‘The Touchstone’ by Edith Wharton – A Novella about a Literary Misdeed

‘The Touchstone’ by Edith Wharton   (1900)  –  92 pages  Grade: B+

touchThe novella ‘The Touchstone’ has a tidy little literary plot. Here is the setup.

Stephen Glennard was good friends with the famous author Margaret Aubyn for a long time.  In fact she was infatuated with him and sent him hundreds of passionate love letters, but he kept rejecting her as a lover.  She suddenly died, and then she became a legend in the literary world.  Now it is three years after her death, and Glennard has met a new woman, Alexa Trent, he does want to marry.  However his current finances would not support such a marriage.

He then discovers that there is so much public interest in Margaret Aubyn that her correspondence would be worth a lot of money if published.   He secretly has the letters published in two volumes and thus gets the money that allows him to marry Miss Trent.  He removes his own name from the letters, and not even the publisher knows that these letters were written to him.

These “unloved letters” of Margaret Aubyn have a profound effect on readers, especially upon woman readers.  Soon Glennard’s new wife asks him to purchase the two volumes of Margaret Aubyn’s letters for her.  Glennard begins to feel extremely guilty about having had the letters published, and his guilt soon comes between him and his new wife.

I found this setup tremendously interesting, although the logistics are a bit questionable.  We are never told the ages of any of the participants, and also has there ever been a writer’s correspondence that was worth a whole lot of money?  Along the way in ‘The Touchstone’ we readers get some interesting viewpoints of the literary world.

“Literature travels faster than steam nowadays.  And the worst of it is that we can’t any of us give up reading; it is insidious as a vice and as tiresome as a virtue.” 

 But the ultimate story is about the endangered relationship between Glennard and his wife Alexa.

 “Only the fact that we are unaware how well our nearest know us enables us to live with them.”  

 ‘The Touchstone’ was Edith Wharton’s first novel, and perhaps she was still in thrall to Henry James.  Here, as in James, we have sensibilities so refined that it would be impossible for the average person to understand them.  Sometimes I feel like a bull in a china shop around such fine sensibilities.  Sometimes I just want James or Wharton to come out and say what they mean clearly and directly.  In later works such as ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Custom of the Country’, the Henry James influence is somewhat lessened which is only beneficial to Wharton’s work.

Ultimately Edith Wharton developed into a more interesting writer than Henry James, because James’ theories on social class and fiction writing sometimes got in the way of his story telling.   Still it is very much to Henry James’ credit as a mentor that he developed such an excellent student as Edith Wharton.

It is only near the end of ‘The Touchstone’ that it became somewhat difficult to keep track of the characters’ feelings.  For most of the way, ‘The Touchstone’ is a very fine novella indeed.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Hm, it’s hard to picture bad Wharton, but it doesn’t sound like great Wharton, merely good. Is that fair?

    First novel perhaps explains why it’s less interesting than her later works.

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    • Hi Max,
      No, I would not call ‘The Touchstone’ great Wharton. I would reserve that for ‘The House of Mirth’, ‘The Custom in the Country’, and ‘Ethan Frome’ as well as a number of her stories. Early in her career perhaps she was too devoted to the Henry James method.

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