Secrets and Silence: Withholding Women in the Works of Edith Wharton

Parsons, Isabelle (2021). Secrets and Silence: Withholding Women in the Works of Edith Wharton. PhD thesis The Open University.


Secrets and silences proliferate in Edith Wharton’s writing and life, but have never been subjected to focused, critical investigation. I employ these two intersecting themes to analyse Wharton’s writing, as portraying women, between 1905 and 1920. Biographical materials are also significant to this study. Access to Wharton’s archives after 1968 allowed the robust discrediting of an unfaceted posthumous reputation of a privileged, dominating woman who thrived on the company of remarkable men and disliked other women. Her papers exposed numerous warm and enduring friendships with women and men, while her work, subjected to new readers and readings, began to speak of a persistent interest in the experiences of women of all ages and classes, the opportunities afforded to them in a world subject to substantial socio-political and economic shifts, and their responses. Continued ambivalence about the subject of Wharton and women suggests the complexity of the matter and encourages further exploration of the kind undertaken in this thesis.

Chapter 1 (‘Introduction’) presents the background to the work, including Wharton’s critical reputation and biographical aspects that relate to secrets and silences. Chapter 2 (‘Secrets in Edith Wharton’s Novels’) focuses on the portrayals of women and secrets in The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, The Fruit of the Tree, Summer and The Age of Innocence. Chapter 3 (‘Silence in Edith Wharton’s Writings’) examines one further novel, The Reef, Wharton’s Great War account, Fighting France, and a travelogue, In Morocco, for her varying engagement with silences to determine her attitude to the repression of women’s voices, as her gaze shifts from private to public spheres. Chapter 4 (‘Conclusion’) casts Wharton as contrarily yet intensely engaged with women and women’s lives and depicts her writing as well as the themes of secrets and silences as critically important in the twenty-first century.

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