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Edith Wharton’s satiric anatomy of American society in the first decade of the twentieth century appeared in 1913; it both appalled and fascinated its first reviewers, and established her as a major novelist. The Saturday Review wrote that she had ‘assembled as many detestable people as it is possible to pack between the covers of a six-hundred page novel’, but concluded that the book was ‘brilliantly written’, and ‘should be read as a parable’. It follows the career of Undine Spragg, recently arrived in New York from the midwest and determined to conquer high society. Glamorous, selfish, mercenary and manipulative, her principal assets are her striking beauty, her tenacity, and her father’s money. With her sights set on an advantageous marriage, Undine pursues her schemes in a world of shifting values, where triumph is swiftly followed by dissullusion. Wharton was recreating an environment she knew intimately, and Undine’s education for social success is chronicled in meticulous detail. The novel superbly captures the world of post-Civil War America, as ruthless in its social ambitions as in its business and politics.
555 pages, with a reading time of ~8.5 hours (138,817 words), and first published in 1913. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2010.
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“Undine Spragg–how can you?” her mother wailed, raising a prematurely-wrinkled hand heavy with rings to defend the note which a languid “bell-boy” had just brought in.
But her defence was as feeble as her protest, and she continued to smile on her visitor while Miss Spragg, with a turn of her quick young fingers, possessed herself of the missive and withdrew to the window to read it.
“I guess it’s meant for me,” she merely threw over her shoulder at her mother.
“Did you EVER, Mrs. Heeny?” Mrs. Spragg murmured with deprecating pride.
Mrs. Heeny, a stout professional-looking person in a waterproof, her rusty veil thrown back, and a shabby alligator bag at her feet, followed the mother’s glance with good-humoured approval.
“I never met with a lovelier form,” she agreed, answering the spirit rather than the letter of her hostess’s enquiry.
Mrs. Spragg and her visitor were enthroned in two heavy gilt armchairs in one of the private drawing-rooms of the Hotel Stentorian. The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing-room walls, above their wainscoting of highly-varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the centre of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use, and Mrs. Spragg herself wore as complete an air of detachment as if she had been a wax figure in a show-window. Her attire was fashionable enough to justify such a post, and her pale soft-cheeked face, with puffy eye-lids and drooping mouth, suggested a partially-melted wax figure which had run to double-chin.
Mrs. Heeny, in comparison, had a reassuring look of solidity and reality. The planting of her firm black bulk in its chair, and the grasp of her broad red hands on the gilt arms, bespoke an organized and self-reliant activity, accounted for by the fact that Mrs. Heeny was a “society” manicure and masseuse. Toward Mrs. Spragg and her daughter she filled the double role of manipulator and friend; and it was in the latter capacity that, her day’s task ended, she had dropped in for a moment to “cheer up” the lonely ladies of the Stentorian.
The young girl whose “form” had won Mrs. Heeny’s professional commendation suddenly shifted its lovely lines as she turned back from the window.
“Here–you can have it after all,” she said, crumpling the note and tossing it with a contemptuous gesture into her mother’s lap.
“Why–isn’t it from Mr. Popple?” Mrs. Spragg exclaimed unguardedly.
“No–it isn’t. What made you think I thought it was?” snapped her daughter; but the next instant she added, with an outbreak of childish disappointment: “It’s only from Mr. Marvell’s sister–at least she says she’s his sister.”
Mrs. Spragg, with a puzzled frown, groped for her eye-glass among the jet fringes of her tightly-girded front.
Mrs. Heeny’s small blue eyes shot out sparks of curiosity. “Marvell–what Marvell is that?”
The girl explained languidly: “A little fellow–I think Mr. Popple said his name was Ralph”; while her mother continued: “Undine met them both last night at that party downstairs. And from something Mr. Popple said to her about going to one of the new plays, she thought–”
“How on earth do you know what I thought?” Undine flashed back, her grey eyes darting warnings at her mother under their straight black brows.
“Why, you SAID you thought–” Mrs. Spragg began reproachfully; but Mrs. Heeny, heedless of their bickerings, was pursuing her own train of thought.
“What Popple? Claud Walsingham Popple–the portrait painter?”
“Yes–I suppose so. He said he’d like to paint me. Mabel Lipscomb introduced him. I don’t care if I never see him again,” the girl said, bathed in angry pink.
“Do you know him, Mrs. Heeny?” Mrs. Spragg enquired.
“I should say I did. I manicured him for his first society portrait–a full-length of Mrs. Harmon B. Driscoll.” Mrs. Heeny smiled indulgently on her hearers. “I know everybody. If they don’t know ME they ain’t in it, and Claud Walsingham Popple’s in it. But he ain’t nearly AS in it,” she continued judicially, “as Ralph Marvell–the little fellow, as you call him.”
Undine Spragg, at the word, swept round on the speaker with one of the quick turns that revealed her youthful flexibility. She was always doubling and twisting on herself, and every movement she made seemed to start at the nape of her neck, just below the lifted roll of reddish-gold hair, and flow without a break through her whole slim length to the tips of her fingers and the points of her slender restless feet.
“Why, do you know the Marvells? Are THEY stylish?” she asked.