The Touchstone by Edith Wharton

The Touchstone by Edith Wharton is not something I would have ever read had it not been for the Novella Challenge. The Novella Challenge is my favorite one so far because it has brought so many wonderful books to my attention. I never would have given novellas a second thought otherwise and would have missed out on all the terrific books I read for the challenge: Faulkner’s “Old Man”, Thomas Wolfe’s “The Lost Boy,” Marquez’s “No One Writes to the Colonel”. Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone” can hold it’s own among these and probably any other novella one can find.

“The Touchstone” is about Stepehn Glennard, a man of marrying age who has been seeing a young woman whom he loves for two years. Unfortunately, Glennard does not have the money or the position to marry. The time is the second half of the 19th century, and Glennard is the sort of man who has to loiter around his club waiting for someone to invite him to dinner because he does not have the money to do the inviting himself. What he does have is a collection of letters from the famous Mrs. Aubyn, the greatest novelist of her generation. She was once in love with Glennard and wrote to him faithfully during their time together and after he broke off the relationship. Mrs. Aubyn did not have many close friends and never told anyone that Glennard was the love of her life, that he broke her heart or that she poured her heart out to him in a series of letters over a period of several years.

Now, after Mrs. Aubyn’s death, her reputation has grown and the stack of letters is worth quite a bit. Should Glennard publish them he could make well over 10,000 dollars, enough to invest, to gain a position and to marry the woman he loves. But to publish the letters is a base act, a betrayal that would label Glennard as a scoundrel should anyone find out. Publishing the letters would make it possible for him to marry but it would also make him unworthy of the woman he loves.

This situation certainly caught my interest. I won’t divulge any more of the story because I want to encourage readers to give “The Touchstone” a try. This is the only work of Ms. Wharton’s that I’ve read, but I intend to rectify that situation shortly. The story is quite simple, but the novella is still a page turner. Events soon get out of Glennard’s control which only makes the reader want to know what happens next with even greater urgency. Ms. Wharton can certainly tell a story. The issues may seem a bit foreign to 21st century readers–can anyone imagine somebody hesitating before publishing private letters worth a fortune after Linda Tripp’s betrayal of Monica Lewinsky’s trust? Well, maybe one can actually. I found that this archaic element only added to my interest in the story. “The Touchstone” offers an entertaining tale and the satisfaction of learning what life was like in it’s time period, the same satisfaction many readers get from historical fiction.

Possible Spoiler Alert: I have to say that I was disappointed a little with the ending. I won’t give it away except to say that I felt it relied too heavily on the myth of the good woman. Glennard’s wife is so morally upright that she is able to make him a better man through her example. I suspect this was just what Ms. Wharton’s contemporary readership wanted in an ending, but it was a little hard for me to swallow. Other than that, I highly recommend “The Touchstone” by Edith Wharton.