As with the other two Edith Wharton stories I’ve read (The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth), The Touchstone deals with an individual’s challenge in turn-of-the-century New York City. As in The House of Mirth, this novella focuses on the need for money in order to live the comfortable life one is accustomed to. As in The Age of Innocence, Wharton follows a young man’s inner thoughts as he tries to make big decisions.
From the beginning of the novella, a person’s inner conflicts are the center of the action. Glennard longs to marry his beloved Alexa, but he is so poor as to be unable to support the two of them in a comfortable country home, as they both expect to have. While pondering his need for money, he comes across a note in the newspaper. Famous English novelist Margaret Aubyn has died: publishers are interested in learning of her life in America and would pay good money for any letters or information about her. Glennard had had a relationship with her (in fact, Margaret Aubyn loved him), and he possesses hundreds of such letters from her (letters she’d begged him to destroy). Since he did not love her, though, the letters mean nothing to him, except a past life that he’d rather forget.
Herein is the crux of the plot: does one reveal a somewhat embarrassing part of one’s past in order to get money? Does one disobey the wishes of a dead friend? How does one hide the past while still using it to help oneself in the present?
I won’t tell you what happened, but as with The Age of Innocence, I found myself frustrated with Glennard’s selfishness and deceit, both with Alexa and with himself. The taunts of the past never go away if one refuses to examine them honestly.
The story was short – novella length – and that was its biggest weakness. When I read it, I thought the issues were interesting and memorable, but even in two weeks, the story, the characters, and the lovely settings I enjoyed so much have faded into obscurity. In the end, I don’t think The Touchstone was a particularly memorable novella, but it was entertaining and intriguing to read, and I’m glad I did so.
Here’s a question for you: Suppose an acquaintance of yours, someone who you don’t care about very much, gave you something like letters or diaries and told you to destroy them when they died. Subsequently, this acquaintance became famous and the items now were worth a lot of money. Would you sell them or destroy them as they’d requested?
It seems to me that in this era of celebrity, people don’t hesitate to make money on relationships like this. Maybe we should return to respecting the dead a little bit more and let go of “celebrity” status.