Literary jokes and Hamilton quotes all in one place. How’s that for your one-stop nerd shop?

Today’s literary finance lesson comes from the still-unparalleled queen of high society and New York money: Edit Wharton. Nobody—not even my best pal Henry James—has ever had such a keen eye and razor-edged wit for the ins and outs of the upper class or the not-always-direct relationship between buckets of money and social mobility.

Edith Wharton, social commentator and shoulder-dog aficionado

Each of Wharton’s novels is a masterclass in finance all by itself, but my favorite is notable both for the aptness of its financial lessons and the awfulness of its protagonist: Undine Spragg. If you looked “social climber” up in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Undine Spragg.

Not actually Undine Spragg, but she probably looked something like this

Undine is beautiful, ruthless, and fixated on getting what she wants, no matter what the cost. She actually is what everyone today accuses millennials of being: congenitally entitled.

Undine never wanted anything long, but she wanted it “right off.” And until she got it the house was uninhabitable… She had two ways of getting things out of him against his principles; the tender wheedling way, and the harsh-lipped and cold—and he did not know which he dreaded most. As a child they had admired her assertiveness, had made Apex ring with their boasts of it; but it had long since cowed Mrs. Spragg, and it was beginning to frighten her husband.

Anyway, Undine’s strategy for achieving the wealth and status she thinks she deserves involves marrying, divorcing, re-marrying, annulling and so forth. The novel is set in the first decade of the twentieth century, so all of that marital musical chairs doesn’t come easily, or without social consequences. But Undine manages it. She starts with an early marriage to a charming but penniless layabout in her hometown of Apex, but is quickly convinced by her over-indulgent parents to divorce him and pretend the whole thing never happened. After moving to New York, she marries the scion of an old and respectable New York family, only to discover that respectable New York families don’t have much fun, and this family doesn’t even have any money.

Furious that her husband—a dreamy writer-type suckered in by her beauty who tries without success to become a business man to pay his wife’s exorbitant bills—isn’t able to give her the life non-stop distraction that she wants, she divorces him and decamps for Paris. There, she manages to get a member of the French aristocracy to fall in love with her, but because the French don’t recognize American divorces, she has to get an annulment from Rome before she can remarry. Annulments are expensive, and to finance hers, she offers to sell the parental rights to her son off to her sad-sack ex-husband.

Lesson one: Children are commodities. In a tight spot? Consider leasing, selling or otherwise leveraging yours.

Her husband tries his best to raise the money, but he falls victim to someone (Undine’s original ex-husband, though her second ex-husband doesn’t know that) promising to double his money in two weeks, and loses everything. Devastated by his loss and the discovery that Undine lied to him about her first marriage, he shoots himself.

All of this is good news for Undine, who is now a widow and free to marry, and who also comes into possession of her ex-husband’s moderate legacy. She knows she should probably feel guilty, but she never quite gets there.

His death had released her, had given her what she wanted; yet she could honestly say to herself that she had not wanted him to die—at least not to die like that…. She had worn black for a few weeks—not quite mourning, but something decently regretful (the dress-makers were beginning to provide a special garb for such cases); and even since her remarriage, and the lapse of a year, she continued to wish that she could have got what she wanted without having had to pay that particular price for it.

Lesson two: Guilt will only hold you back.

Now married to a French aristocrat and a herself a genuine marquise, Undine expects to finally have everything she deserves. Except that French aristocracy, like New York first families, also don’t have much fun, and her particular French aristocrat has very little ready cash on hand. Even worse, unlike her previous husband, he has no interest in finding the money to pay her bills and indulge her whims, preferring instead spend as little time as possible with her after he realizes he’s married someone so utterly vacuous.

Lesson three: The older the family, the duller the family parties.

For a minute or two, it looks like Undine will end up a victim to her own hubris, trapped by the very life she schemed to achieve. But then her very first husband comes back into the picture, and he’s no longer a penniless layabout. No, he’s now a billionaire and a collector of priceless treasures. Like Undine, he believes that he should be able to have whatever he wants, so the two of them head off for Dakota together. After six months in the territory, Undine procures her third divorce (but who’s counting) and her new/old husband showers her with jewels and cash.

All’s well that end’s well for Undine, except… “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” And then she discovers that the husband of her old social nemesis has been appointed ambassador to England. She beings to dream of an ambassadorship of her own (well, a wife-of-the-ambassadorship of her own—this is 1910, after all), only to discover that it will never happen because she is divorced. And so we close on poor Undine Spragg, billionairess, as she laments:

But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.

The lesson here is pretty clear: The more you get, the more you want. Also, money doesn’t buy happiness, especially if you are spiritually and intellectually bankrupt. But also, if you’re going to be spiritually and intellectually bankrupt, it’s probably better to be rich than poor.

Previously in Literary Finance:
Do as Louisa May Alcott Does, Not as She Says