Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Edith Wharton: The Touchstone

ImageWhat do petulant teenagers, unrequited lovers, and aspiring writers have in common?

Yes, periods of self-pity – that goes without saying. But what I have in mind is a very specific type of self-pity, one that manifests itself as a fantasy of our memory coming back to haunt those who failed to understand and appreciate our true worth while we were still alive. How many teenagers, confronted with the small everyday injustices of life, have fantasised about dying so that everyone would be so sorry for being horrible and unfair? How many unrequited lovers have imagined themselves dead or on their death-bed, and their beloved weeping for the lost opportunity of love and happiness now that it’s tragically too late? How many aspiring writers have indulged in fantasies of suffocating to death under a mountain of rejection letters, and then being posthumously hailed for their genius?

In one form or another, I’ll bet most of us have had these fantasies at some point in our lives.

At first sight, The Touchstone (1900) looks like a fictional rendition of this familiar fantasy. Stephen Glennard once knew a clever and interesting woman, Margaret Aubyn. She loved him; his feelings, on the other hand, ‘missed being love by just such a hair-breadth deflection from the line of beauty as had determined the curve of Mrs. Aubyn’s lips’. She’s too dowdy, too unwomanly; and most importantly, her intelligence makes him feel his inferiority too keenly.

To have been loved by the most brilliant woman of her day, and to have been incapable of loving her, seemed to him, in looking back, the most derisive evidence of his limitations; and his remorseful tenderness for her memory was complicated with a sense of irritation against her for having given him once for all the measure of his emotional capacity.

So they part for good: she goes on to become a famous author, but keeps writing him fond letters. At the beginning of the novella, she’s already dead, and he’s unable to marry the woman he loves because he’s penniless. (‘Perhaps the only service an unloved woman can render the man she loves is to enhance and prolong his illusions about her rival.’ Ouch.) Glennard convinces himself to do the unthinkable, and anonymously publishes the famous Mrs Aubyn’s love letters – or ‘unloved letters’, as another character aptly calls them. The publication is a financial success; Glennard gets what he wants, in the form of almost nauseating domestic bliss (‘He smiled to see the clematis unfolding its punctual wings about the porch. The tiny lawn was smooth as a shaven cheek, and a crimson rambler mounted to the nursery-window of a baby who never cried. A breeze shook the awning above the tea-table, and his wife, as he drew near, could be seen bending above a kettle that was just about to boil. So vividly did the whole scene suggest the painted bliss of a stage setting, that it would have been hardly surprising to see her step forward among the flowers and trill out her virtuous happiness from the veranda-rail’). But his conscience – and eventually his marriage – suffer for it.

(Warning: the following musings will contain spoilers, so you might want to read the novella first. It’s a short book, and definitely worth reading.)

Margaret Aubyn has a lot in common with Edith Wharton herself, but if the character was a self-portrait, it was both aspirational and eerily prophetic. The Touchstone was published in 1900, five years before The House of Mirth; it would take many years for Wharton to come anywhere near the fictional ‘genius’ Aubyn’s stature as a writer. It was also several years before her relationship with Morton Fullerton, who might later have served as an inspiration for Stephen Glennard.

But the plot of The Touchstone is not about Margaret Aubyn, or even Stephen Glennard’s posthumous relationship with Margaret Aubyn, but Stephen Glennard’s relationship with Stephen Glennard. Glennard is consumed less by what he has done to wrong Aubyn (in life as well as death) than by the consciousness of having done something condemnable, and the unpleasant things this says about his own moral character. In typical Whartonesque fashion, people suffer because they fail to sit down and talk to each other. Glennard’s growing paranoia and the main thrust of his misery doesn’t spring so much from his guilt as from the way he imagines others – especially his wife – judging him.

Margaret Aubyn isn’t really a Mary Sue character as she hardly makes an appearance: Wharton seems painfully aware of the inherent ridiculousness of such a wish-fulfillment fantasy, so she can’t focus too much on the figure of the wronged writer. Aubyn is there, in the background; but she’s a theme, not a character.

For a self-identified awkward woman, Wharton wrote remarkably little about awkward people; she’s better at finding the awkward points in outwardly brilliant and socially confident people. No doubt this is why Wharton is so good – and no doubt the focus deflected away from the enigmatic but awkward Margaret Aubyn makes The Touchstone a better novella – but I must admit a part of me was wishing for the kind of easy sentimentality my 16-year-old self would have opted for. Perhaps it’s a question of temperament, but I find there’s something deeply – and shamefully – satisfying about the kind of passive-aggressive literary revenge that comes with well-administered poetic justice. I still have that morbid 16-year-old’s love of characters who haunt others with their goodness post-mortem, making them acutely aware of everything they failed to appreciate when they still had the chance. I wanted Glennard to suffer more than he did; I wanted him to be a scapegoat for the pangs of every underappreciated human being and every unrequited love in the history of the world. I wanted him to understand the full extent of what he had lost, and I wanted Wharton to wring him emotionally dry, make him weep scalding tears of despair over Aubyn’s grave, and then whack him over the head with some final piece of cruel dramatic irony.

… then I came to my senses and realised that would have been a lousy book. But oh, how satisfying it would have been!

In The Touchstone, we don’t get this revenge, but we get many different perspectives on the role of the writer, and the woman writer in particular. One, and the least pleasant, aspect of this is the idea of a woman and her very femaleness as a moral touchstone for a man’s character. Glennard makes much of the healing properties of women: of his wife he thinks, ‘her scorn was the moral antiseptic that he needed, her comprehension the one balm that could heal him…’ When his sufferings are at their worst, he dwells on the memory of Margaret Aubyn: ‘her presence remained the sole reality in a world of shadows’. And this bit of dialogue with his wife I found the most revealing of all, as they discuss the immorality of having made money from Mrs Aubyn’s letters, and Glennard wonders why his wife had never said anything to reproach him:

‘But how could you go on like this – hating the money?’

‘I knew you would speak in time. I wanted you, first, to hate it as I did.’

He gazed at her with a kind of awe. ‘You’re wonderful,’ he murmured.

In other words, this kind of oblique, passive-aggressive approach appears to be what makes women ‘wonderful’ and morally transformative; presumably because they refuse to confront men outright, and thus force men to confront their own failures by themselves.

However, Wharton is aware that people read women – female authors, female public figures – differently from men. Other characters discuss amongst themselves how the reader’s sex affects the extent to which the publication of these private letters is seen as upsetting; and how Margaret Aubyn’s sex affects the extent to which it’s seen as an act of betrayal. The public that devours her letters is determined to brand her as a victim. Would  the effect have been the same if the writer had been a man?

But there are other sides to Margaret Aubyn’s role as a writer. For one thing, this feminine martyrdom is a cousin to the universal martyrdom of the artist. In The Touchstone, we see the writer as a masochist who feeds on unrequited love, and renounces even her humanity; the writer as a touchstone that tests our understanding and shows us the limitations of our imagination; and the writer as a distant beacon, a haloed martyr showing the way to enlightenment for ordinary mortals. We see the writer as anything but an ordinary human being. Even to Glennard, who knew her personally, the dead Margaret Aubyn has ceased to be human, and is simply an icon lying under a showy funerary monument ‘she would have hated’.

In the end, the fact remains that Glennard is an ordinary mortal – a rather dull and unintelligent one, at that – and Aubyn wasn’t.  Glennard’s wife is closer – by virtue of being a woman? – to understanding Aubyn that he can ever hope to be, when she points out the betrayed author had ‘the happiness of giving’. For a writer, the happiness of giving is to become your written word. This goes to the heart of something terrifying about being a writer: your work eclipses and outlives you.

On the other hand, Glennard’s catharsis as a formerly unappreciative reader is also the writer’s catharsis: the validation of writing is in the writing itself, and the writing separates itself from the likes of him. He is not Mrs Aubyn’s real audience, as is clear from the first.

He rose to leave, and stood looking at her with the same uncertainty in his heart. He was tired of her already – he was always tired of her – yet he was not sure that he wanted her to go.

‘I may never see you again,’ he said, as thought confidently appealing to her compassion.

Her look enveloped him. ‘And I shall see you always – always!’

‘Why go then -?’ escaped him.

‘To be nearer you,’ she answered; and the words dismissed him like a closing door.

This exchange occurs near the beginning of the novella. I first took it at face value, as Mrs Aubyn’s pathetic acknowledgement that he will never love her the way she loves him; but after reading the whole book, my interpretation did a volte-face. She doesn’t actually need him: she only needs her imaginary version of him as her muse. Throughout the novella, Glennard grapples with the problem of cannibalising Mrs Aubyn’s memory for profit, but she actually gained more from cannibalising his.

It is the same conflict that lies at the heart of one of my favourite novellas, Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger: there are people who do the living, and then there are people who turn their observations of other people’s living into art. As a living person, the writer is annihilated, but her words build an impregnable fortress around her thoughts. This is illustrated by Glennard’s reactions as he takes a look at the published volume of letters: at first, ‘little broken phrases fled across the page like wounded animals in the open… It was a horrible sight… a battue of helpless things driven savagely out of shelter’, but in the next paragraph the words are suddenly forged into the ‘fatal weapons of the dead’. The writer seems to be laying her heart open, vulnerable, but she’s actually in a position of power. If her memory as a private person fails to haunt Glennard as it should, it haunts the readers of her letters – it does what every well-written story of unrequited love does, and hoists its silent suffering and isolation on the eagerly listening third party. She has the power to manipulate the posterity to take her side, and to turn her sad little one-sided love into something great and immortal.

Finally, the minor character of Barton Flamel almost unnoticeably brings another perspective to the conflict between life and art. In The Touchstone, there are many references to Mrs Aubyn as an ‘alchemist’ and her art as ‘alchemy’, so the fact that Barton Flamel shares the same surname with Nicolas Flamel is surely significant. But Flamel, who also succumbs to unrequited love, is characterised by his ‘perennially empty easel’ and ‘comprehensive dilettantism’: a failed alchemist, who fails at art as well as love.

Flamel is a failure, and the Glennards are ephemeral in their ordinary happiness; in contrast, the seemingly pathetic, martyred Margaret Aubyn ultimately emerges as the triumphant one, when you connect the dots scattered in the text.

(I read the elegant Melville House edition (124 pp., ISBN: 097460786X) but the novella is available for free online.)

3 comments on “Edith Wharton: The Touchstone

  1. dustandsoul
    April 16, 2013

    Beautiful piece – you have inspired me to re-read. This part was exceptional: “we see the writer as a masochist who feeds on unrequited love, and renounces even her humanity; the writer as a touchstone that tests our understanding and shows us the limitations of our imagination; and the writer as a distant beacon, a haloed martyr showing the way to enlightenment for ordinary mortals.”🙂 Just perfect, really.

  2. Jackie
    April 16, 2013

    Wow, Leena, you have an uncanny ability to uncover multiple layers in whatever you read. I’ve read a lot of Wharton, but not this one(thanks for the free download link!), but I wonder if I will find as much meaning as you did. Perhaps now that you’ve pointed us in the right direction? You’re right about Wharton & awkward people, though that never occurred to me before.
    I wonder if the object of unrequited love is never worthy of the devotion? At least in literature, it often seems that way.
    Thanks for another of your excellent reviews!

  3. Kate
    April 19, 2013

    Gosh she’s good, isn’t she? I haven’t read this novella (nor had heard of it), but your discussion of it reminds me strongly of Henry James’s short stories, absolutely crammed with passive aggression. And much more overtly Jamesian than Wharton’s other fiction.

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This entry was posted on April 16, 2013 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: literary.



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