If when reading Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel The Custom of the Country one is overtaken by a strange sense of déjà vu, rest assured nothing supernatural is going on. All that strangely familiar feeling of having read a novel you know for sure you haven’t read before can be attributed to just one thing: you religiously made your way through the every single episode of Downton Abbey. Wharton’s novel does not contain a narrative strain that directly influenced the popular television show about travails of a to-the-manor-borne British family and their servants in the years before the two world wars, but Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has openly acknowledged the influence of Wharton’s work in general and The Custom of the Country specifically on the look and feel of his TV series.
No one is ever going to take on the task of asserting that The Custom of the Country is a greater example of Wharton’s prodigious talent than The Age of Innocence, but it is certainly one of the greater lesser-knowns novels of a writer whose better-known novels rank among the best there is. Just as The Age of Innocence packs a wallop at that moment when Newland Archer finally wakes up to what has been going on, however, The Custom of the Country packs a wallop as a prophetic critique of what was about to happen to America. Wharton took up the pen to write her novel just as World War I was about to erupt and seven years before Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise defined the Jazz Age as its dawn. Where Fitzgerald wrote of the recent past, however, Wharton once again returns to the New York of the 1870s and proves that if you want to predict what is going to happen in American thirty years from now, you need only look back to what was happening in American thirty years before.
The nouveau riche who were upsetting the apple cart of the bluebloods as the Gilded Age was about to settle in were a lot like the flappers and other denizens of the Jazz Age who were about to rock the casbah in the 1920s. The Custom of the Country offers a bitingly satirical look at the overly eager embrace of materialism and the inherent failures in the capitalist economic system that—despite the havoc that is wrought—are inevitably forgiven and forgotten and allowed to chew away at the heart and soul. As one delves into pages of the book, it quickly becomes very apparent that Edith Wharton was intimately familiar with Thorstein Veblen’s cutthroat critique of leisure capitalism The Theory of the Leisure Class. One can also detect a note of Marxian symbolism of capitalism as a particularly cannibalistic economic system in the way that her critique of commercialism is personified as the series of husbands which her heroine collects and discards the way other women do with shoes and men do with cars. Such is the clarity of the assault upon unbridled greed and the conspicuous method by which the fruits of that greed are consumed that Wharton method in which too much money invested in one person is wasted that Wharton fell victim to a tradition so trite that it once could almost have scripted the attack as an epilogue to the novel: such criticism of the most democratic financial system in the history of world nothing more nor less anti-American.
The very same assault made against Edith Wharton for The Custom of the Country in 1913 would be leveled against a host of other writers for the very same reason roughly thirty years later. The most famous of those writers accused of inculcating anti-American sentiments would collectively come to be known forever as The Hollywood Ten. Clearly, the custom of the country when the country is America that everything which goes around will eventually come back around…ad infinitum.