Last weekend, news broke that a long-awaited adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country—which biographer Hermione Lee has called the writer’s greatest work—is no longer moving forward. The project was in the capable hands of Oscar-winning filmmaker Sofia Coppola who, since at least early 2020, had been working on a five-hour adaptation for the streaming platform Apple TV+. Fans and friends of the novel from all corners of the globe eagerly awaited the release of the miniseries.
Many of us have said for years that the novel’s audacious social-climbing heroine, Undine Spragg—a kind of Gilded Age Kardashian—has long been ready for her close-up. In two wonderfully tell-tale moments, Wharton’s narrator captures Undine’s je ne sais quoi: “If only everyone would do as she wished she would never be unreasonable” and “it was always hard to make her see why circumstances could not be bent to her wishes.” Those sentiments suggest Undine Spragg was born to be a reality TV star, influencer, or both. Undine was, after all, named for a water sprite who must marry a mortal to earn a soul. She changes husbands almost as frequently as Lady Mary swaps gowns on Downton Abbey, a show inspired, incidentally, by Julian Fellowes’s love for Wharton’s novel. Fellowes has even gone on record saying The Custom of the Country compelled him to sit down and write.
Since at least 2013, the centenary of Wharton’s novel, there has been an international conversation about Undine Spragg’s astonishing modernity. That summer, Laura Rattray and William Blazek hosted a symposium in the UK devoted to The Custom of the Country. (A few years earlier, Rattray edited an essay collection of contemporary responses to the book.) More recently, for its second virtual book club meeting, The New York Times T Magazine drew over 4,000 participants from around the world for a discussion of the novel led by Claire Messud. The chat stream suggested Generation Z loves Undine as much as Wharton’s contemporaries disliked her, and all participants were excitedly awaiting Coppola’s adaptation. Last year, Penguin Random House brought out a new edition of the novel with a foreword by Coppola, a version of which appeared here on Lit Hub. Concurrently, Brandon Taylor wrote a wonderful introduction to Simon and Schuster’s paperback edition, which he aptly calls “strikingly modern.”
When Undine Spragg burst onto the scene in 1913, reviewers were by turns fascinated and horrified.
Precisely because of its modernity, even before Coppola there has been a strong push to get Undine Spragg’s story to the screen. In October 2014 it was announced that Oscar-winning filmmaker Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) had written a script for an eight-episode Sony TV adaptation of the novel that was to star Scarlett Johannson. Michelle Pfeiffer has also been attached to an adaptation, according to an interview with Vanity Fair in 1993, the year of her award-worthy turn as Ellen Olenska in Scorsese’s adaptation of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Those projects have yet to materialize, and perhaps this has to do with the way some have responded to Wharton’s protagonist.
When Undine Spragg burst onto the scene in 1913, reviewers were by turns fascinated and horrified. While readers admired her gumption, she was called an “ideal monster,” “absolutely selfish,” “repulsive,” “the most repellant heroine,” and “a mere monster of vulgarity.” A year after Wharton’s 1937 death, the critic Edmund Wilson labeled Undine—wait for it—“the prototype in fiction of the ‘gold-digger,’ of the international cocktail bitch.”
Gold-digger. Bitch. That’s getting to the heart of the matter. Undine becomes a wife and accidental mother who lacks the mothering gene and is more interested in her modeling career than her toddler’s birthday—a detail that does not go over well with most readers. Undine’s response to the firearm suicide of her moneyed but money-less husband is informed by Wharton’s readings in Charles Darwin and survival of the fittest: “she could honestly say to herself that she had not wanted him to die—at least not to die like that….” Sofia Coppola cites as the reason executives at Apple TV+ withdrew support for her adaptation of a novel with an admittedly sociopathic heroine is because, as she told The Times, “the idea of an unlikable woman wasn’t their thing.” So here we are again with women and likability.
If an “unlikable woman” as the lead character is the reason the project was shut down, one has to ask: what about the heroines on Apple TV’s The Morning Show? Characters brought to life by Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Greta Lee, Karen Pittman, Julianna Margulies, and Holland Taylor reveal the sacrifices they’ve had to make to climb the ladders to professional success. Here’s the thing: we don’t watch them because we “like” them or want to be like them. We tune in because they are, like Wharton’s Undine, endlessly fascinating as they make compromises to climb the ranks to become equitably compensated stakeholders and voices. They say and do the unthinkable, and they survive.
She may not be “likable,” but there’s something terribly American about her.
If we are to believe that likability makes a character worth watching, then how do we explain our fascination with such morally bankrupt personages as Logan Roy, Kendall Roy, and, for heaven’s sake, all the Roys and their entourage on HBO’s superb TV series Succession? How do we account for the satisfaction one feels witnessing Don Draper literally and metaphorically forge his way to material success on AMC’s Mad Men? What of the blood on the hands of money-laundering Marty Byrde of Netfix’s Ozark, or chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White of AMC’s Breaking Bad? Many of us couldn’t take our eyes off them, and we feel the same about Undine Spragg’s ascent up the ladder to survival and world domination. What makes those anti-heroes different from Wharton’s anti-heroine (who, though uncouth and uncultured, is not a criminal)? The answer is obvious.
What a missed opportunity for Apple TV+. Edith Wharton’s writings across the genres—not just the consummate New York satires of the privileged but also her short fiction, poetry, plays, and nonfiction prose on art, architecture, design, gardens, and travel—have never before in my lifetime attracted as many admirers, and her appeal is just as global as it was at the height of her career, which is to say very. Sure, she was on fire in the film and TV revival that started in the 1990s (Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, The Buccaneers), but since then Wharton’s popularity has only reached further across disciplines and demographics. The diverse range of contemporary voices declaring Wharton a formative influence or favorite writer suggests the author’s resonance beyond the academy. That roster includes Roxane Gay, Colm Tόibin, Hernan Diaz, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jennifer Egan, Brandon Taylor, Elif Batuman, Claire Messud, Vendela Vida, Mindy Kaling, and the creative minds behind Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Downton Abbey, and The Gilded Age, which just launched its second season on Max.
At the end of Wharton’s 1913 novel, Miss Undine Spragg of Apex (that is, Miss U S of A), whose many marriages have enabled her to crudely ascend the staircase of the New York aristocracy, learns that, to her chagrin, her status as divorcée prohibits her from having it all:
…under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that is was the one part she was really made for.
She may not be “likable,” but there’s something terribly American about her, and we can’t take our eyes off this woman who—like Samantha Jones of Sex and the City—behaves, well, kind of like a man. Undine is, as one character puts it, “the monstrously perfect result of the system.” We made her, and when we did, we equipped her with tools to survive and a willingness to compromise—in ways that the perhaps more “likable” Lily Bart of The House of Mirth (1905) could or would not. Undine works the system that destroys Lily.
Undine Spragg, then, “was really made for” adaptation to the screen, and we are here for it. One has to ask: if Apple TV+ was willing to greenlight what will be the second television adaptation of Wharton’s The Buccaneers—a novel left unfinished at the author’s death, the adaptation of which premieres today—why abandon a masterpiece she wrote at the height of her powers when she was arguably the most famous American woman of letters? I suspect another network will grab this project, and quickly. Apple TV’s loss will be somebody’s gain. On the matter of who best to cast in the plum role of Undine Spragg? Florence Pugh, Julia Garner, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Margot Robbie come to mind. Then again, this could be a career-launching role for an actor who isn’t yet a household name. And those of us who teach, write about, and/or love Edith Wharton will, early and often, see, show, and emphatically promote an adaptation that powerful Hollywood stakeholders have been trying to actualize for at least 30 years, a story ideally suited to our present Gilded Age.