The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields
The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields is fictional biography at it’s best. We meet the American author Edith Wharton in the winter of 1907. She is living in Paris, renting the Vanderbilt’s apartment no less. She has recently had published The House of Mirth and suddenly she is a celebrity.
I knew very little about the life of Edith Wharton before reading this novel, only that she was a friend of Henry James (they appear together in Wayne Johnson’s most recent novel The World Elsewhere).
Edith is attending a dinner at a prestigious Paris salon when she meets Morton Fullerton, a fellow American living in Paris and working as a journalist. She is smitten. Knowing it is foolishness, Edith fantasizes about an affair, and knowing also that happiness is rare in her life, she throws caution to the wind. She is 46 years old. Edith grew up in the right kind of family, made a good marriage and although she could not have had a career she could be a writer. It is when she becomes successful that her life becomes more complicated.
This is not only the story of a period in the life of Edith Wharton, but also of her one-time governess, Anna Bahlmann, who becomes Edith’s literary assistant for the rest of her life. And it is the story of the world of the very wealthy, before the First World War, the age of trans-Atlantic crossings on luxurious ocean liners. Edith spends a great deal of thought, and time, spending her money – she has the insight to acknowledge her life as the most ironic of stories.
Through the eyes of both Edith and Anna we read about their early years in Paris, Edith’s desire and subsequent affair with Morton Fullerton, the damage to the Wharton marriage that ensues, and the fate of Anna Bahlmann and Edith Wharton. Edith’s husband is at first an easy going man who enjoys his hobby farm in the United States, has no interest in Edith’s literary life or her new celebrity status and initially is happy to allow her to make her own plans. He soon, however, becomes irritated at her desire to live in Paris for longer and longer periods of time. It is in Paris where Edith, for the first time has found not only sexual fulfillment, but a life that suits her – the salons and the society of artists and writers, that her husband most certainly cannot understand.
We ask ourselves – as Edith does – is this grand passion worth the damage it causes to herself – and others? We wonder how it will leave them all when it must, inevitably, end.
As the novel concludes we fast forward to the early years of the First World War when life changes dramatically for Edith Wharton and her circle, and the novel comes to an end leaving us with a desire to re-read the novels of Edith Wharton.