Friday, 21 April 2017

Touchstone by Edith Wharton

 
published 1900
 
 
Touchstone 1
 

[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.”


 
Touchstone 3


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.


 
Touchstone 2
 
 


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.





















35 comments:

  1. That is a really interesting premise, Moira. And I can see how the reader would want to stay involved to find out how it all ends. Interesting, too, how the graveyard scene fits in. Sometimes they can be most moving, and sometimes downright creepy. Hmmm.... I need to do a post on graveyard/cemeteries at some point... Thanks for the inspiration.

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    1. Oh yes please Margot, I hope you will. My all-time favourite is a Thurber line, written after reading too much Southern Gothic, he said:
      Old Nate Birge…was chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.

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  2. I love Edith Wharton and have read several of her novels, but none of her short stories, I will go looking for some.

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    1. Me too, and now I am looking forward to discovering the short stories.

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    2. Me, three!

      If you ever want a clothing-related Wharton blog post, "The Custom of the Country" has a lot of that kind of detail.

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    3. Oh good, I haven't read that one for years - I'm remembering a character called Undine? Good excuse for a re-read, thanks.

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    4. Yep! Undine Spragg. What a name.

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    5. You do know she is not going to be a pure heroine with that name.

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  3. This does sound good, Moira. She wrote one of my favourite ghost stories, 'Afterward.' Do you know it?

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    1. I don't - but in pursuit of this post I downloaded her entire works to my Kindle at a cost of 99p, so now I can go and find it and read it...

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    2. ....and now I've read it. Yes, it is wonderful, atmospheric and tense and filled with melancholy. Thank you.

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    3. Glad you liked it. I could so much sympathise with her longing for this kind of life.

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  4. TOUCHSTONE is very sharply written, with a compelling central idea. Our cynical modern times are really what dates it. I kept thinking that if this were written now it would play out quite differently. The book would be a success, but then there would be stageplay (like 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD) which would turn inevitably into a movie, which would lead equally inevitably to a stage musical, at which point Glennard would be dragooned into being a judge on the BBC show designed to find the lead actress. The story would end with Glennard's wife realising that what they really need is a sequel, and starting on the task of forging some more letters of the 'well known lady writer'...

    Wharton had a very strong sense of plotting and story. Like you say, you simply have to know how everything is going to turn out. The PERRIER novella is lovely example of suspense writing (lovely definition: DETECTIVE STORY=What happened? ACTION STORY=What is happening? SUSPENSE=What will happen?)Wharton is so good at slowly tightening the screws on the audience's nerves without obvious scenes of 'horror'. Just recently I've caught up with a TV series called THRILLER that I used to watch waaaaay back in the early '70s, and a lot of the stories have a similar feel, with that slow but steady drip, drip, drip of unsettling detail.

    ggary

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    1. Thanks - loving the story arc of the modern-day Touchstone. Years ago I read a fascinating piece in the Guardian about the chap who worked at 84 CCR, the other half of the Hanff duo. The gist of it was that you would never recognize him from her book - he showed a different side to different people I guess, and down the Charing Cross Rd he was more of a wideboy, placing illegal bets with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. (I WISH I could find that piece again...).
      So anyway, a modern-day version would have someone presenting Margaret Aubyn's side of things, showing us she wasn't what she seemed to Glennard...

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    2. ggary, was that THRILLER series made in the US or the UK? I can remember a US series called THRILLER from when I was a kid that scared the heck out of me.

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  5. Paula: The one that I'm talking about is the UK series. It's an anthology series from the early '70s, is on videotape, and includes appearances from a very young Helen Mirren. The US one was introduced by Boris Karloff, wasn't it? When the UK one was shown in the US they had to change the title to something else in order not to clash with the Karloff show.

    ggary

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    1. Interesting. I didn't know that, ggary. Was the UK show more suspense than horror? Obviously, Karloff would be used more for horror. Thanks for reminding me that he was the host; I had forgotten that. All I remember is that it scared me to death.

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    2. They're very much in the Hitchcock mold, being essentially suspense stories. Nearly all of the 43 episodes were written by Brian Clemens, who was behind all of the film series of THE AVENGERS. There are a handful of horror tinged episodes (ONE DEADLY OWNER has Jeremy Brett and Donna Mills in a tale of a haunted Rolls Royce)but most of them are heavily plotted thrillers. There's one that I still remember from the original showing called THE EYES HAVE IT, where a school for the blind is taken over by terrorists, who want to use the building as the base to stage an assassination from. The students gradually work out what is going on, and then have to work out how to foil the killing. It's mostly shot on videotape, but despite the scary '70s fashions and furnishings it still holds up very well.

      ggary

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    3. I can still remember staying up late to catch the first showing of THE AVENGERS in the US (we started with Emma Peel -- not Honor Blackman), and I adored it. That episode you've described sounds extremely interesting. Love that kind of thing.

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    4. Well, apparently the whole series is available on Region 1 DVD box set for about $20. I really shouldn't be putting temptation in your way, but I thought that I ought to mention it...

      ggary

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    5. That is all so interesting - I don't remember the series it at all, it's not ringing any bells, though I was familiar with a lot of TV from that era.

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    6. It was on Saturday nights on ITV between 1973 and 1976. Lew Grade had one eye on selling the show to the USA as a series of TV movies, and this meant making them about 65 minutes in length (when the US networks added their commercials this would be about 90 minutes!) This awkward length meant that they have never been given a proper repeat run in all the years since. I've talked with friends who don't remember the series as such, but remember individual episodes without recalling where they came from. Along with the UK DVD boxset there are also a handful of completer episodes on youtube.

      ggary

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    7. Interesting - it's exactly the kind of thing my family would have been watching on a Saturday night. I'm guessing that, like your other friends, I would recognize individual epis. I remember someone telling me about the Lew Grade thing - that he was making series supposedly for ITV, but the whole point was to sell them on to America, so they were rigidly made with that in mind. And there was something about the technical specs? - he wanted to use US standards just to simplify, but was eventually stopped by the IBA...

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    8. I hadn't heard about the technical specs, but it wouldn't surprise me! The adventure shows created by the Grade run ITC company like THE CHAMPIONS, DEPARTMENT S, THE BARON etc. were all on film and in colour before Britain had colour TV. It just made them so much more likely to get a network showing in the USA. I once read a lovely interview with Dennis Spooner, who was one of the main writers for these shows. He said that although his scripts were not interfered with for the American networks, there was an American advisor who would point out that certain words and phrases had different meanings in the USA. 'Fag' and 'knocking someone up in the morning' were best avoided...

      ggary

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    9. It's an endlessly fruitful topic, the differences in our common language. I remember finding out that saying 'it went down a bomb' (a very positive description in the UK) isn't a good idea in the US, as it would suggest that 'it bombed', ie was a total failure.

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    10. Yes, I just finished reading all the Ruth Galloway books, and the first two Mick Herron Slow Horses books. I saw that "went down a bomb" phrase more than once, and I understood it in context, but it did seem odd to my ears.

      What I want is to be hired as a proofreader for UK authors writing dialog(ue) for Americans. Sometimes, it's words, sometimes phrases, sometimes colloquialisms. One minor issue is Ruth receiving an email from Frank Barker, and he refers to the TV programme. It's o.k. to spell it that way in his dialog (because it's a UK book after all), but no American would write "programme." There were a few others -- and it's a minor thing -- but I always sigh and think "If only I were on tap to help out."

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    11. I know just what you mean, I would like to do it the other way. I once quoted an American friend in something I wrote, and she was right on me, saying 'I couldn't possibly have said that, I would never phrase it that way.'
      (She didn't object to the content, just the phraseology). I had had her saying that something wasn't a 'proper item' - she said that was very English.

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    12. Oh, yes, I totally get that. I don't think I ever use the word "proper" without putting on a fake English accent.

      And not just words, but gestures (of course, this doesn't apply to books). I just ran into a neighbor of mine who's English, and we were talking about our roommates (her partner and my sister) overfeeding the dogs, and she made a typically English rude gesture. She thought she had to explain it, but I said I watch a lot of British TV and knew exactly what she meant. :-)

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  6. Moira: That's a very good point. There's sort of a sense that the version who wrote Glennard those letters is the 'real' Margaret, but it would be fascinating if Glennard finally discovered that her real opinion of him was not quite that of the letters. It does brings into question whether any version is completely real. I became interested in an actor called Alan Badel. On screen he usually played intense, menacing, humourless characters, but all of the memories of the people who knew him tended to describe him as breezy, charming, funny...However, someone also told of incident where Badel confronted a couple of young thugs who vandalised his car. Badel, an ex-commando, had dished out a punishment beating and left the two youngsters with broken limbs. Which one is real?

    The Wharton story does have a lot of resonance with the present, as we're becoming used to the idea of public figures who turn out to be something completely different from their public images. I have tried to find that article about Frank Doel, but it seems to have vanished into the aether.

    ggary

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    1. I always love books where your view of a character is overturned halfway through, by seeing them through another's eyes.
      I used to be good at hanging onto articles in newspapers in pre-internet days, and I can't imagine why I don't have this one: though I have never seen a reference to it anywhere else, or heard anyone mention it. I will keep on looking, but, like you, I'm finding it's not anywhere obvious. Perhaps Guardian archives will become available. It was probably the 1980s.

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    1. Fair enough, though actually the short story called A Bottle of Perrier might entertain you more than you'd expect.

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    2. Ok - in an effort to prove I'm not always a misery-guts I have downloaded a copy. I'll let you know what I think when I've read it.

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    3. I'm very impressed, and will await your verdict. It won't take up much time anyway, and will add to your statistics!

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