“They say behind every great man is a woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann—her governess turned literary secretary, and her mothering, nurturing friend.
When at the age of forty-five, Edith falls passionately in love with a dashing younger journalist, Morton Fullerton, and is at last opened to the world of the sensual, it threatens everything certain in her life but especially her abiding friendship with Anna. As Edith’s marriage crumbles and Anna’s disapproval threatens to shatter their lifelong bond, the women must face the fragility at the heart of all friendships.”
Thoughts: Edith Wharton is renowned for her works depicting life among the privileged, drawing on her own experiences in this most exclusive of clubs. Much like her characters, Ms. Wharton’s own life was not all parties and luxury. Using Ms. Wharton’s existing letters and diary entries as a foundation, Jennie Fields’ The Age of Desire highlights the tests Ms. Wharton faced just as the critical and popular acclaim for her novels was on the rise. From her increasingly strained relationship with her husband to the taking of a lover to an intense and long-standing relationship/friendship with her personal secretary, Ms. Fields presents Edith as a woman torn between duty and a search for happiness and allows readers to understand just how Ms. Wharton could create such complex and fully-realized characters.
The inclusion of Ms. Wharton’s and Ms. Bahlmann’s letters throughout the novel adds an air of authenticity to the entire novel while simultaneously, and unexpectedly, creating confusion too. There is no doubt that Ms. Wharton wished for the destruction of her personal correspondence upon her death as this request is actually documented by more than one of her friends. Because she hoped/wished/expected the destruction of her letters, one knows that what she wrote in those letters was incredibly personal. This means that her letters are as close to understanding her innermost thoughts and feelings as one could hope to achieve with any historical figure.
At the same it, the line between fact and fiction is fairly indistinguishable. Whereas this is an excellent trait in other historical novels, for some reason this same characteristic does not work quite as well in The Age of Desire. A reader wants to know which scenes are figments of Ms. Fields’ imagination and which actually occurred for neither Edith, Anna, Morton, or Teddy Wharton are completely sympathetic and a reader hopes this is due more to Ms. Field’s imagination than any of their real-life faults. As surprising as it may be, the truth is unclear, and the narrative suffers for it.
Further confusing matters is Ms. Field’s portrayal of Edith and Anna, not to mention almost every other male in Ms. Wharton’s social circle. Edith fluctuates between strong and independent to spoiled and child-like. In fact, during the novel, it is difficult to imagine her as a forty-something women with worldly experience given some of her tantrums about Anna, Morton, and Teddy. The self-pitying introspection becomes too much for a reader to bear at times, especially when Anna is indulging in the same behavior. Anna too is just as much of a conundrum as Edith. For someone as learned, as experienced, and as independent as Anna Bahlmann, she comes across as needy and weak. Her inability to walk away from Edith’s harsh treatment of her does not endear her to readers, and her longing to be reunited with someone who does tend to treat her as little more than a favored servant at times is disturbingly sycophantic. Both characterizations are surprising in that they just do not fit the public images of each woman.
As for the men throughout the novel, Ms. Fields all but showcases how Edith would have been better off without them. One can forgive Teddy and his fairly abrupt downward spiral, as Edith was young and extremely naïve when she married. Her loyalty to someone with whom she has nothing in common is endearing, even if it is a foreign concept today, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief every time she decides to send him away, although her agonizing before and after the decision does get old very quickly. As for Morton, to call him a roué is a great understatement. His treatment of Edith throughout the novel is repellent, driving Edith to some of the more upsetting and annoying aspects of her behavior. That being said, her letters prove that she did love him, no matter how unworthy he was of that love, which only goes to show that in affairs of the heart, even the wisest can fall prey to bad decisions.
Taking a real-life historical figure and building a fictional story around true events of that person’s life takes a delicate hand and as well as a decent amount of circumspection and respect. While there is no doubt that Ms. Fields did not intend for her novel to be so, there is something decidedly prurient about reading Ms. Wharton’s love letters as they are woven into the narrative. Because they are her actual words, they are more personal and intimate than even the spiciest of bedroom scenes between Edith and Morton or Edith’s own frank inner dialogue. Even though her life experiences do read like a soap opera, one cannot help but feel that to so boldly portray some of its more salacious details tarnishes Ms. Wharton’s image, despite the fact that a reader implicitly knows that Ms. Fields wrote The Age of Desire with the utmost respect for this lauded author.
In spite of some of its questionable issues, The Age of Desire creates a vivid picture of a golden age in Parisian history, when it was alive with American authors-turned-expatriates. Ms. Fields captures perfectly what it must have felt like to have been a successful author at such an interesting epoch in time as well as the effort it took to get to that point. A reader will find the details of this lifestyle fascinating, from the idea of someone as wealthy as a Vanderbilt renting out his apartments to those who can afford to pick up and move an entire household to a different continent several times throughout a year. It is a long-gone era about which Ms. Fields manages to hold a reader’s interest through attentive details and the use of Edith’s own words.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to NetGalley and to Penguin Group for my review copy!