Friday, 21 April 2017
Touchstone by Edith Wharton
[A young man is visiting for the first time the grave of someone he knew years before]
The monument rose before him like some pretentious uninhabited dwelling: he could not believe that Margaret Aubyn lay there. It was a Sunday morning, and black figures moved among the paths, placing flowers on the frost-bound hillocks. Glennard noticed that the neighboring graves had been thus newly dressed, and he fancied a blind stir of expectancy through the sod, as though the bare mounds spread a parched surface to that commemorative rain. He rose presently and walked back to the entrance of the cemetery.
Several greenhouses stood near the gates, and turning in at the first he asked for some flowers.
“Anything in the emblematic line?” asked the anæmic man behind the dripping counter. Glennard shook his head. “Just cut flowers? This way then.”
The florist unlocked a glass door and led him down a moist green aisle. The hot air was choked with the scent of white azaleas, white lilies, white lilacs; all the flowers were white: they were like a prolongation, a mystic efflorescence, of the long rows of marble tombstones, and their perfume seemed to cover an odor of decay. The rich atmosphere made Glennard dizzy. As he leaned in the doorway, waiting for the flowers, he had a penetrating sense of Margaret Aubyn’s nearness— not the imponderable presence of his inner vision, but a life that beat warm in his arms… The sharp air caught him as he stepped out into it again. He walked back and scattered the flowers over the grave. The edges of the white petals shrivelled like burnt paper in the cold; and as he watched them the illusion of her nearness faded, shrank back frozen.
commentary: Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors, and her characters are usually very well-dressed, so it is surprising and inexplicable that none of her books has featured on the blog before – though she has been mentioned a lot, and I have an important theory that Bridget Jones’ Diary, while following the structure of Pride and Prejudice, is more like House of Mirth.
Touchstone is a novella, and was published before any of the novels on which her reputation rests, although she produced a vast amount of work in many different genres along the way. This one has a most fascinating setup: Glennard is a young man who wants to get married, but has no money. When even younger, he was the love-object of a well-known woman writer, and she sent him many letters. He realizes that there would be enormous public interest in the letters, and he arranges to have them published. He makes pots of money and is able to marry his love, and to invest in a sure thing.
His name is kept out of this (this seems a touch unlikely in fact) – no-one knows that he is the loved one. The letters are a scandalous success, and he knows that many people are shocked that the recipient sold them. Although he now has everything he wants, he feels more and more guilty, imagines that other people are judging him, and fears that his wife would hate him if she knew the truth. Can he put things right?
It's not the best of her works, with nothing like the depth of House or Mirth or Age of Innocence, and is full of those rather dreary notions of shame and honour that try the patience of later readers. But it is very compelling – no reader can not want to know how this pans out – and very short.
I’ve also been reading her short story A Bottle of Perrier from 1926, a very different matter. My friend Curt over at The Passing Tramp wrote about it a few years ago, describing it as Thirsty Evil, I only came across the blogpost recently, and immediately had to read the story. It is a terrifying and atmospheric affair, about a young American, Medford, who goes to visit a friend in a lonely crumbling Crusader castle on the edge of a desert in the Near East. His friend isn’t there, but is imminently expected. Medford waits, and chats to his friend’s servant, and wonders what is going on. Once you start reading it you cannot put it down, it is a superb story, one that gave me the chills. (It was, interestingly enough, originally called A Bottle of Evian. Was there some product placement going on?) I strongly recommend that you go over to Curt’s review, and defy you not to want to read the story when you’ve finished his post.
One of Wharton’s most famous stories – and deservedly so - is Roman Fever, published in 1934. The entire action takes place in about half an hour of conversation between two American matrons as they sit on a Roman terrace enjoying the sun. Their two daughters have gone off on an expedition, and they chat in a desultory way. But the conversation gets tighter and tighter, and harsher, and they uncover their memories of an incident that happened many years before… The story is famous for its neat last line, carefully closing up the story.
Edith Wharton’s works are available on Project Gutenberg, or you can buy her complete works for a Kindle very cheaply.
The very beautiful pictures from graveyards come from my favourite photographer: PerryPhotography.