COMMENTARY: 1913 heroine proves too unlikeable for 21st Century producersGail M. Williams November 22, 2023 0 COMMENTS
Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers, has recently enjoyed media attention due to two projects. One of them is being shown, and the other is not.
Wharton died before she finished writing her 1937 novel “The Buccaneers.” Others finished writing the novel, and the book is available in both its finished and unfinished versions.
Now playing as a series on Apple TV+, “The Buccaneers” is about five American social climbers who go husband-hunting in England and manage to bag royal personages, most of whom make unsatisfactory husbands. Annabel, or “Nan,” the most intelligent, wins the prize with a duke who is attached to family traditions, his mother and mending clocks.
There’s quite a lot of juicy material in the novel, but reviews of the Apple+ TV series tell me the filmmakers have found it necessary to add more than a pinch of spice.
The rejected project is “The Custom of the Country,” which Wharton published in 1913. Admittedly, Undine Spragg is a main character whom even modern readers cannot like.
That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t make a good subject for a television or movie treatment, and in 2020 it was announced that Sofia Coppola would write and direct “The Custom of the Country” as a television series.
“Undine Spragg is my favorite literary anti-heroine and I’m excited to bring her to the screen for the first time,” Coppola said in an article for Variety by Joe Otterson.
Not so fast. In October 2023, the series was pulled by Apple TV+, reportedly because the anti-heroine was too unlikable.
Undine Spragg is a girl from the Midwest who, like her Buccaneer counterparts, wants to climb the rungs of New York society.
She starts at the bottom by eloping with an ambitious boy from her hometown. Her parents find out, the marriage is dissolved and hushed up, leaving her former husband free to come around and demand money from Undine or her father whenever it suits him.
She next takes on New York’s high society and gets pretty far on ambition and shrewd observation. She marries an eligible man from a good family who soon learns that Undine is not interested in long walks in the country enlivened by poetry reading.
The marriage ends with his death – yes, a suicide.
One male character offers an objective opinion of Undine and her social-climbing ways. The problem, he says, is that women are kept innocent about the business world and expect to have material things without knowing anything about the means by which they’re acquired.
This, he says, is “the custom of the country.”
Wharton makes the point that if Undine were a man, her competitive, ambitious tendencies would make her admired rather than scorned by good society.
I don’t know whether “The Custom of the Country” would make good cinema. However, I would certainly be interested in seeing such a treatment, on the big screen or the small.
I want to know whether American society in the 21st Century can stomach a character that Edith Wharton was bold enough to create in 1913.
Muleshoe Journal Correspondent