I’m acquiring  a tidy little collection of these lovely “Art of the Novella” books.  They shall be key to my discovering, somewhat belatedly, the pillars of modern literature. In this household, it’s still ladies first, and so to Edith Wharton’s “The Touchstone”.

Published 1900 it has a surprisingly modern theme.

Margaret Aubyn is a young widow; also a famous author.  She conducts a two-year romance with Stephen Glennard.  Unfortunately her passion is not reciprocated.  In order to preserve her dignity, she removes herself from him.  However, she continues to write many passionate letters to her beloved.  When she dies, these letters suddenly acquire a value undreamt of.  What is an impoverished Glennard to do?

Glennard had never thought himself a hero; but he had been certain that he was incapable of baseness.

So are the following mitigating circumstances?  The lady is dead.  The man is in need of money to marry his beautiful fiancee.  The letters will be edited in such a way that no one will ever know he was the original recipient.

In the world of 2008, where it appears money can be made from every encounter – salacious or otherwise – with a celebrity someone, the perspective from 1900 is telling.  It’s no spoiler to tell you that Glennard – in the vernacular of 2008 – goes for it.  That he remains unidentified.  He gets his money and his bride but thereafter life slowly but surely becomes unbearable.  Shades of Crime and Punishment as his conscience awakens to haunt him.  Gleeful satire during social occasions where he is forced to remain incognito as he listens to conversations like this:

“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 judically interposed’ “after all, they’re not love-letters.”

“No – that’s the worst of it; they’re unloved letters.”

Determining whether Glennard is truly repentant or only living in fear of public shame is not straightforward.   The psychological insight with which Wharton paints Glennard’s character is fascinating – for once he has cheapened himself, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to believe that others in his sphere – including his wife – have not descended to his level.  Slow-acting poison.  Even if society doesn’t discover him, the man is doomed. 

A salutary lesson for those who are making money from their confessions/betrayals in this week’s tabloids.  And now I’ve read Wharton, I do wonder if the James Hewitts and Paul Burrells of this world (and all those who have recently followed their example) have lived/will live to regret their actions.