I've always thought Edith Wharton was an amazing writer. Going into Jennie Fields's The Age of Desire I didn't know much about Wharton's life story, but in my mental image she's an extraordinary woman--intellectually astute and erudite. A good conversationalist who can hold her own in any Paris salon with even the likes of Henry James (who was a good friend by the way). Caught somewhere in between the Victorians and the Moderns, but maybe leaning a bit more towards the Victorians. Corseted and proper in any case. Of course The Age of Desire is a fictionalized account of only three years of her life, 1907-1910 with an epilogue in 1916, but it's a tiny glimpse into Wharton's very personal and private world. I found it in many ways surprising. It's not that this fictional Edith Wharton doesn't match my mental image, but she certainly adds a new dimension to it. I didn't know that Wharton smoked and drove a car. Her marriage to Teddy Wharton was unsatisfying and loveless. And for a brief time she had a passionate affair with American journalist Morton Fullerton, a man several years younger than she.
There is always the problem with historical fiction of sussing out just what is fact and what is fiction. How much poetic license was used in telling this story and how much really happened. And how authentic is the dialogue. According to the dust jacket Fields used Wharton's actual letters and diaries in the story, so there is certainly some kernel of truth. Wharton is portrayed as a complex woman who at the age of 46 finally found a sexual awakening with a man who was every bit her intellectual equal. Fullerton was living in Paris at the time working for the London Times. He was witty and urbane and much more a sexual sophisticate, and Wharton became enamored of him, almost to the point of obsession.
Although the story is an account of her affair, it's also viewed through the eyes and lens of Wharton's longstanding secretary Anna Bahlmann. Bahlmann, who began her career with Wharton as her governess, affectionately called Edith Herz (German for heart). As a child Edith was intensely close to Anna, more so than with her rather cold and distant mother. When Anna went away for a summer to visit relatives, in a fit of anger Edith refused to write to her. Anna was more than a simple secretary, she was also her literary sounding board and confidante, and more importantly, her friend. As so very often happens, however, Wharton's relationship with Fullerton put a strain on her friendship with Anna, to say nothing of her relationship with Teddy. Anna (probably rightly so) sees him as a popinjay who will be no good for Edith. Ultimately it'll be Anna who stands by Edith long after her passion for Fullerton wanes.
The story opens in the winter of 1907 as Edith encounters Morton Fullerton at a Paris salon. His sapphire eyes "glimmer with a discernible intelligence." He's handsome and self-assured. No more than a roué, no doubt, but upon introduction she discovers he is not only American but well read and a follower of her work. The House of Mirth is on everyone's lips, and Edith is gratified to note that her book isn't just read and appreciated by women but by men, too. The Whartons split their time between Paris, New York City and their home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Teddy is increasingly unhappy about being away for so long, but Edith is in her element in Paris. The more time she spends with Fullerton the more she finds herself drawn to him.
It was a mistake marrying Teddy Wharton, but she discovers this too late. He's far more provincial, caring more for his animals back in Massachusetts, than Edith realized. In his own way he's caring, but he relies on her far more than she finds she can give emotionally and nurture. And their physical relations are virtually nonexistent. There is no passion between them and what encounters they've had have left Edith feeling there is something wrong with her physically, as if she is somehow not a complete woman, or at least one who cannot appreciate the intimacies of husband and wife. And then Morton Fullerton comes along and changes everything. As Edith becomes closer to Morton, Teddy shows signs of mental distress and must return to America for a rest cure. It's then that Edith and Morton take their relationship further, and it becomes a sort of late-flowering for Edith.
Fields treats the story with sensitivity but also with a fair amount of realism, too, which means Edith does not always appear in the kindest of lights. She's a woman who has found herself in an unhappy marital situation, only to discover that the man who would be her soul mate isn't so easily obtainable. Morton always seems at arms-length, admiring of Edith and wanting to possess her but does he love her, too? Edith agonizes over the uncertainty of his love. She's selfish and caught up emotionally with her lover creating a wedge between herself and Teddy and also between herself and her beloved Anna sending her away so she can't read the disappointment in her eyes.
I quite enjoyed The Age of Desire. Fields paints an intriguing portrait of a woman who I have long admired. This is a story very much about the interior lives of the characters, predominately of Edith but also Anna as the story is told from both their perspectives. It's easy to see now how Wharton could have written a book like The Age of Innocence, a story of Society and repressed and unfulfilled love. The characters are to the forefront, but the period details shimmer in the background just enough to make you see and feel the opulence of the Gilded era.
Not surprisingly I am now curious about Wharton's affair with Morton Fullerton. I found a copy of The Letters of Edith Wharton, edited by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, in my library and had to bring it home with me. Do you want a taste of the real thing?
To W. Morton Fullerton
[c. May 20, 1908]
I am mad about you Dear Heart and sick at the thought of our parting and the days of separation and longing that are to follow. It is a wonderful world that you have created for me, Morton dear, but how am I to adjust it to the other world is difficult to conceive. Perhaps when I am once more on land my mental vision may be clearer--at present, in the whole universe I see but one thing, am conscious of but one thing, you, and out love for each other.
Jennie Fields is going to be speaking at my library tonight. If all goes well I will be attending the reading/signing and will report back tomorrow. Perhaps she'll give some insight into her writing and research process and speak more about the Wharton/Fullerton love affair and her friendship with Anna Bahlmann.
Thanks to Laura at Viking/Penguin for sending a copy of The Age of Desire my way.