The Touchstone left me completely fulfilled except for the very last line, and craving a bit more Wharton. In September of course. The novella opens with protagonist Stephen Glennard pondering an advertisement in the evening newspaper.
"Professor Joslin, who, as our readers are doubtless aware, is engaged in writing the life of Mrs. Aubyn, asks us to state that he will be greatly indebted to any of the famous novelist's friends who will furnish him with information concerning the period previous to her coming to England. Mrs. Aubyn had so few intimate friends, and consequently so few regular correspondents, that letters will be of special value. Professor Joslin's address is 10 Augusta Gardens, Kensington, and he begs us to say that he will promptly return any documents entrusted to him."
He looks around his club wondering how much longer he will be able to afford the luxury. He envies those around him with large fortunes. He bemoans the fact that he will never have enough money to marry the woman he loves. And a plan soon hatches in his head to sell the letters of a woman who once loved him. A woman now dead but whose fame as the novelist of her day lives on. The same Mrs. Aubyn from the advertisment.
The shame he feels for selling the secrets of Margaret Aubyn (with his own name removed from the two volume, highly popular set) takes a while to fully take hold. His longed for wife, their cozy domestic life and being freed of monetary concerns push any discomfort to the background for quite a while. But this is hardly surprising given what we have seen of him to that point - self-pitying and a wee bit shallow having discarded the love of Margaret because of her looks.
"It would be unjust, however, to represent his interest in Mrs. Aubyn as a matter of calculation. It was as instinctive as love, and it 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."
At first, the material advantages he creates for himself and new wife allows him to justify his actions.
"And somehow - in the windowless inner cell of his consciousness where self-criticism cowered - Glennard's course seemed justified by its merely material success. How could such a crop of innocent blessedness have sprung from tainted soil?"
But soon he realizes that he is now forever wed to the woman he so successfully avoided joining himself to during her life. We watch him unravel. We watch to see if those around him know his secret, and if they do, what their judgement will be. The greatest surprise for him is the discovery of his true nature.
"It was from the unexpected discovery of his own pettiness that he chiefly suffered. Our self-esteem is apt to be based on the hypothetical great act we have never had occasion to perform; and even the most self-scrutinizing modesty credits itself negatively with a high standard of conduct. Glennard had never thought himself a hero; but he had been certain that he was incapable of baseness. We all like our wrong-doings to have a becoming cut, to be made to order, as it were; and Glennard found himself suddenly thrust into a garb of dishonor surely meant for a meaner figure."
Adore Wharton's perceptiveness and the flow of her words and the ease with which she allows her readers to feel Glennard's discomfort in his own skin without feeling any personal discomfort themselves. The final sentence surprised me though as I said before, but I will take it as irony and not in the literal sense of the words. Because I enjoyed the novella way too much to think otherwise.