Looking at my copy of The Touchstone, I expected it to be one of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. You can see why – it features a woman holding an eyeless death mask in front of her face, with a man doing the same in the background. The Touchstone is not a ghost story in the traditional sense, but it does deal in the aftermath of death and the eternity of the written word.
Written in 1900, The Touchstone is Wharton’s first published novella. In it, she tackles a danger well-known in the world of women: the betrayal of confidence. Gossip is a deadly weapon in her later novels, and her characters take great care in their confidences, and more importantly, in safeguarding their personal correspondences, burning letters or ripping them to shreds. Who can, for instance, forget the subplot in The House of Mirth where a charwoman shows up at Lily Bart’s doorstep, selling her a pile of her enemy’s poorly-disposed love letters?
Written before the others, The Touchstone is far more chilling. Rather than concerning itself with gossip or the betrayal of one woman by another, its plot arises from the more personal: the public betrayal of a woman by her lover.
The novella begins with its dislikable protagonist, Stephen Glennard, coming across a newspaper advert looking for correspondence from the newly-deceased and extremely-private author, Margaret Aubyn. As luck has it, Glennard just happens to have endless letters from her – Aubyn having been in unreciprocated love with him and having written to him for years. Why Aubyn loved him is an absolute mystery, as she is celebrated as the most eloquent author of her time while Glennard proves to be nothing more than a bland, spineless business-man-in-training.
Being poor and apparently hopeless, Glennard decides to remove his name from the letters – fully aware of the hideousness of his betrayal – and sell them to publishers for a fortune.
The rest of the novel deals with Glennard’s man pain as the volumes of letters become best-sellers and he needs to face them everywhere he goes, but we don’t really care about that. Manpain is manpain, and Edith Wharton’s books are never really about the men, are they? The Touchstone may be focalized through Glennard, but he isn’t really the point. His betrayal of Margaret Aubyn is. She’s behind every action of the novella, and her haunting of Glennard is what drives his guilt. She may be dead, but she is, through her words and her captured essence, far more lasting than the living.
What makes The Touchstone so chilling, though, is the commonality of its crime. On the grand scale, how many women writers have had their diaries and their letters published by their husbands in the years since 1900, with cloudy consent? How many have had writings they concealed from the public posthumously published for the literary good of the world? The men in The Touchstone almost all use this literary good as justification for the publication of Aubyn’s letters. To them, it’s a given.
“Oh, I’m not with you there,” said Dresham, easily. “Those letters belonged to the public.”
“How can any letters belong to the public that weren’t written to the public?” Mrs Touchett interposed.
“Well, these were, in a sense. A personality as big as Margaret Aubyn’s belongs to the world. Such a great mind is part of the general fund of thought. It’s the penalty of greatness – one becomes a monument historique. Posterity pays the cost of keeping one up, but on condition that one is always open to the public.”
“But she never meant them for posterity!”
“A woman shouldn’t write such letters if she doesn’t mean them to be published…”
Of course, then, they needed to be published. What is a woman’s privacy next to men’s collective entitlement to “public” female figures in their entirety?
It is the women in The Touchstone who are all, without exception, horrified.
That they are so is no surprise. Letters were a big source of potential betrayal in Wharton’s time, when a woman’s reputation could easily be ruined with a string of words. That we contemporary readers are equally horrified is just as understandable. Confidential media has changed and expanded in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Gone, for the most part, are love letters and in their place are messages and private photos. Sure enough, as we’ve all learned through countless public scandals, men go on to publish these as revenge at the end of relationships with such frequency that their acts have spawned new laws and branches of practice. Men claim justification for their bruised egos, and women find their mental and social well-beings ripped apart. Of course, men argue, women are at fault anyway. They should never have sent such material if they didn’t want the world to see it.
What happens to Margaret Aubyn is thus chillingly familiar to the twenty-first century reader. She confides in a man, putting hundreds of private letters in his hands, and he betrays her. Men then argue that his betrayal is her fault, even from beyond the grave. “A woman shouldn’t write such letters if she doesn’t mean them to be published…” Seeing her effectively haunt Glennard is thus deliciously rewarding.
Society may have changed, media may have changed, but we women will always stand our ground.
You can read Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone online via Project Gutenberg.