The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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August 4, 2011

The Art of the Novella: The Touchstone

      'I believe it is a vice, almost, to read such a book as the Letters,' said Mrs. Touchett. 'It's the women's soul, absolutely torn up by the roots -- her whole self laid bare; and to a man who evidently didn't care; who couldn't have cared. I don't mean to read another line; it's too much like listening at a keyhole.'
      'But if she wanted it published?'
      'Wanted it? How do we know she did?'
      'Why, I heard she'd left the letters to the man -- whoever he is -- with directions that they should be published after his death --'
       'I don't believe it,' Mrs. Touchett declared.
      'He's dead then, is he?' one of the men asked.
      'Why, you don't suppose if he were alive he could ever hold up his head again, with these letters being read by everybody?' Mrs. Touchett protested. 'It must have been horrible enough to know they'd been written to him; but to publish them! No man could have done it and no woman could have told him to --'
      'Oh, come, come,' Dresham judicially interposed; 'after all, they're not love-letters.'
      'No -- that's the worst of it; they're unloved letters.'

Oh, The Touchstone. I wanted to love it, more than I did, just because it's Edith Wharton. Sometimes I think there's nothing worse for someone who loves to read than Reading Important Literature. feeling very virtuous, and being very glad that it's a 120-page novella instead of a 300-page novel. :)

But I think it's important to remind myself that this was EW's first published novel, and just to wish that she had written it later, with years of good words inside her. The plot is wonderful.  Stephen Glennard, a not-yet-successful lawyer, wants to marry Alexa Trent, a young woman who has grown up in 'conditions so narrow that those he offered her seemed spacious.'  But they have no money, and Alexa has been asked to go to Europe with her wealthy aunt.  Sitting in his club, feeling resentful {'Through the open door he saw young Hollingsworth rise with a yawn from the ineffectual solace of a brandy-and-soda and transport his purposeless person to the window....  It was so like Hollingsworth to get up and look out of the window just as it was growing too dark to see!'}, he reads an inquiry from a biographer looking for material on the early life of Mrs. Aubyn. As is turns out, Margaret Aubyn is (or was) a famous novelist, and Glennard has hundreds of letters from her.

After Glennard talks with Flamel, a sahdy, cultured man he doesn't much like, there's an abrupt gap; we're suddenly walking up to 'a little house,' with 'the crispness of a freshly-starched summer gown,' with a garden that is 'prospering absurdly' and  Glennard's wife pouring tea. He has used 'a small inheritance' to persuade her that they could marry {wonderful lines:  'The sum obtained from the publishers...took the edge of compulsion from their way of living, making it appear the expression of a graceful preferencce for simplicity. It was the mitigated poverty which can subscribe to a review or two and have a few flowers on the dinner-table.'}. Although Alexa knows about his friendship with Mrs. Aubyn, no one connects him {except Flamel} with the letters that are the publishing phenomenon of the moment.

There are other wonderful lines, and funny ones, and good character-drawing, and I have a feeling that this book will grow on me someday when I re-read it. I think I was put off, especially in the beginning, with all the talky bits. There are a long few pages near the beginning, for instance, where EW describes the relationship between Glennard and Margaret Aubyn, and what led to the letters. I literally had to read it a second time, slowwwwwwwwly, almost sentence by sentence, to parse out what she was trying to say.  In a nutshell, I think it was that one person tends to cling to a relationship longer than the other, and that Glennard (as is played out in the rest of the story) is kind of a creep.

What's fascinating about this book, though, is something in the epilogue (by Wharton scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff) to the edition I read:

In 1907 {seven years after this book was published}, Edith Wharton met a journalist named Morton Fullerton, who soon became her lover; and in 1913 Edith and Teddy Wharton were divorced. This was Wharton's only affair... Yet even after her divorce, Wharton did not want to marry Fullerton, and after six or seven years, the relationship ended quietly.
    During Wharton's lifetime, the divorce was [the] only part if this scenario that was known to other people. Although many of Wharton's friends were acquainted with Morton Fullerton, only one or two suspected the intimacy; and after her death in 1937, the connection to Fullerton, even the record of their friendship, dropped into almost complete obscurity. ... It is true that the lovers were often separated and that when they were, Wharton had written a good many letters, yet she had destroyed Fullerton's letters to her, and she had requested that he do the same with her letters. Since none of the correspondence came to light, it was assumed that Fullerton had complied with her wish. Thus scholars were taken by complete surprise when a European bookseller surfaced in the early 1980s and announced he was in possession of Wharton's letters to Morton Fullerton -- more than three hundred of them.
 {I read The Touchstone -- thank you, Frances! -- for The Art of the Novella, hosted at Nonsuch Book.}


Frances said...

That is an interesting epilogue! And I had no idea that this was her first published work. Feel like I am cramming in a summer seminar class in short format lit with all of my Art of the Novella pals. Sorry that this was not an ideal read but love that you have joined. I am having a less than ideal read with a lesser James today so feel what you are saying.

Karen K. said...

Oh, I so want to like this also, because she is one of my favorite authors. I have to admit I only skimmed your review because I live in mortal fear of spoilers. I have it on reserve at the library and I'll give it a try simply because it's Wharton and I love her. The edition contains three other novellas so I hope to like at least one of them.

Christopher said...

This is a terrific novella, and was one of my early introductions to Edith Wharton. I attended the Wharton Conference a few years ago, and was lucky enough to be able to see my my daughter (who is finishing up her PhD in English) give a really interesting paper on "The Touchstone." Great post, I enjoyed your thoughts and observations. Cheers! Chris

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