonist in this love scene is… the cab’s coachman who is at a loss to understand “what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him“. Through the coachman’s physical weariness we realize the advent of time and the character of the emergency that has entrapped the two lovers inside the cab: “Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue and depression”.

Flaubert’s cinematic virtuosity is unique in lines such as “that sight of  a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel” which “without any fixed plan or direction, wandered about at hazard“.

And then you have the last sentence of the chapter where the writer dispassionately, with an air of indifference, rings down the curtain on one of the most passionate private love scenes of literature: “At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down and without turning her head.”

The compulsion behind the woman

Emma Bovary was a shopaholic. A romantic novels’ devourer. A boredom enthusiast. A passion addict. With all her larger than life characteristics, Emma Bovary makes for one of the most hard to forget, vivid characters in fiction.

New dresses, new hats, new gloves, new lingerie, new furniture and decoration of the house: her consumerism as a compulsive tick takes all over her, using up all her healthy qualities- if there were any. This nervous compulsion to shop in order to exist, so relevant today, gives her another essentially modern allure and it’s difficult not to recognize some of ourselves in her insatiable need to possess.

A bad reader

If Emma Bovary was alive today and not just a fictional character of the 1860’s, she would probably be an avid consumer of beach reads, though all year-long. She would rather even find Anna Karenina a tiresomely long story and would hate the Russian writers. She would love most of Edith Wharton’s female characters but would have to look up many of her novels’ words in the Merriam- Webster dictionary. She would have liked Fifty Shades of Grey, but would have been appalled at its graphic language. Her favorite movie would be “Pretty Woman”- and she would deplore not having the chance to read its printed version.

The first desperate housewife

It seems the original desperate housewives that haunted last decade’s TV screens weren’t so original after all. Emma Bovary seems to have been the authentic “desperate” housewife who never came in terms with the dream of domestic bliss and invented a parallel universe to enact her daydreaming. A woman who romanticized herself to the last detail and acted out her fantasies to such an extent that they didn’t have a chance but to take place.

But life doesn’t give you a red carpet treatment just because… it’s you. Emma had to find it out the painful way. Her escapism would soon collapse to reality’s confinements while her sense of entitlement would only bring forward her sense of failure. A recipe than never fails.

The “i have a lover” quote

“She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired. She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

It’s easy to denounce Emma Bovary here as superficial, individualistic, self-righteous, insensitive to real love and only dragged to it for its cosmetic and external value. But still, there is a girlie essence in this delirium that enchants us and even makes us feel an affection for that woman who is lured to those feelings just because she must feel them no matter what – and because other women have felt them so why not her? Who can blame La Rochefoucauld who had the sharp eye to notice not so many years before Flaubert that People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Food for thought.

Flaubert’s lists

Flaubert, to a letter to his friend and French poet Louise Colet, mentioned that he wanted the reader to feel his universe “almost physically”. That’s a key word to get a glimpse of his craftsmanship, his fixation on detail, his almost listing of things on so many levels and in such a natural way that the reader gets the feeling first of the verisimilitude of the description and then of its uniqueness. It takes a literary master to produce such a result without letting the reader realize the struggle behind the sentences.

Fabrics, textures, upholstery, cosmetics, foods and colors of pantone-like accuracy are all rendered to their last details so that you feel it couldn’t have been otherwise. The material world in Flaubert is a key character in the novel surrounding Emma Bovary with its firmness and rooting her deeply by its voracious capacity.

The deathbed splatter

Flaubert doesn’t spare you the details of Emma’s slipping to death, granting her with one of the most blunt and certainly not romantic deaths in fiction (especially of that era). Irony at its best here for the woman who spent most part of her life living as the heroine of her own romantic novel.

“Her chest soon began panting rapidly; the whole of her tongue protruded from her mouth;  her eyes, as they rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of a lamp that is going out, so that one might have thought her already dead but for the fearful labouring of her ribs, shaken by violent breathing, as if the soul were struggling to free itself { …}As the death-rattle became stronger the priest prayed faster; his prayers mingled with the stifled sobs of Bovary and sometimes all seemed lost in  the muffled murmur of the Latin syllables that tolled like a passing bell {… }They had to raise the head a little and a rush of black liquid issued, as if she were vomiting, from her mouth.”

A naturalistic prose that throws you right in the middle of the scene, exposing the dramatic effect of realism in literature. Flaubert’s lens frames only the “technicalities” that result in a heartbreaking but not sentimental scene. He handpicks the details that highlight the tragic weight of the moment through blunt realism- always stronger than its romantic counterpart.

Charles, the husband: a good man is hard to find

He never lived to his wife’s expectations. Even from their honeymoon he let down his wife who wished they had never visited Tostes but a romantic chalet in Switzerland (Though he was fighting a lost battle here, how difficult it was not to fail Emma Bovary?) Emma was practically disgusted at the man who had idealized her to the extent of believing that her skin was giving its fragrance to her clothes and not the other way around, was shattered due to her loss and didn’t even believe his eyes when he read one of her love letters he found in the attic after her death. His transparent soul and his worship for her misread it to an innocent, platonic letter of no importance, incapable of altering his love for her.

Too prosaic for his woman’s refined tastes, he would have been the ideal husband for her, if only she was cut out to be a housewife.

Coining a term after her: bovarism

I quote from Merriam-Webster: Bovarism = domination by such an idealized, glamorized, glorified, or otherwise unreal conception of oneself that it results in dramatic personal conflict (as in tragedy), in markedly unusual behavior (as in paranoia), or in great achievement.

Too bad our girl, the authentic Emma Bovary after whom the term was coined, resulted in tragedy and not in great achievement.