A lovely novella, courtesy of Hesperus Classics.
Stephen Glennard and Alexa Trent want to marry but their circumstances and social conventions as the 19th century closes make that impossible. He is a struggling lawyer and , though accomplished, she is trapped as an unpaid companion to a wealtier relative.
But then he reads an advertisement:
“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 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 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.”
Stephen did know Mrs Aubyn and she recorded her love for him in a stream of letters that he still keeps. He knows that to publish the letters would be a base act, and would make him socially unacceptable if he was identified. Publishing the letters would provide Stephen with the means to marry Alexa, but it would also make him unworthy of her.
The letters are published and the identity of the recipient is not revealed. It appears that stephen has won – or has he? Can he live with the consequences of his actions?
Edith Wharton, of course, handles this material beautifully. Her characters live and breathe, her tone is perfect, her prose is lovely and all aspects of the story perfectly observed. The twist at the end is simple but very very effective.