Monday, May 27, 2013

Gold Diggers of the Gilded Age: Arabella Trefoil vs. Undine Spragg

In 19th-century fiction, a young woman of the middle classes or above faces a stark sexual double bind. As soon as she comes "out" into the marriage market, she has to use whatever exists of her family's social position and wealth and her own personal advantages to try to find a husband—preferably one significantly higher in social and economic standing than herself. Although this quest is understood by everyone around her, she cannot be too open or brazen in her angling for a rich husband without risking social censure. She cannot commit to a potential partner too soon, in case she encounters a better offer, but after she passes her mid-20s her marriage prospects diminish rapidly. And the cost of a mistake is high. A woman who becomes publicly engaged but who breaks it off is considered a faithless jilt; a woman who becomes publicly engaged but whose partner breaks it off is tainted by his rejection.

Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton each created several characters who skirt (and sometimes transgress) the boundaries of respectability in their search for a husband. In Trollope's The American Senator (1875) we meet Arabella Trefoil, a woman fast approaching 30 who has just engaged herself to John Morton. Morton is an official in the Foreign Office and has inherited a country estate that, on her first visit, Arabella finds disappointingly modest. She then contrives to be thrown together with Lord Rufford, the richest landowner in the neighborhood, by angling for invitations to fox hunts, the homes of mutual acquaintances, and Rufford's own estate (in the company of her mother, of course: the mothers of marriage-eligible women act both as procuresses and chaperones). Arabella has to maintain her engagement to Morton, in case her scheme to hook Lord Rufford goes awry, but must also deny her engagement in order to leave herself free to pursue Rufford.

Arabella is a liar and schemer who has no scruples about using underhanded methods to try to entrap Rufford. But Rufford himself isn't above trying to take advantage of the situation to steal a kiss or an embrace; he's flattered by Arabella's attentions but struggles to avoid committing himself. And as we come to realize, despite her many shortcomings Arabella would actually be a good match for Rufford. Trollope portrays not only her greed, selfishness and dishonesty, but also her courage, her boldness, her defiance of confining social limitations, and her clear-sightedness about herself and those around her. Arabella also changes over the course of the novel, coming to realize that Morton truly loved her.

Perhaps Trollope's own relatively humble origins made him sympathetic to the underdog, but we actually wind up hoping for Arabella's ultimate success. That's not the case, for this reader at least, for the heroine of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country (1913), Undine Spragg. Undine has all of Arabella's faults—vanity, selfishness, venality, dishonesty—but few of her virtues. Undine is also vulgar and ignorant: feigning an interest in the arts (her only real interest is in opportunities for displaying herself and jockeying for social position), she recalls seeing the actress "Sarah Burnhard" (Sarah Bernhardt), and she wants to go see "that new tenor" (presumably Enrico Caruso) in an opera she calls "Cavaleeria" (Cavalleria Rusticana).* Undine is extremely beautiful in face and form, but, along with her fellow Midwestern husband-hunters Mabel Blitch, Indiana Frusk, and Ora Chettle, is intellectually and emotionally vacant.

The discordant names and the risible malapropisms all too clearly signal Wharton's own contempt for these characters, and for Undine in particular. And here Wharton—born into a socially prominent old-money New York family, the Joneses—seems to betray her own class prejudices. She even has a minor character, Charles Bowen, explain how the commercial values that drive American society have marginalized women. Money is the bribe wives receive for remaining incurious about what their husbands are doing all day at the office, and results in a feminine fixation on clothes, jewelry, cars, and other visible signs of wealth. Undine, Bowen says, is "a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph" (Chapter 15).

Unfortunately, Wharton's disdain for Undine means that she is allowed no redeeming features. She is utterly self-absorbed and cares nothing for her husbands, her lovers or her son; they are merely the means for her social advancement. And most of the men in her life are equally cynical. For them Undine is a trophy, one more beautiful possession to place among their pictures, porcelain or tapestries—just another manifestation of their material dominance. It would be a devastating portrait of pre-war society, except that Wharton so clearly disapproves of most her characters. She tells us all too explicitly what we should think of Undine, and her judgments tend to close off our engagement with her characters.

Ironically, while Wharton herself had experience of the double bind (and the double standards) of the marriage market, it is Trollope who is able to portray a woman caught in the implacable forces of that market with the greater understanding. Both Arabella and Undine are women who trade on the promise of sex to try to make their way in a man's world, but only Arabella ultimately engages our sympathies.

Both novels are available for free in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg.


* Oddly, Wharton gives us a scene at the opera house that doesn't fit with the work she has named. The narrator tells us that there are three "entr'actes": "the curtain fell on the first act," "the curtain fell again," and "when the last entr'acte began..." (all quotes from Chapter 5). However, Mascagni's one-act Cavalleria is usually performed with a second two-act work, a combination that would result in two intermissions (one between the operas, and one between the acts of the second opera). And, indeed, the work that was paired with Cavalleria during Caruso's 1908 Metropolitan Opera debut in the role of Turiddu was Puccini's two-act Le Villi. There are no performances by Caruso in Cavalleria at the Met before the publication date of the novel which would have had three intermissions.

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