Chapter 16
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The Passion of Edith Wharton

Novelist Jennie Fields imagines the story behind a troubled period in the life of Edith Wharton

Anyone who has read The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome knows that novelist Edith Wharton understood the dark side of human need. Despite the evidence in her actual work, Wharton has somehow gained a reputation for being Henry James’s stuffy, less-talented female disciple, one who could never speak for a modern, much less a postmodern, generation. So she may seem a surprising subject for a novel—a novel about desire, no less. But Nashvillian Jennie Fields, depicting the period when Wharton embarked on an adulterous affair with a younger journalist, brings the author alive in contemporary readers’ minds. Like other novels in this genre—examples include Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank and Paula McLain’s The Paris WifeThe Age of Desire begins with a true story and then adds emotion and color to history’s bare facts. This story not only rings true to anyone who has loved desperately, but also remains true to Wharton herself.

Here are the historical facts: at forty-five, Edith Wharton was unhappily married to a man who was not her intellectual equal, who bored her, and who shared few of her interests. There seems to have been little sexual chemistry between them. She loved Europe; he preferred their home, The Mount, in New York. While in Paris, Wharton met Morton Fullerton, a younger journalist. They were an intellectual and sexual match, and there is little doubt that she fell passionately in love with him. But the time they spent together was as painful to Wharton as it was temporarily fulfilling: Fullerton, who took both male and female lovers, wasted no time in waiting around for his married lover.

Yet, as Fields makes clear, desire can trump rational thought. The scenes in which Edith tries to ensure that she is more than just a sexual object to Morton can be painful to read, especially for anyone who has ever been in a one-sided love affair:

“Will you miss me?” she asks, ashamed she needs to.
“Of course.”
“What will you do when I’m gone?”
“What I always do. Go to the bureau, write stories, eat at the restaurant, go home, sleep in my bed.”
“Will you remember Senlis? Will you think of Montmorency?”
“Do you really think I haven’t been touched by what we’ve shared?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I wish I knew.”

Affairs, no matter how secret, do not occur in a vacuum, as Fields demonstrates through the character of Anna Bahlmann. Anna was Edith’s childhood governess and is now her literary secretary. The tension that arises because of Anna’s disapproval of the affair gives Fields room to explore the fragile nature of intimate friendship, as well, particularly among women from different social classes who are born with unequal opportunities: “It’s hard for Anna to understand why Edith isn’t thrilled to have a husband like dear Mr. Wharton. Teddy Wharton clearly worships his wife. It’s as if every time Mr. Wharton lays eyes on her, he’s located his true north. Edith brings him certainty and calm. If merely once in her experience, Anna had a man look at her that way, she would feel as if her entire life had been justified.”

Teddy suffers bouts of depression and mania, and Anna blames Edith’s barely concealed disdain for her husband and total disregard for his preferences, especially about where to live. Both women have been brought up under strict nineteenth-century codes of conduct for women. Edith has broken free intellectually and now wants her emotional life to follow suit. Anna has chosen to remain a helper in all the roles of her life. No wonder the affair threatens their life-long relationship.

Readers who enjoyed Loving Frank and The Paris Wife will welcome this well-researched glimpse into a period of Edith Wharton’s life. Being a fan of Edith Wharton is not a prerequisite for appreciating Fields’s novel, but if The Age of Desire brings readers back to Wharton’s own writing, so much the better.