“The world is a welter”: Gardens, mountains and ruins in Edith Wharton’s fiction

São Bento Cadima, Margarida (2021) “The world is a welter”: Gardens, mountains and ruins in Edith Wharton’s fiction. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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American novelist Edith Wharton (1862-1937) is best known today for her tales of the city and the experiences of patrician New Yorkers in the “Gilded Age”. She does not seem to be a very obvious candidate for the type of academic scrutiny synonymous with “ecocriticism”. On university syllabi Wharton often features as a novelist of manners par excellence, whose fiction documents in coruscating detail the cossetted inhabitants of well-appointed libraries and drawing-rooms. My project seeks to push against the grain of critical orthodoxy by prioritizing other “species of spaces” in Wharton’s work. For example, how do Wharton’s narratives represent the organic profusion of external nature? Does the current scholarly fascination with the environmental humanities reveal previously unexamined or overlooked facets of Wharton’s craft? My Introduction proposes that what is most striking about her narrative practice is how she utilizes, adapts and translates pastoral tropes, conventions, and concerns to twentieth-century American actualities. It is no accident that Wharton portrays characters returning to, or exploring, various natural localities, such as private gardens, public parks, chic mountain resorts, monumental ruins, or country-estate “follies”. Such encounters and adventures prompt us to imagine new relationships with various geographies and the lifeforms that can be found there.

My first chapter – “The Pastoral Cosmopolitanism of the (not so) Secret Garden” – shows how some of Wharton’s moneyed, boundary-crossing characters yearn for a return to the native, the sheltered nook or the pastoral retreat. In so doing, Wharton invites us to reappraise “cosmopolitanism” as an analytic category. In her 1934 autobiography A Backward Glance, Wharton refers to her own literary production as her “secret garden”. What my chapter demonstrates is that the private park or the public garden becomes a site for staging (and engaging with) tensions between the cosmopolitan and the pastoral, the exotic and the endemic, elite and mass culture, the globe-trotting and the parochial.

The second chapter is entitled “‘Endless Plays of Mountain Forms’: Mapping the Mountains”. In a letter to Nicky Mariano on 31st May 1932, Wharton described the Sibylline Mountains thus: “The run today was indescribably beautiful, with changing skies & such endless plays of mountain forms”. Her response to the shape-shifting plasticity of this terrain is suggestive of the ways in which rocky peaks and summits operate in Wharton’s fiction more broadly. Her writing enterprise, I argue, evinces an abiding and acute fascination with the metaphorical, aesthetic and cultural aspects of mountains. By construing key Wharton texts through an ecocritical lens, I propose that her fictional summits and hills can be understood as “edgelands at an altitude”.

The third and final chapter – “Romantic Ruins? Edith Wharton’s Sedimented Vision” – addresses Wharton’s representation of the “ruin” as a space between the natural and the man-made. That monumental ruins and garden “follies” carry such affective and symbolic resonance in her oeuvre is owing partly to her incisive treatment of John Ruskin’s cultural theories, especially his powerful conception of the “voicefulness” of crumbling masonry, where the living and the dead seem to be in complex and eerie dialogue. Overall, then, Wharton’s oeuvre can be construed as a form of “imaginative archeology”, in which she excavates personal experience with a view to restructuring it in her fictions.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PS American literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Radford, Dr. Andrew
Date of Award: 2021
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2021-82503
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 12 Oct 2021 08:43
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2022 17:06
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82503
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/82503

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