For a century, the deeper meaning of the heroine’s strange name “Undine Spragg” has intrigued readers of Edith Wharton’s 1913 late masterpiece The Custom of the Country (as to which, by the way, the first and eagerly anticipated film adaptation, to star Scarlett Johansson, has been in development since late 2014). That curiosity was surely first sparked by the following salient and suggestive passage early (in Chapter 6) in Custom, in which Undine’s mother explains the origin of her daughter’s odd name:
“Mrs. Spragg, once reconciled-or at least resigned-to the mysterious necessity of having to "entertain" a friend of Undine's, had yielded to the first touch on the weak springs of her garrulity. She had not seen Mrs. Heeny for two days, and this friendly young man with the gentle manner was almost as easy to talk to as the masseuse. And then she could tell him things that Mrs. Heeny already knew, and Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life. So that, after she had lengthily deplored the untoward accident of Undine's absence, and her visitor, with a smile, and echoes of divers et ondoyant in his brain, had repeated her daughter's name after her, saying: "It's a wonderful find—how could you tell it would be such a fit?"-it came to her quite easily to answer: "Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born—" and then to explain, as he remained struck and silent: "It's from UNdoolay, you know, the French for crimping; father always thought the name made it take. He was quite a scholar, and had the greatest knack for finding names. I remember the time he invented his Goliath Glue he sat up all night over the Bible to get the name…“
As an prelude to my own explanation of Wharton’s choice of the name “Undine Spragg”, which I’ve hinted at in my Subject Line, and which I’ll reveal, below, here are three insightful explanations of Wharton’s choice, which collectively pick up on several of Wharton’s subtle literary hints:
“An Undine by Any Other Name?” by Kevin Nelson
“According to the Wikipedia entry on The Custom of the Country, some have called Undine Spragg’s name “the worst character name [ever] conceived...It’s an ugly, dreadful name. But that doesn’t subtract from its consummate perfection. Undine’s parents, however, aren’t likely to agree with me. [The above ‘greatest knack’ quotation] This is a stroke of genius by Wharton. The name Undine, then, stands as much for a product with a market value as it does the elegant curl or wave that a fashion-conscious social diva might impart to her hair. Not to mention a preoccupation for all things French.
Now interestingly, Undine’s second husband, Ralph Marvell, a shy, reserved, and intelligent man with a deeply poetic cast of mind, sees something slightly different than the Spragg’s in Undine’s name. He and his wife are on their honeymoon in Italy, and the fact that they’re a terrific mismatch hasn’t occurred to Ralph yet:
“He spoke in the bantering tone which had become the habitual expression of his tenderness; but his eyes softened as they absorbed in a last glance the glimmering submarine light of the ancient grove, through which Undine’s figure wavered nereid-like above him. “You never looked your name more than you do now,” he said, kneeling at her side and putting his arm about her. She smiled back a little vaguely, as if not seizing his allusion, and being content to let it drop into the store of unexplained references which had once stimulated her curiosity but now merely gave her leisure to think of other things.”
In Greek legend, a nereid is a sea nymph, and even more pertinently in European mythology, an ondine (or undine) is a water spirit that becomes ensouled through marriage and child birth. So we have the wavering insubstantiality of a beautiful nereid who has so little depth that she’s not even shallow, as Nietzsche might say. And we have Undine’s quest to become something significant and worthwhile through serial monogamist marriages. Undine Spragg may be an ugly guttural choke of a name. But it’s perfectly conceived.” END QUOTE FROM NELSON
“Review of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country” 9/26/12 by blogger Katherine ___
“…I was intrigued by the author's choice of the name Undine for her protagonist. An undine is a water spirit, said to gain a soul by marrying and having a child. So you might easily see the connection between the mythological creature and Undine Spragg and the hope that Wharton might have had for her main character as she created her. There's also the German folktale of Ondine, in which a woman curses her unfaithful husband to cease breathing. Shoe-on-the-other-foot syndrome, maybe? You get the sense that Edith Wharton was not only fascinated with the monster she created, but repelled by her actions at the same time. As such, the reader doesn’t quite know whether to dislike Undine or laugh at her, because half the time her antics are really quite ridiculous. At the end of the day, though, the reader has to wonder: what’s all of this social striving for? To what end? That’s why this novel is sometimes tinged with a hint of sadness.” END QUOTE FROM KATHERINE
“The greatest knack for finding names” by Sarah Emsley 7/18/13
“In a wonderful conversation between Undine Spragg’s future husband Ralph Marvell and her mother, Mrs. Spragg, Ralph learns the source of Undine’s beautiful first name. He has been thinking of her as a water-spirit, hearing “echoes of in his brain” (the quotation is from Montaigne’s
, and in the 19th Century the story of the water-spirit was retold in a book by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and later in two operas, with music by E.T.A. Hoffman & Albert Lortzing). But when he says the name is “‘a wonderful find’” and asks, “‘how could you tell it would be such a fit?’” Mrs. Spragg disappoints him with her explanation: “‘Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born.’” Undine is named for a product, a brand. Ralph is “struck and silent.” No literary reference is intended, though Mrs. Spragg claims her husband is “‘quite a scholar’”—the name is “‘from doolay, you know, the French for crimping,’” she adds.
What Mrs. Spragg says of her husband is true of Edith Wharton as well: both have “‘the greatest knack for finding names.’” I love the name Wharton chose for the heroine of this novel: “Undine Spragg” is such a great combination of beautiful and harsh sounds (much like “Lily Bart” in ). It’s no coincidence that her initials, U.S., also stand for “United States.” Neither is it a coincidence that she’s from a place called Apex, which makes her “U.S. of A.”…For further reading: , by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, trans. Thomas Tracy (1855). (There are also excerpts from in the appendices in my ).” END QUOTE FROM EMSLEY
I was led to retrieve from the Internet the above three explanations by my realization yesterday, while delving into Wharton’s Custom for another reason entirely, that there was something very suspicious in that peculiar name “Undine Spragg”, something smacking of a word code. I’m particularly sensitive to coded wordplay in character names, because of over a decade of experience decoding Jane Austen’s and Shakespeare’s shadow stories.
In 2005 I recognized that LUCY FERRARS--being Lucy Steele’s married name which comes into being when she marries Robert Ferrars at the very end of Austen’s Sense & Sensibility --- was Austen’s coded reference to the LUCIFEResque aspects of Lucy’s character, in particular Lucy’s Satanic ability to manipulate others into unwittingly doing her bidding – in S&S, to allow Lucy to become the de facto power behind the throne in the wealthy Ferrars family. I’ve also blogged numerous times about the anagram-acrostics that Shakespeare scattered everywhere throughout his plays, including perhaps most notably the disturbing perfect “SATAN” acrostic in Friar Laurence’s speech to Juliet about the safety of her drinking the sleeping potion.
So, my approach to decoding the meaning of “Undine Spragg” was to suspect Wharton of the same kind of anagrammatical wordplay that I already knew was part and parcel of the subtext of both Shakespeare and Jane Austen. It took me less than two minutes to come up with a working hypothesis of the two-word phrase which Wharton expected her knowing readers to figure out, and then an enjoyable day of additional research, in order to make sense of Wharton’s meaning in that two-word code, which turned out to be spot-on, in ways I had no idea about before I found it, as I will explain below.
If you’re not anagrammatically inclined, the following is the link to the online anagram generator into which I fed “undinespragg”. Can you scroll through the “hits” and find the two-word phrase that caught my eye? I’ll give my answer a little further down: http://wordsmith.org/anagram/anagram.cgi?anagram=UndineSpragg&t=1000&a=n
My answer is: GASPING UNDER
Finding that answer was when my real literary-sleuthing fun began, as it took me an enjoyable two hours of browsing in the online text of The Custom of the Country directed by strategic word searching, in order to verify that this was actually the two-word phrase which Edith Wharton was winking at so strongly –and indeed, Edith Wharton, speaking ventriloquistically through her fictional puppet Mrs. Spragg, had a very great knack for finding a name that would go to the heart of the deepest themes of The Custom of the Country.
First I suggest to you that, in furtherance of Sarah Emsley’s wonderful 2012 article about the influence of Jane Austen’s fiction on Edith Wharton, [Persuasions Online #33/1 “Nothing against her, but her husband & her Conscience: JA’s Lady Susan in Edith Wharton’s Old New York” ] that Wharton, in Mrs. Spragg’s claim of her husband’s “knack”, also intended to produce a distinct echo of the following, equally winking speech in Mansfield Park:
“To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for WITH THE HAPPIEST KNACK, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on THE BEST SCENE, or THE BEST SPEECHES of each; and whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram….”
I’ve believed for some time that the reference to Henry Crawford’s “happiest knack” in the above passage is a giant wink by Jane Austen that points to a much deeper and broader allusion to Shakespeare’s late history, Henry VIII, not only in Mansfield Park, but also in Austen’s preceding novel, Pride & Prejudice. And similarly, I now claim that Wharton had exactly the same covert authorial agenda.
So I was encouraged to take an even deeper dive into the literary subtext of Custom than the above-quoted Wharton scholars had previously attempted. I started from Emsley’s observations (“the quotation is from Montaigne’s the water-spirit was retold in a book by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and later in two operas, with music by E.T.A. Hoffman & Albert Lortzing”) and also this one by Katherine ___ (“, and in the 19th Century the story ofThere's also the German folktale of Ondine, in which a woman curses her unfaithful husband to cease breathing”), and look where it quickly took me.
The full quotation from Montaigne, Essays, Book 1, pointed to by Mrs. Spragg’s “visitor, with a smile, and echoes of divers et ondoyant” is as follows:
“Truly man is a marvellously vain, diverse, and undulating object. It is hard to found any constant and uniform judgement on him.”
So, it seems, Mrs. Spragg’s learned, smiling young visitor understood that Undine Spragg’s name marks her as a quintessential Montaignesque character---“marvelously vain, diverse and undulating”—inconstant and therefore almost impossible to judge accurately.
Next, I turned to Wikipedia for more detail on Fouque’s novella:
“the story of Ondine and Hans, characters in Ondine, a 1938 play by Jean Giraudoux based on traditions tracing back through Undine (a novella of 1811) to earlier European folk tales. Ondine tells her future husband Hans, whom she had just met, that "I shall be the shoes of your feet ... I shall be the breath of your lungs". Ondine makes a pact with her uncle the King of the Ondines that if Hans ever deceives her he will die. After their honeymoon, Hans is reunited with his first love Princess Bertha and Ondine leaves Hans only to be captured by a fisherman six months later. On meeting Ondine again on the day of his wedding to Bertha, Hans tells her that "all the things my body once did by itself, it does now only by special order ... A single moment of inattention and I forget to breathe". Hans and Ondine kiss, after which he dies.”
You can imagine my excitement to read that greater detail, as I’d be hard pressed to better encapsulate the fatally dangerous power of Fouque’s Undine than in “gasping under”, the two-word phrase Wharton hid in plain sight in the name of her own dangerously powerful heroine Ondine Spragg.
I.e., I claim Wharton started from the folk name “Undine”, so as to tag her novel to Touque’s novella, and then Wharton precisely constructed the surname “Spragg” letter-by-letter so as to be a perfect anagram of “GASPING UNDER”, so as to bring in that concept of fatal suffocation as the hard price of unfaithfulness.
And there I’ll end this first half of my discussion of Wharton’s heroine’s name “Undine Spragg”. Tomorrow, I’ll return with a detailed textual unpacking of the many ways in which Wharton subliminally echoed the motif of suffocation from Fouque’s novella, and brilliantly grafted the simple folk tale onto a complex feminist critique of Wharton’s sexist world, which (as predicted by Mary Wollstonecraft) turned women into Undine Spraggs, who would leave men gasping under water in their wake, because their society suffocated their aspirations, and gave them no honorable path toward self-realization.
Which all dramatically validates Emsley’s brilliant detection of resonance between Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Wharton’s Undine Spragg. In both, we see a woman behaving very badly, but somehow we cannot entirely blame her, because she is in a larger sense a Nemesis sicced on a deserving patriarchy.
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