This is not generally the stuff of which epic, lush historical fiction is made. But in Jennie Fields' The Age of Desire, Edith Wharton; Anna Stahlmann, her long-time secretary and her husband Teddy Wharton become something more than famous names and reveal their humanity.
We first meet Edith in a Paris salon in 1907. She is fresh off the triumphant publication of The House of Mirth but she is not as worldly and as confident as her celebrated novel has made her seem. Her marriage to Teddy Wharton is a total mismatch and she is completely ignorant of the more passionate range of emotions she writes about. Fields does a brilliant job of chronicling every moment, every glance that leads Wharton to Morton Fullerton, an American journalist in Paris who is clearly a cad but cannot be resisted. Her decision to use the present tense doesn't come off as gimmicky - instead we seem locked into Edith's moment by moment perspective, knowing that she is sometimes making bad decisions but seduced by the immediacy of what she is feeling.
Standing off to the side, Anna Stahlmann watches her employer's doomed infatuation play out. Anna has known Edith since they met as governess and pupil almost forty years before. Their relationship is complex and just as satisfying to read about as Edith and Morton's torturous affair. Anna has devoted her life to Edith and her words. She is without a husband or children. Edith treasures her as no other and yet still holds the power to throw her out on the street on a momentary women. The relationship between the two women shifts between friendship, a master-servant relationship and a mother/daughter bond. I loved seeing the relationship from both women's perspectives.
The great surprise of Desire is it depiction of Teddy Wharton. In my admittedly sketchy knowledge of Edith Wharton's marriage, I had always imagined him as soulless mannequin of a husband. Fields carefully develops a portrait of a clumsy, simple, uneducated man who has made the fatal mistake of trying to love his own wife and wrestle with an illness that is barely understood. Desire transcends sugary romance by showing the impact of Edith's affair on her husband.
I've just touched on only a few of the finely drawn characters that populate Desire - there's the Comtesse De Noailles, a clear inspiration for the Countess Olenska in The Age of Innocence; there's Henry James, always hovering at the edges of Edith's world with his outsized personality and unspoken sadnesses and the ever-present servants who act as silent witnesses to their master's follies. Fields gives them a richly-imagined Paris and New York to live in while tightly controlling her prose. I never felt that this Gilded Age tale of a love affair descended into purple prose.
Desire reaches an inevitable end - the finish that awaited the characters all along. But I left them feeling that I was simply leaving people living real lives and I understood the brilliant Wharton's works in a new way. I would strongly urge readers to pick up this book - like the best historical fiction, Desire illuminates the choices people had available to them in times past and makes us understand the very different mindset as well as the very familiar emotions that ruled worlds long gone.
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.