The Age of Desire: A Novel

  • By Jennie Fields
  • Pamela Dorman Books
  • 368 pp.

Edith Wharton's affair with Morton Fullerton, and how it threatened a lifelong friendship, is the subject of this new novel.

Readers of Edith Wharton’s novels know that those who break society’s rules incur a heavy penalty. This biographical novel by Jennie Fields tells the story of Edith herself breaking those rules by embarking on an adulterous affair at the age of 46.

Edith’s two-decade-long marriage to Teddy Wharton has brought her neither intellectual companionship nor sexual satisfaction. She has solved the first problem by surrounding herself with a group of friends, foremost among them Henry James, with whom she can discuss literature, enjoy the opera and theater, and attend salons. The second problem is about to be dealt with by Morton Fullerton, who is eager to become her lover.

While Teddy sits alone in their rented Paris apartment with the dogs for company, Edith meets Morton at the salon of Countess Rosa de Fitz-James, the same evening that she meets Countess Anna de Noailles, whose reputation for sensual poetry is equaled by her appearance in diaphanous, uncorseted attire — daring for 1907. Edith’s new acquaintance with the uninhibited Countess de Noailles begins to awaken disturbing longings, and Morton’s pursuit enflames them.

In a sort of upstairs/downstairs counterpart to Edith’s story, Fields presents a portrait of Anna Bahlmann, who came into Edith’s life to teach her German when Anna was a teenager and Edith a young child. Anna has stayed with Edith for most of both of their lives, working not only as Edith’s secretary but as a first reader of her writing, offering opinions that she has found Edith to value. Anna joins the rest of the Wharton staff and servants of other families at gatherings in a common room in their Paris apartment building. There, the servants discuss the faults and foibles of their rich employers whose behavior is often incomprehensible to those who have no means to indulge themselves and can’t understand why those who seem so lucky are willing to risk that good fortune.

As the affair moves along — slowly, because Edith needs a great deal of wooing to move from the emotional to the physical — Edith is less and less inclined to listen to Anna, who has tried to serve as her conscience, nor does she heed any of the warnings about Morton’s reputation that she hears from friends. Anna reminds her that Teddy, who was so good to Edith during the years she was ill, now needs her attention because he is depressed. Teddy turns to Anna for comfort, while Edith, eager to be with Morton and away from her husband, sends Teddy off for treatment of one sort or another. Eager also to avoid Anna’s disapproval, Edith keeps sending her away as well— to visit family, to tend Teddy, to take a vacation in Germany.

Edith, whose diaries and thousands of letters have provided ample material for biographies and for this novel, has her reasons for deciding the time has come to indulge herself, but the effects of that decision on Anna, and especially on Teddy, can be cruel. They also take their toll on Edith herself. She may tell herself that an affair with Morton is a temporary thing, but she discovers that knowing and accepting are quite different. Confident of her worth as a novelist, she is insecure as a lover, becoming anxious, dithering, querulous and importunate.

As Edith’s affair fizzles, so does the novel, and by the end there is simply a mopping-up operation: Morton is out of the picture, Edith divorces Teddy, whose illness has made him act erratically, and in an epilogue we learn that Edith and Anna have been active in charities assisting French victims of World War I.

One of the problems for the novelist who chooses as her subject a master of that craft is the inevitable comparison. Although someone who has read Wharton’s novels should start Fields’ book with at least an open mind, if not a tabula rasa, a trite phrase makes the reader stop short, as do words that call attention to themselves, rather than to what they describe, or ambitious sentences that do not quite succeed. Edith Wharton did not leave a written record of exactly when and how she and Morton Fullerton made love, but Fields leaps in to fill that gap, producing a scene that could have come straight out of a Harlequin romance.

Fortunately, the book has other things to offer. The best parts of the novel are the sympathetic portrayals of Teddy, who is suffering from what today would be described as bipolar disorder, and of Anna, whose strong sense of duty is matched by her warmth and kindness. At times we see Teddy happily tending his favorite pig at the Mount, the Whartons’ home in the Berkshires. We see Anna discovering that she might choose to lead a life away from the Whartons. Even if one has never read a novel by Edith Wharton, The Age of Desire includes enough excerpts from her writings to show that she was well able to speak for herself. It is in giving voice to some of the other people in her life that this novel has its greatest value.

Alice Padwe has reviewed fiction, history and memoirs, and has edited all sorts of books from college texts to spy thrillers.

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