Monday, May 7, 2007

Barbara, Undine at last

I was mildly surprised to read in Barbara Amiel's April 30, 2007 Macleans column about her admiration for Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, particularly when she writes of the main character, the beautiful and ruthless Undine Spragg and her various vicissitudes as a scheming social climber in the old money New York of the late 19th century. Amiel now writes her Macleans columns from Conrad Black's side in Chicago where he is on trial.

This is how Amiel describes the black haired Undine: "her startling good looks boost her up the social ladder with remarkable success, snaring a Park Avenue blueblood as her second husband [Ralph Marvell], next a French Marquis [Count Raymond de Chelles] ..."

Undine carefully marries up and up the slippery social ladder of old New York families and lets her purpose be known immediately exclaiming on the very first few pages of the novel that there will be "no more mistakes and no more follies now. She was going to know the right people at last - she was going to get what she wanted." Indeed ...

You have to wonder how much Barbara identifies with the determined Undine. Born in Britain, Barbara Amiel's father left the family for another woman when she was eight. Her mother remarried, emigrated to Canada and settled in Hamilton, Ontario. Her relationship with her stepfather was not happy, not the least of which was his inability to find employment, so at 14 she struck out on her own. A year later her biological father killed himself back in Britain. Her background is cited by some as the reason for her cool, if slightly hardened, image today. She has openly talked about having her clothes ridiculed by an early boyfriend's mother as the cause for her obsession with clothes and looks. Her struggle to establish herself as a writer is well known, perhaps even more than her awesome ability to seek out the wealthy and powerful in any realm she has dwelt in.

Her open admiration of Wharton's anti-heroine Undine almost trumpets "I know what you think of me, your estimations of my marriages and the successively richer men that I married until I "finally" settled on the biggest prize of all ..." That parade included the virtually anonymous Gary Smith in 1964 ; poet, broadcaster and author George Jonas in 1974 ; cable businessman David Graham in 1984; and, finally Conrad Black in 1992.

Amiel's advice in the same Macleans column to the wealthy Forest Hill types she reprimands (for some unknown reason she feels that they require reprimanding): "Today's sad people whose self worth depends on acceptance by local 'old families' could improve their standing - and their minds - by reading almost any one of Wharton's 40 books."

I feel that she is teasing us a little bit - is she saying don't do as I did, creating false idols of wealth and privilege because it all ends badly, oh say in a Chicago court with a beleaguered, rapidly impoverished tycoon husband? Is she saying that the "Forest Hill types" will never be fully accepted as she herself has never been fully accepted? Or does she separate herself from the Forest Hill nouveau riche with her admonitions?

Wharton's Undine Spragg is a frustrated, if wealthy, divorcee with a string of exes who never achieves her secret ambition - to be the wife of an ambassador.

Pretty, well bred but impoverished Lily Bart, another Wharton heroine in The House of Mirth, lies dying in a hovel because, some might say, she never found anyone good enough for her expensive or particular tastes, then couldn't marry when she desperately wanted to and no one would have her as her beauty and social status faded.

Yes Barbara, we would all do well to re-read Edith Wharton.

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