The most tangible result of my time at the Library of Congress so far: my article on the uses of gossip in Edith Wharton’s fiction is now available online!
In the United States of the late nineteenth century, the home was increasingly discussed in terms of privacy and the domestic was viewed as a protected “feminine sphere.” Focusing on the work of an author almost synonymous with the literary depiction of homes, Edith Wharton, this article questions domestic myths of the US home. As a vehicle for its critique, it relies on a mode of communication that is firmly located in the domestic sphere and yet destabilizes its premises of privacy and sanctity: gossip. By analyzing the depiction of homes and the reliance on “idle talk” as both content and narrative technique in “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell,” The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and Summer, the article shows how Wharton exposes the feminine sphere as a dangerous place. To this end, she combines elements of Gothic fiction that subvert the domestic ideal with depictions of homes that are porous to gossip, which both uncovers abuses and invites them. Concentrating her attention on female protagonists (rather than enfranchised white men), Wharton paints a drastically different picture of the home and the possibility of shielding the private from economic or public concerns than evoked in contemporary legal and journalistic discourses.