The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Purchased at Chapters.ca

I admit to being a fan of all Edith Wharton’s work — short stories, novellas, novels. Born to the purple and wed to it as well, throughout her career she maintained her ability to portray New York society at the turn of the century with a discerning critical eye. Like Henry James, she left the country of her birth for Europe, but she never lost her skill to analyze it. If anything, again like James, distance heightened the perception that was already present.

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.

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11 Responses to “The Touchstone, by Edith Wharton”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    Sounds fascinating… I’ve read Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and “The Age of Innocence” and enjoyed them both. Having just looked at her entry on wikipedia, I’m amazed at how many books — fiction, non-fiction and collections alike — that she wrote during her career. She seemed quite prolific, but then she did live to 75, which, I imagine, is quite a ripe age for anyone born in the 1860s.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: She did write a lot, which is one reason why I’ve never said I intend to read all her work (since I’m not sure I could even find it). I’ve never gone wrong with Wharton, whether the work is short or long. Her writing does have a quietness and introspection that requires that the reader be in the right mood — I’d say that occurs for me about twice a year, so I still have a number of Wharton reading years ahead of me. This novella is particularly good.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The tell-tale Heart, but with nobody to care about the confession. How extraordinary. How much crueler.

    I shall be picking up another Wharton soon, probably one of your earlier reviews in all honesty but this does sound highly enjoyable. I wonder if we get these Hesperus imprints in the UK?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I like Wharton enough that I would not recommend against anything. Having said that, I’d say doing a little research ahead of time is worthwhile. Without in any way trying to influence your decision (which of course I am about to try to do) I’d suggest that you would very much like The Custom of the Country– perhaps the best Wharton book that bridges American and European culture.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ll get that as my next one then Kevin. Thanks for the recomendation.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now I’m scared, Max — your review of Pynchon indicates your distaste for too-clever character names. And Undine Spragg, the central character in The Custom of the Country has been described as “the worst conceived character name in history”.

    Incidentally, those Hesperus editions do show up on the Book Depository with excellent prices (lower than Melville House novellas on a couple I looked at). They don’t have the physical distinctiveness that Pushkin Press volumes have, but I do like the simple dramatics of the cover photos.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Is that a male or female character? It is an odd name, I have to admit.

    Anyway, it’s Wharton, it’ll be excellent I’m sure.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Undine Spragg is female and, I admit, not very well named. It is a longish book and you might want to start with The Age of Innocence but I think Country is a better book because it explores the U.S.-European cultural differences so well.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s not quite so bad as it could have been then, given an Undine is a female water spirit I’d have found it remarkably jarring as a man’s name.

    I’ve read The Age of Innocence, I thought it absolutely exceptional, a brilliant work.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that note, Max. If you liked The Age of Innocence (and I agree with your enthusiastic assessment), I think you will like The Custom of the Country every bit as much. I know you lived in New York for a while, so I think you will find Wharton’s exploration of the Anglo-American-Francophone differences very perceptive (I think she does it even better than Henry James, but they do proceed on different levels). My suggestion would be to buy the book now and set it aside until the next time you are on a business trip to France and facing evenings alone in your hotel room. While the book is much more complex than just this, Wharton’s understanding of the subtext of French society is one of the great strengths of Country. And given that you would be negotiating with people who come from that background it would be an excellent fictional mirror to the real life experience. In business terms, however, stick with the real world (that’s an ex-boss speaking). The last thing we need is lawyers acting out their fictional favorites.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Sold Kevin, I’ll get that one as my next and put it by for a suitable moment to read it in.

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