The Touchstone by Edith Wharton

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Today, I am delighted to welcome Edith Wharton to my blog via The Classics Circuit! For other Edith Wharton reviews in the month of January, visit the schedule.

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.

Reviewed on January 4, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Honestly, I don’t think I’d destroy them, but it wouldn’t be for the money aspect. If the person was famous in a way that their work and their life makes a contribution, I would want to help add to that. It’s like how Nabokov’s last novel has finally been published, even though it wasn’t finished – he wanted it destroyed, but after 30+ years, his son just couldn’t destroy it. And I’m glad he didn’t, because anything that helps me get to know Nabokov better is something I want access to. I wish a bunch of Plath’s diaries weren’t destroyed. Or Jane Austen’s stuff. Not for money purposes, but for historical significance.

    I guess leaving stuff with me to destroy would be a bad idea if that’s what you really wanted…

  • Hmmm, interesting story. I love moral dilemma stories because they’re so interesting.

    With regards to your question, all I can think of is “do unto others…”

    With regards to celebrity, external validation is a cruel mistress.

    Enjoyed your post–looking forward to this tour very much.

  • Amanda, I’m with you on finding it fascinating to see authors. I’m not sure what I’d do (really depends on the specifics) but I am with you on that. Besides, if I’m not dead, it’s not like I’d need it anymore….

    JaneGS, yes, very interesting to see how “celebrity” status these days is created by who knows whom. Not always a good thing. I’m torn on the sharing private things — like Amanda says, an item like a journal might have important historical value. At any rate, yes, the story had a very interesting moral dilemma, just not as strong as the other Wharton’s I’ve read.

  • Hrm… maybe I need to leave my papers with someone else when I die, Amanda… 😉

    I would find it difficult to judge someone in the situation. There are so many things that interact with our actions toward the dead…

  • Now I really want to read this! This is the perfect question to be asking right now in the world we’re living in. I would definitely destroy the letters. That person gave me their possessions because they trusted me. That trust is a brave thing to have. I think it takes a lot to trust a person enough to give them your secrets. . .

  • I completely agree with Amanda – when something’s of historical or literary significance, I absolutely shudder to hear of its being destroyed, Plath’s diaries being a good example. James Joyce’s grandson is always threatening to destroy Joyce’s letters and things. I’ve always thought that upon my death, I’d leave them to a university library with the provision that they not be opened up until a given date way in the future. To me, that’s the least harmful way of preserving significant documents that an author wished to have destroyed. (Stupid Ted Hughes, he could have easily done that with Sylvia Plath’s diaries. Grrrr.)

  • Wharton is the queen of the moral dillemma. I just love her so much. I haven’t read this one yet. I can’t wait to read and review Summer at the end of the month for the Classics Curcuit.

    I’m with Amanda on this one. Sit on it until some time has passed. If it’s of historical interest later on then take it where it can receive the respect it deserves.

  • This is one of Wharton’s I still haven’t read. I’m looking forward to participating in the circuit later this month!

    I would destroy them, regardless of how I felt about that person. I’m a huge respecter of privacy and secrets.

  • That’s a tough choice, but I don’t think most people today would think twice about it — they’d go for the money. (And with the economic climate, I don’t know if I’d blame them). I do wish there were more of Jane Austen’s letters — her sister destroyed most of them, and now all that history is lost forever.

    This sounds like an interesting book. I am so enjoying the Wharton tour!

  • Jason, I think that’s how I think too, but my opinion keeps changing…

    Vasilly, good point!

    Jenny, also a good point. I haven’t read Sylvia Plath yet, but it sounds like most Plath readers are very sad about that…

    Petunia, It’s interesting because I just don’t consider the moral dilemmas she comes up with!!

    Jackie, I think this an important aspect of the hypothetical:)

    Christina, I’m glad you’re enjoying your book too!

    Valerie, I’m torn! But that’s awesome that you have no hesitation.

    Karen, I know, in this day and age, even best friends do that!

  • If we don’t have all the historical facts provided by things like personal correspondence we may make assumptions based on other things that are even less flattering to the person so I think either way there’s a negative and a positive (ah life). Loving my pick for this tour by the way, but as mine was finished by her biographer after Wharton’s death I feel it may be more happy endingy than her other books.

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