Book review: The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

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Much-loved American author Edith Wharton had a devastating secret ... while she penned novels featuring grand affairs of the heart, in private she felt imprisoned by an empty, passionless marriage.

So when dashing young journalist Morton Fullerton walked into her life, 45-year-old Edith gave in to the temptation of an illicit and thrilling romance that risked everything, particularly the lifelong relationship with her closest friend.

Jennie Fields’ sumptuous feast of a novel pitches one of the major figures in American literary history into the maelstrom of a real-life scandal that rocked the Gilded Age of Parisian society in the early years of the 20th century.

Wharton was a prodigiously talented author whose gift was to combine her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit in over 40 humorous and incisive novels including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

In the Age of Desire, Fields focuses on the years between 1907 and 1910 when Wharton was playing her part in the famous Belle Époque, a period of peace and prosperity which allowed the arts to flourish in the glittering salons of Paris.

At the heart of this beautifully written book is Edith’s close, nurturing friendship with her literary secretary Anna Bahlmann who is torn between her devotion to Edith and a covert love which she nurses for Edith’s steady, stolid husband Teddy Wharton.

It’s a thrilling and sensual story, one of slow sexual awakening, complex emotions, divided loyalties and fragile relationships which are evoked with elegance, sympathy and a rare and enchanting insight into the fascinating and unique Edith Wharton.

They say that behind every great man is a woman. Behind Edith, there is Anna, her former governess turned secretary, ‘a friend, a substitute mother, a conscience.’ Anna is 58 and feeling her age but under her clothes she wears a gold necklace, ‘a gift of friendship’ given to her years ago by Teddy and she uses it to ‘slake her thirst on the loneliest of nights.’

Edith, youthful in her figure but sporting a neck now ‘smocked with age,’ has long tired of her marriage to the child-like, unimaginative Teddy; he’s 12 years her senior and ‘every year shows on his face.’ She married him ‘for all the wrong reasons’ and their sexless marriage has led her to believe that she is a woman ‘not made for love... a freak of nature.’

But at a glittering Paris salon she meets the capricious and sexually ambivalent, Harvard-educated Fullerton who is currently working for The Times in London. Bowled over by his impossibly long eyelashes, sapphire blue eyes, odour of ‘driftwood’ and forthright manner, the middle-aged writer is soon passionately in love.

For the first time in years, Edith is happy and revels in a new feeling of ‘expansion’ that leaves her dizzy with excitement, and she sets out on a voyage of self-discovery and scandalous passion.

As Edith’s marriage crumbles, the affair with Fullerton starts to turn sour and Anna’s moral disapproval grows, events threaten to shatter forever a lifelong bond...

Told through the points of view of both women, we visit Paris with its glamorous literary salons and dark secret cafés, take a trip with the Whartons to their mansion in Lenox, Massachusetts, and call in at Henry James’s home in Rye, Sussex.

Fields uses recently discovered letters from Edith to Anna to illuminate a relatively unknown and very personal part of Edith Wharton’s life for this perfectly pitched and very plausible novel which captures both the essence of an extraordinary woman and the spirit of a golden age.

(Ebury, hardback, £14.99)