it’s fanciful to imagine Jane Austen’s anti-heroine Lady Susan Vernon in New York City. If I were writing an Austen sequel, I might try it: Lady Susan leaves her aristocratic husband in Europe, visits relatives in New York, and goes to the opera; Newland Archer falls in love with her instead of with Ellen Olenska, and she uses her “‘happy command of Language’” to “‘make Black appear White’” (Later Manuscripts 11-12), thus persuading him of her innocence just as she persuaded Reginald De Courcy. But I am not writing a sequel to Lady Susan, or an alternate version of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence; instead, I’m going to suggest that the anti-heroine of Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country bears a strong resemblance to Lady Susan. Undine Spragg, beautiful, charming, manipulative, and in search of the best of the power and pleasure that New York can offer, is Wharton’s version of the Austen character most obsessed with marriage as a game of using ambition and sexual power to “trade up” for more money and social power. Undine is an incarnation of Austen’s Lady Susan in the society of Edith Wharton’s Old New York—in The Custom of the Country, Wharton has written a kind of “Austen sequel.”1
We can’t be sure whether Edith Wharton was familiar with Lady Susan; although the novella was first published in 1871, when she was a child, she doesn’t mention it in her criticism, and it isn’t among the Austen novels listed in the published catalogue of her library (although the catalogue does list only half her library—the other half of her books were lost in a fire).2 Wharton was certainly familiar with Austen’s other novels. She read fiction by Austen, Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot aloud to a circle of intimate friends she called her “Patient Listeners” (Lee 546), and in The Writing of Fiction (1924), she comments admiringly on Austen’s characters and sense of proportion, calling her “the impeccable Jane Austen” (76). Like Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, who is accustomed to “having rather too much her own way” and to thinking “a little too well of herself” (Emma 3), Wharton’s Undine Spragg meditates on “the rareness and distinction she had always considered she possessed,” and she thinks that “If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable” (Custom 379; 205). Mary Crawford is another possible influence on Undine.3 Even if Wharton was not responding directly to Lady Susan, the topic of the confident, power-seeking female character accustomed to getting what she wants was an important one for her and for Austen, and they approached it in analogous ways.
The names and the novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton are often linked. The comparison is typically a kind of shorthand for referring to society novels that focus on morals and manners, and is used, for example, in blurbs for books by writers such as Diane Johnson and Candace Bushnell. As John Wiltshire says of the tendency to associate Austen and Shakespeare, the linking of Austen and Wharton “might well be said to belong to the history of promotion rather than of critical history” (58).4 There are obvious similarities: both writers excel at dramatizing conversations, at showing who is on the inside and who is left out, and at showing when a social convention is founded on moral principles and when it is a matter of appearances only. Both are masters of the scene in which one character “cuts” another socially, as in the case of Willoughby’s rejection of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, or in the case of Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, whose friends “cut” her after her “friend” Bertha Dorset suggests that Lily’s reputation is compromised.
Yet while Austen and Wharton satirized the morals and manners of the societies they lived in, casual comparisons don’t get at the immense difference between the two. For one thing, not all Wharton novels are “society” novels. The drawing room or ballroom scenes of The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth can remind readers of scenes in Austen’s novels, but it would be hard to imagine Austen as the author of the infamous tobogganing scene in Wharton’s Ethan Frome, or as the author of the scene in Summer where Charity Royall visits the poverty-stricken “Mountain” in Western Massachusetts to look for her birth mother. Another significant difference between Austen and Wharton, even between their novels set in high society, is that Austen’s novels usually end happily, while in Wharton’s novels the happy ending is very rare. In Lady Susan and The Custom of the Country, however, Austen and Wharton are both experimenting with a different kind of ending—Austen at the beginning of her career and Wharton in mid-career.5
In contrast to the downward spiral of Lily Bart’s life in The House of Mirth (1905), the upward trajectory of Undine’s career is at least superficially one of success—towards more money, more sexual power, higher social status, and more marriages—even though (or perhaps because) she is always aware of “something still better beyond, then—more luxurious, more exciting, more worthy of her” (41). Lady Susan is an Austen novel with a very unconventional heroine, and the ending is also quite different from the later novels—not just because it is a narrative rather than an epistolary conclusion.6 Although the story does end with marriage, the narrator explicitly says that “Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second Choice—I do not see how it can ever be ascertained—for who would take her assurance of it, on either side of the question?—The World must judge from Probability.—She had nothing against her, but her Husband & her Conscience” (77). These two works are not quite as well known as Wharton’s most famous novels, such as The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and Ethan Frome, or Austen’s “big six” (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey), but they can tell us something about what Wharton and Austen have to say about women and power, whether in New York society or elsewhere.
Reginald De Courcy finds Lady Susan charming, even though he knows about her reputation as “‘the most accomplished coquette in England’” and about her behavior at the Manwarings’ house, where she flirted with her married host—“‘which prove[s],’” writes Reginald, “‘that she does not confine herself to that sort of honest flirtation which satisfies most people, but aspires to the more delicious gratification of making a whole family miserable’” (8). Undine Spragg similarly uses flirtation to wound as well as to entice. When she pursues a French nobleman, Raymond de Chelles, she wants to “linger on in Paris, prolonging her flirtation with Chelles, and profiting by it to detach herself from her compatriots and enter doors closed to their approach” (218). She desires both Raymond de Chelles’ admiration and his power to show her hidden aspects of French society, but she also wants to make her fellow Americans in Paris jealous. She especially wants to make one particular American businessman, Peter Van Degen, jealous: she thinks Raymond is “sweet,” but “His chief value, however, lay in his power of exciting Van Degen’s jealousy” (218).
Following Lady Susan’s flirtation with the married and therefore unavailable Mr. Manwaring, she makes Reginald fall in love with her, despite his better judgment, despite the fact that her daughter Frederica is in love with him, and even despite the fact that it may be years before he comes into his inheritance. Undine pursues both Raymond de Chelles, for his social status, despite the fact that he is a Catholic and cannot marry her because she is divorced, and Peter Van Degen, for his money, even though he himself is still married. Lady Susan and Undine are both so beautiful and charming that they have reason to feel confident about their sexual powers. They face the challenge of finding men who can offer them what Undine thinks of as “amusement and respectability” (259),7 men who are attractive, charming, powerful, respectable, rich, and available. For both women, not surprisingly, it’s hard to find a single man who can offer everything they’re looking for.
Responding to her friend Mrs. Johnson’s suggestion that she marry Reginald because he’s going to inherit the family estate, Lady Susan insists, “‘I cannot easily resolve on anything so serious as Marriage, especially as I am not at present in want of money, & might perhaps till the old Gentleman’s death, be very little benefited by the match’” (18). Still, she is tempted, because Reginald is handsome and charming, and he will eventually have money. Undine marries Raymond de Chelles thinking of his social position and future power as a Marquis, and is surprised to find that the old Marquis and his wife control so much of her life, requiring the newlyweds to live in the small apartment their son inhabited as a bachelor. She could have benefited before this marriage from the foresight of a friend like Lady Susan, but she remains “persuaded that, under her influence, Raymond would soon convert his parents to more modern ideas” (336-37). Even after the old Marquis’s death, however, Undine receives very little social or financial benefit from her marriage. She reflects that it was “certainly ‘more fun’ to be a marchioness than a countess,” yet “the inexorable conditions of French mourning closed in on her,” with “slow hot crape-smelling months” of confinement with her husband’s family (344). Lady Susan is more calculating than Undine, and has a clearer picture of her prospects for financial gain. Thus she is also interested in Sir James Martin and his money, even though she thinks he’s a fool, and even though she has in mind that he would be a good match for her daughter.
Undine may not have Lady Susan’s foresight, but she does have access to divorce. As she says to Ralph Marvell, her New York husband, before their marriage, “Out in Apex, if a girl marries a man who don’t come up to what she expected, people consider it’s to her credit to want to change.” Her perspective shocks Ralph’s family, the Dagonets of Washington Square, but he treats it as a joke and says, “If only I were sure of knowing what you expect!” (97-98). Because divorce is not an option for Mr. Manwaring, Lady Susan considers an alternative, writing to Mrs. Johnson that “‘Manwaring is more devoted to me than ever; & were he at liberty, I doubt if I could resist even Matrimony offered by him. This Event, if his wife live with you, it may be in your power to hasten. The violence of her feelings, which must wear her out, may be easily kept in irritation.—I rely on your friendship for this” (72). This Jane Austen heroine asks her friend to make sure Mrs. Manwaring worries herself sick, until she dies, so Mr. Manwaring will be free to remarry. In contrast to the world of Lady Susan, Undine Spragg’s world seems to offer an easy way of exchanging one partner for another, with divorce more readily available.
Yet even divorce cannot secure everything Undine wants. She doesn’t plan to kill or have anyone killed, but her relentless focus on her own advancement does have something to do with Ralph’s decision to kill himself after she has left him, trading in her New York life for a new life in Paris, and after she has tried to get him either to give her custody of their son Paul or to pay her a great deal of money. He tries to raise the money, but his investment doesn’t pay off in time. Divorce is not enough for Undine: she wants the money to purchase an annulment so that she can marry Raymond in France. Ralph’s death is not her goal, yet she does succeed in worrying him to a point at which he chooses death. The “violence of his feelings” wears him out. Lady Susan (like Willoughby) entertains the idea of death as a way of making it possible for her to marry again; Undine doesn’t pursue this goal directly, but inadvertently brings about the sort of effect Lady Susan had desired. After Ralph dies, she is considered a widow instead of a divorcée, and is therefore able to marry a Catholic after all.
Undine and Lady Susan are both characters stripped down to the bone of essential self-interest. Lady Susan is not the Jane Austen heroine we’re used to reading or to reading about, and no one has yet made a movie based on this novella, perhaps because Lady Susan doesn’t fit with what audiences want from a “Jane Austen movie.” There is no film version of The Custom of the Country yet either, although in her 2003 novel Trading Up, Candace Bushnell has her Undine-like heroine suggest that The Custom of the Country would make a great movie (110). Other Wharton heroines and Austen heroines are also involved in their contemporary “marriage markets,” but they are never as explicit or as single-minded about their knowledge of marriage as a game of “trading up” as Undine and Lady Susan are. Lily Bart is very aware of the importance of marrying money, but the reason she does not marry anyone is that she cannot bring herself to marry only for money. Elizabeth Bennet marries Mr. Darcy, but there’s no suggestion that afterwards she’ll want to marry someone even richer, with an aristocratic title. It’s characters like Wickham and Willoughby, far more than Austen’s heroines, who “trade up”—or at least try to—for fiancées with more money.
Undine and Lady Susan share a desire for social and financial power, and they rely on sexual power to get them “everything” they want. Neither one has a conscience. The narrator suggests that Lady Susan has “her Husband & her Conscience” “against her” (77), but it is clear that she does not have a conscience at all. In the Conclusion, when Reginald’s sister, Mrs. Vernon, visits Lady Susan, she is shocked to find that “[n]o remembrance of Reginald, no consciousness of Guilt, gave one look of embarrassment.” Mrs. Vernon is “met with such an easy & chearful affection as made her almost turn from [Lady Susan] with horror” (75). Lady Susan has made the Vernon family miserable, just as she made the Manwarings miserable. Unlike Undine, however, she has not played a role in anyone’s death, even though she’s thought about it.
Undine has a “vague sense of distress” when she thinks of the death of Ralph Marvell: “His death had released her, had given her what she wanted; yet she could honestly say to herself that she had not wanted him to die—at least not to die like that.” She is incapable of seeing that the pressure she put on him contributed to his suicide. She focuses on other factors: “People said at the time that it was the hot weather—his own family had said so: he had never quite gotten over his attack of pneumonia, and the sudden rise of temperatures—one of the fierce ‘heat-waves’ that devastate New York in summer—had probably affected his brain: the doctors said such cases were not uncommon” (341). A few months after his death, Ralph’s investment pays off, and his son inherits a hundred thousand dollars, which means that Undine gets custody of Paul and the money she had demanded in lieu of custody. She also successfully contests Ralph’s family’s appeal for custody of Paul and receives an additional allowance of five thousand dollars for his education from them. She doesn’t like to think about the source of the money, but this vague sense of unease does not cause her to engage in any further reflection or self-examination. Wharton writes that she “hated the thought of it as one more instance of the perverseness with which things she was entitled to always came to her as if they had been stolen.” In a more self-aware character, this flicker of conscience would lead to an investigation of moral responsibility, but for Undine, the “approach of summer, and the culmination of the Paris season, swept aside such thoughts” (342). Undine leaves her New York life in the past, and moves further into her new life in Paris, devoid of any feeling of responsibility for the way her actions have affected other people.
If The Custom of the Country is a kind of sequel or a re-imagining of an Austen novel, Wharton explores the selfishness and self-importance of a character like Emma or Mary Crawford taken to extremes, just as Austen’s Lady Susan exemplifies selfishness in the extreme. Like Emma, Miss Crawford, and Lady Susan, Undine likes to have things her own way. When things go wrong, there is no Edmund Bertram to object to Undine’s way of smoothing over the sins of the past, no Mr. Knightley to say “‘badly done’” (Emma 408). Even more important, there is no “‘better guide’” in herself, which Fanny Price says is superior to the guidance of anyone else (Mansfield Park 478). Undine Spragg moves relentlessly onward, her desire for power, like Lady Susan’s, unchecked by moral reflection.
In the end, Undine marries an American tycoon from her Midwestern hometown, Apex City, who has more money than anyone she knows in New York or Paris. In her last letter to Mrs. Johnson, Lady Susan writes, “‘I am tired of submitting my will to the Caprices of others.’” She is certain that she has been “‘too easily worked on,’” and resolves afresh that she will have her own way in the future (72). She and Undine continue to focus on their desire for power to the exclusion of everything else, their understanding of marriage and happiness severely limited by their own character flaws, and by their inability to understand love. Even at the peak of Undine’s career, having decided that new American money brings more power than being part of an inner circle in New York or Paris, she still isn’t quite satisfied. She always has a nagging suspicion that she could do better: “Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them” (407). Lady Susan likely feels the same way after she settles on marrying Sir James for his money. As in a morality tale, you get what you want, but it isn’t what you want after all.
Austen and Wharton satirize the greed, selfishness, and materialism of both Undine and Lady Susan, yet at the same time they reveal their sympathy for women whose ambitions and energy must always be directed into the marriage market.8 Both criticize the woman who pursues power through marriage, the society that limits women’s legal powers, and the society that offers no other avenues for women to attempt to obtain power. Undine and Lady Susan, like society at large, however, are to blame for conceiving of marriage only as a “market,” and part of the problem is that they do not expect enough from marriage. I would question the tendency to create a loose association between Austen and Wharton because of superficial resemblances between their best-known novels. They do, however, share preoccupations with questions of power, with limited outlets for women’s ambitions, and with the degree to which characters engage with or dismiss moral questions, and these preoccupations are especially clear in these two somewhat less well-known novels. For both writers, the exploration of selfishness in the extreme is an important part of a broader view of ethical responsibility.
While it’s hard to know if Wharton was familiar with Lady Susan, it’s worthwhile to examine the ways in which her portrait of an ambitious and flirtatious heroine resembles Austen’s portrait of a woman who similarly plots out the social career that will provide her with the most power. The Custom of the Country and Lady Susan stand out from the kind of novel that we typically associate with either Austen or Wharton. More commonly, Austen’s heroines are virtuous and they find their well-deserved happy endings in happy marriages. Wharton’s heroines are not as consistently virtuous as Austen’s, but most of them are more virtuous than Undine Spragg, even though Wharton’s novels rarely end with either marriages or happiness. Both Austen and Wharton are sympathetic to women who can exercise their ambition only in the marriage market, women whose circumstances—or whose husbands—are against them. Neither is sympathetic to characters whose consciences are against them, yet who are incapable of understanding what that means.
1. While many writers have imagined sequels to or reworkings of Austen’s other novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, there are only two novels based directly on Lady Susan. Both transform Austen’s epistolary novella into a full-length, third-person narrative. Phyllis Ann Karr’s Lady Susan was published in 1980, and Jane Rubino’s and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway’s Lady Vernon and Her Daughter was published in 2009. Lady Vernon and Her Daughter is set in Austen’s period but changes Lady Susan from a scheming anti-heroine to a much-maligned heroine, whereas Karr’s Lady Susan is still an anti-heroine.
2. The catalogue compiled by George Ramsden lists copies of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion, and notes that the Beinecke Library of Yale University has Wharton’s first edition of Pride and Prejudice (5).
3. See the introduction to my edition of The Custom of the Country (22-26). Other influences on the creation of Undine Spragg include Becky Sharp of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-48) and Julien Sorel of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), who, like Mary Crawford, are driven by an intense desire to rise in society. In an outline for The Custom of the Country, Wharton writes that Undine feels “what she always needed was ‘a man with a career’” (qtd. in Custom 414). Miss Crawford similarly feels that she would be happier if Edmund Bertram were to choose an active career.
4. Lynn Dunlap’s comparison of Mansfield Park and Wharton’s The House of Mirth is one of the few detailed studies of the two writers.
5. Austen probably wrote the epistolary story that was later published as Lady Susan around 1794-95, adding a narrated conclusion sometime after 1805, when she made a fair copy of the work. It wasn’t until 1811 that her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published. On the question of when Lady Susan was written and revised, see Janet Todd and Linda Bree (xlvii-liii). Wharton’s first short story was published in 1891, and she achieved widespread fame with The House of Mirth in 1905, eight years before the publication of The Custom of the Country.
6. While Marvin Mudrick called Lady Susan Austen’s “first completed masterpiece” (127), many later critics have agreed with Brian Southam and A. Walton Litz that Austen’s experiment with epistolary fiction was less than successful. More recently, David Owen has argued for the importance of Lady Susan among Austen’s works. He writes that “Lady Susan’s epistolary form was not a hindrance that had to be overcome before Austen could get down to the task of writing freer and more creative prose fiction. On the contrary: the sophisticated use of the letter form after Catharine brought Austen significant stylistic gain and moved her far closer to the attainments of her later writing” (123). See also Susan Allen Ford’s argument that “through the letters of Catherine Vernon, Lady Susan, and even Mrs. Johnson,” Austen “exploits, explores, explodes the image of the sentimental heroine.” Ford argues that for Austen and for Charlotte Smith, in her epistolary novel Desmond, “the epistolary convention is crucial to their fictional aims.”
7. Undine’s words here indicate what she wants most: entertainment and social status. She uses her beauty and sexuality to get these things, but she is not very interested in sex itself. Ralph Marvell observes, “She had never shown any repugnance to his tenderness, but such response as it evoked was remote and Ariel-like, suggesting, from the first, not so much of the recoil of ignorance as the coolness of the element from which she took her name” (132).
8. See also Elizabeth Ammons and Debra MacComb on Wharton’s criticism of the business of marriage (Ammons 97-124) and of divorce (MacComb 121-69). Gillian Russell draws attention to the position of Mrs. Manwaring, a marginal figure in Lady Susan, who ultimately separates from her adulterous husband but is powerless to divorce him because of the legal double standard of the time. Russell argues that while Austen thus “admits into her fiction a figure whose experience was rarely given legal or cultural recognition,” Mrs. Manwaring is “overshadowed totally by Lady Susan’s indomitability” (480). William Galperin suggests that while it is “virtually impossible to regard the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon as a role model for a presumably female readership, it is just as impossible to perceive the cultural order, which seeks to contain and to thwart her, in a more positive light” (121).
Ammons, Elizabeth. Edith Wharton’s Argument with America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1980.
Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.
Bushnell, Candace. Trading Up. New York: Hyperion, 2003.
Dunlap, Lynn. “The Cinematographic Novel: Specularity and Narrative Authority in The House of Mirth, Mansfield Park and Villette.” Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1992.
Ford, Susan Allen. “‘No business with politics’: Writing the Sentimental Heroine in Desmond and Lady Susan.” Persuasions On-line 26.1 (2005).
Galperin, William H. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003.
Karr, Phyllis Ann. Lady Susan. New York: Everest, 1980.
Lee, Hermione. Edith Wharton. London: Chatto, 2007.
Litz, A. Walton. Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.
MacComb, Debra. Tales of Liberation, Strategies of Containment: Divorce of the Representation of Womanhood in American Fiction, 1880-1920. New York: Garland, 2000.
Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. 1952. Rpt. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
Owen, David. Rethinking Jane Austen’s Lady Susan: The Case for Her ‘Failed’ Epistolary Novella. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2010.
Ramsden, George. Edith Wharton’s Library: A Catalogue. Settrington, York: Stone Trough Books, 1999.
Rubino, Jane, and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway. Lady Vernon and Her Daughter: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan. New York: Crown, 2009.
Russell, Gillian. “‘A hint of it, with initials’: Adultery, Textuality and Publicity in Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.” Women’s Writing 17.3 (2010): 469-86.
Southam, Brian. Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts: A Study of the Novelist’s Development Through the Surviving Papers. London: Oxford UP, 1964.
Todd, Janet, and Linda Bree. “Introduction.” Jane Austen: Later Manuscripts. Cambridge: CUP, 2008. xxxi-cxxix.
Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country. Ed. Sarah Emsley. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2008.
_____. The Writing of Fiction. 1924. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
Wiltshire, John. Recreating Jane Austen. Cambridge: CUP, 2001.