The Touchstone, an early novella (written in 1900, so very early in her overall work), displays all of these traits — while it is not perfect, it is an excellent example of what is to come. And I would be very remiss if I did not acknowledge the wonderful look and feel of the Hesperus Press edition that I read, not just the beautiful cover but also the way that Hesperus produced a physically impressive short volume that is a delight to hold as well as read.
Stephen Glennard has only one marketable asset — the love letters sent to him by the eminent, now deceased, author, Margaret Aubyn. They had grown up together in upstate New York; Margaret (not unlike Wharton) had married poorly, then divorced and she and Stephen had carried on an affair, mainly (again not unlike Wharton) through correspondence. Now that Mrs. Aubyn, the famous novelist, has died, her correspondence has value. Stephen, who has formed a new attachment that he cannot afford, “owns” something of value — will he sacrifice his integrity to exploit it and serve his own ends?
It is no spoiler to say that he does — that in fact is the touchstone of the title. What this novella does is explore the cost that that betrayal inflicts on him and, indeed, on his success. It is a study in the price that is extracted by known but unacknowledged guiilt. It is Wharton showing hints of her best — even though she will get better as she gets older. Consider Stephen’s initial betrayal:
It must have been an hour later that he found himself automatically fitting a key into a locked drawer. He had no more notion than a somnambulist of the mental process that had led up to this action. He was just dimly aware of having pushed aside the papers and the heavy calf volumes that a moment before had bounded his horizon, and of laying in their place, without a trace of conscious violation, the parcel he had taken from the drawer.
The letters were tied in packets of thirty or forty. There were a great many packets. On some of the envelopes the ink was fading; on others, which bore the English postmark, it was still fresh. She had been dead hardly three years, and she had written, at lengthening intervals, to the last…
One of the things that I most admire about Wharton is that her central characters always place expedience ahead of morality — and then spend the rest of their life paying the price for doing that. Stephen Glennard is the prototype for that role. He publishes the letters, makes enough money to afford his society marriage and then has to deal with the consequences.
In true Wharton fashion (no spoiler here), he wants to be discovered. He leaves hints everywhere, and he sees plots. Alas, no one pays any attention. The author winds the yarn tighter and tighter on the bobbin — Stephen can’t wait to be exposed and it just won’t happen.
The subplot that plays out as this is going on is an equally important aspect of the book. Mrs. Aubry wrote the letters to her lover but even though she is now deceased should she be subject to this travesty? While it preoccupies Stephen, no one else in New York society seems to be very much concerned by it — that in itself is an interesting Wharton sub-theme. They love the scandal of the story so much they cannot start to contemplate the cost at which it comes.
Like Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master (reviewed here), The Touchstone is another wonderful novella that opens a Pandora’s box, let’s some things escape and then asks “Why?” As one would expect from early Wharton, it offers some intriguing thoughts about the New York of the time (and now, if you are up to making a few mental leaps). Stephen Glennard had to make his choices — and he did. Edith Wharton in 92 pages does a great job of exploring what those choices actually meant.