A novel about the real-life affair between writer Edith Wharton and journalist Morton Fullerton, and the way it damaged her bond with her closest supporter.
At the heart of Jennie Fields' excellent novel "The Age of Desire" (Viking/Pamela Dorman Books, 352 pages, $27.95) is Edith Wharton's relationship with Anna Bahlmann, a woman who served the writer for some 30 years, first as governess, later as literary assistant and personal factotum. The book focuses on the years 1907 through 1910 when Edith was at the pinnacle of her professional life. She was in her mid-40s, and Anna was nearly 60. Set in Edith's apartment in Paris and at her self-designed, enormous and outlandishly extravagant estate in Massachusetts -- known as the Mount -- the novel illuminates the gilded milieu of America's "old money" dynasties.
The plot unfolds through the separate perspectives of Edith and Anna. In contrast to Edith's birth into an immensely wealthy New York family, Anna has middle-class, German American roots.
It is clear from the opening pages that Anna is to Edith a friend, a substitute mother, a conscience. "Anna is the first to read Edith's words and to comment on them, the first to guess when she is happy or unwell." Every morning she picks up the piles of pages outside Edith's bedroom door and types them. She tells Edith when characters don't seem believable.
Fields' characterization of Edith's husband, the hapless Teddy Wharton -- particularly the manifestations of his depression and alcoholism -- is masterful. Edith had been married to him since she was 23. Happiest slopping pigs in the muddy pens at the Mount, he is in Fields' portrayal utterly lacking in intellectual or cultural curiosity. He confides in Anna: "[Edith] thinks I'm a buffoon. She thinks I'm a dunce."
Given the futility of her marriage and her craving for experience, it is not surprising that Edith embarked upon a love affair. Fields depicts Morton Fullerton -- an American journalist in Paris -- as masculine, brazen, intelligent, shrewd and well read. A Harvard man, his blue eyes are "icy," and his black lashes are "sweeping."
Predictably, Anna disapproves. But "she's not the sort of person who confronts others, having learned long ago it could be a dangerous way of life for a person as peripheral as she." Eventually, she mentions that it would be better if Edith spent less time with Morton, and Edith responds with sharp-tongued cruelty: "The simple truth is you don't want me to be happy because you're not."
As with any work of historical fiction, it is important to keep in mind that Fields' compelling novel is more fiction than history.