by Edith Wharton
Publication Date: July 1, 1900
Project: a century of women
The Touchstone is Wharton’s first published novella.
Stephen Glennard's career is falling apart and he desperately needs money so that he may marry his beautiful fiancee. He happens upon an advertisement in a London magazine promising the prospect of financial gain.
Glennard was once pursued by Margaret Aubyn, a famous and recently deceased author, and he still has her passionate love letters to him. Glennard removes his name from the letters and sells them, making him a fortune and establishing a marriage based on the betrayal of another.
However, his mounting shame and his guilty conscience ultimately force him to confess his betrayal to his wife. He fully expects (and even desires) that his confession will cause her to despise him. However, her wise and forgiving response opens a way for him to forgive himself and to make what limited amends he can make for his actions.
Edith Wharton has long been one of my favorite authors. I first read The Age of Innocence on the heels of the Scorsese adaptation, starring Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer, which was released back in 1993, and fell in love with the rich interior lives of her characters. After a more recent reread, I added The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and Glimpses of the Moon to my list.
One of my friends recently hosted a read-along of Wharton’s second published full-length novel, The House of Mirth. I didn’t participate in the read-along, but reading her posts, I realized that I wanted to get back to Wharton and finish off some more of her lesser works. The only major work that I haven’t already read is Ethan Frome, which has been on my TBR for years. Wharton, though, is one of those authors who can be read and reread endlessly. Her books increase in resonance and complexity on reread.
Years ago, when I was new to kindle, I bought one of those omnibus kindle editions that claims to be the “complete” works of Edith Wharton. It’s actually not – Wharton wrote far enough into the twentieth century that not all of her books are out of copyright, so some of her later novels/novellas are missing. In addition, as it turns out, I don’t really like reading omnibus editions. I like to be able to see where I am in the flow of book (beginning/middle/end) so that I can better understand where I am in the story. However, one of the benefits of the compilations is that I can access books that are otherwise fairly inaccessible. Some of Wharton’s late, forgotten novels, might be difficult to lay my hands on.
In any case, though, The Touchstone is long out of copyright, so it’s included in my compilation and that’s how I was able to read it. It was her first published novella, is around 125 pages long, and is the first of her stories set in “Old New York,” a location and era that she understood well. The book’s protagonist, Glennard, is a classic Wharton character – a young(ish) man, a bit on the fringes of the best old New York society, and a bit impoverished. He has fallen in love with Alexa Trent but doesn’t have enough money to marry. He has opportunities to invest, but lacks the money to take advantage of them.
As he’s reading a magazine one day, he sees that there has been an increasing interest in the letters of Mrs. Margaret Aubyn, an author with whom he carried on a long and very intimate correspondence. She was in love with him, he was not in love with her. Her story was a bit reminiscent of Mrs. Olenska, from The Age of Innocence – she had married unwisely, and was at least emotionally abused by her husband, whom she ultimately fled. Glennard sees an opportunity to make quite a bit of money by selling the letters for publication, and carries out a private sale. The letters are published in two volumes without an indication of who had received the letters, and are avidly read by his society circle, who are both titillated and condemnatory of the person who violated Mrs. Aubyn’s trust by publishing the letters.
There is a lot of depth to this short story. Glennard is initially uncomfortable about publishing the letters, and as he makes more money off of the breach of trust, his discomfort increases until it begins to destroy his marriage and his self-conception, both of which have been tainted by his decision to sell the letters. Both Glennard and Alexa are emotionally frozen and unable to work through the issues that arise – Glennard thinks that Alexa has figured out where his money comes from, but is unable to breach the subject with her because he is so ashamed and he is convinced that she will hate him if she knows. Alexa can tell that something is wrong, but isn’t aware what it is until she figures it out. We are pretty much only in Glennard’s head, so Alexa is the literary equivalent of a marble statue, which is pretty much how Glennard thinks of her. When Alexa receives her own copy of the book and reads the letters with great interest, the walls that Glennard has put up to shield himself from his own shame fall.
“He sank into a chair, staring aimlessly at the outspread papers. How was he to work, while on the other side of the door she sat with that volume in her hand? The door did not shut her out – he saw her distinctly, felt her close to him in a contact as painful as the pressure on a bruise.
The sensation was part of the general strangeness that made him feel like a man waking from a long sleep to find himself in an unknown country among people of alien tongue. We live in our own souls as an unmapped region, a few acres of which we have cleared for habitation; while of the nature of those nearest us, we know but the boundaries that march with ours.”
As always, Wharton’s writing is utterly exquisite. I don’t think that I’ve ever read anyone who writes with such detailed lavishness about the interior emotional lives – stunted, repressed, shamed – of her characters. She is like one of those medieval monks who does illuminations of tiny corners and single letters. Her understanding of a specific type human nature is immense. She couldn’t write the stories that someone like Willa Cather writes – all huge skies and open spaces. Both writers, though, excelled at demonstrating the complexity of human beings – Cather’s outwardly simple characters were, in actuality, deeply complicated.
Which brings me to the rest of this post, where I transition to comparing Wharton and Cather, because I always think of them as counterpoints to one another. I must not be the only one to have made this connection – the well-known literary biographer Hermione Lee has written books about both women. Their bodies of work couldn’t be more different, but at the same time, I can’t help but relate them to one another.
Edith Wharton was born on 1/24/1862, Cather a little more than ten years later, on 12/7/1873. Wharton published her first novel, The Valley of Decision, in 1902, Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, again approximately ten years later, in 1912. They won Pulitzers two years apart, Wharton first, for The Age of Innocence, in 1921, Cather for One of Ours in 1923. Wharton died on August 11, 1937 at age 75, Cather died ten years later, on April 24, 1947, at age 73.
I’ve intentionally decided to forgo reading challenges for next year, so that I can read whatever I want without regard to trying to check off boxes. When I first started blogging, I was a project reader, but I’ve fallen away from that in the last few years. Since I’ve got an open schedule, and a mind for a project, I’ve decided to do a Wharton/Cather project. Starting with The Touchstone, published in 1900, my general plan is to read the works of both women in the order in which they were published. Some of them will be rereads – I read a lot of Cather about four years ago, and I’ve held onto all of them. This rather front loads with Wharton, although a lot of those are quite short. It’s possible that I may jiggle the early order so that I can get to Cather’s work without reading 7 Wharton’s in a row. It also doesn’t include the short stories published by either woman, and I may just pick those up as the whim takes me.
1900: The Touchstone by Edith Wharton
1902: The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton
1903: Sanctuary by Edith Wharton (novella)
1905: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1907: The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton
1907: Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton (novella)
1911: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (novella)
1912: Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
1912: The Reef by Edith Wharton
1913: O Pioneer by Willa Cather
1913: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
1915: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
1916: The Triumph of the Night by Edith Wharton
1916: The Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton (novella)
1917: Summer by Edith Wharton
1918: My Antonia by Willa Cather
1918: The Marne by Edith Wharton
1920: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
1922: One of Ours by Willa Cather
1922: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
1923: A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
1923: A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924: Old New York by Edith Wharton (4 short stories)
1925: The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
1925: A Mother’s Recompense by Edith Wharton
1926: My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
1927: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1927: Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
1928: The Children by Edith Wharton
1929: Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton
1931: Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
1932: The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton
1935: Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather
1938: The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton (unfinished)
1940: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
As always, my reading projects are subject to change and are completely open-ended in terms of when (if) it will ever be finished.