The Age of Desire
For fans of The Paris Wife, a sparkling glimpse into the life of Edith Wharton and the scandalous love affair that threatened her closest friendship
They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann—her governess turned literary secretary and confidante. At the age of forty-five, despite her growing fame, Edith remains unfulfilled in a lonely, sexless marriage. Against all the rules of Gilded Age society, she falls in love with Morton Fullerton, a dashing young journalist. But their scandalous affair threatens everything in Edith’s life—especially her abiding ties to Anna.
At a moment of regained popularity for Wharton, Jennie Fields brilliantly interweaves Wharton’s real letters and diary entries with her fascinating, untold love story. Told through the points of view of both Edith and Anna, The Age of Desire transports readers to the golden days of Wharton’s turn-of-the century world and—like the recent bestseller The Chaperone—effortlessly re-creates the life of an unforgettable woman.
He stands at the edge of the salon, and Edith has the uncomfortable feeling he’s staring. A dark-haired man. Formal. Self-certain. There are ten roués like him in every café in Paris. But his sapphire eyes glimmer with a discernible intelligence. His coal black lashes are as long as a giraffe’s. Men should not be allowed to have lashes so seductive. He leans on one leg, observing the room, calculating. How hard he seems to work at doing nothing!
Though Edith has been attending Comtesse Rosa de Fitz-James’s Paris salons for just over a month, she already knows most everyone in attendance. The Abbé Mugnier, with his comical fountain of white hair and bawdy sense of humor. (“And there she was, wearing nothing but . . .”) Playwright Paul Hervieu and poet Abel Bonnard arguing in the corner about what makes a human being beautiful. Russian ballet dancer Alexi Toplar with maestro Emmet de Carlo, who leans his head toward him too affectionately while Toplar’s wife stands sulkily watching. And their hostess, Comtesse Rosa, enthroned by the fire, her crippled leg propped on an orange velvet hassock. They say the late Count beat her and broke her leg on purpose. The fact that she is an Austrian Jewess did not stop the denizens of this bohemia from taking her long ago to their hearts. The French love nothing better than a female martyr.
Clotting together at the side of the room are the table-enders, hardly older than students, each waiting for a chance to say the witty thing that will make his mark. Ah, to be a young man, with the world laid before one! All a man needs is to be clever, and have some access to money, or a profession. When Edith was a girl, her only option was to marry Teddy Wharton. Now, she has managed to make a name for herself with her books. How gratifying that her most recent one has drawn such a reaction! No one paid the least attention to the others.
The nameless man glances up again through those absurd lashes and smiles vaguely as though he thinks he knows her. She refuses to walk over and speak to him and is relieved when Rosa beckons.
“Dear Edith, listen to that downpour.” Rain sheets the windows and the weak fire barely alleviates the damp chill. Rosa leans in and drops her voice. “The Bourgets usually arrive with you. Aren’t they coming?” Her eyebrows meet in the middle with disappointment. “And I’ve invited someone very special who’s failed to arrive as well. It must be the weather!”
Edith pats Rosa’s thin shoulder. “Well, I can’t speak for your ‘someone special’ but the Bourgets always come.” The Bourgets are Edith’s closest friends in France—and the ones who introduced her to the Comtesse.
“But the Bourgets are usually first,” Rosa says. “I’m worried.”
Reaching for the fire poker, Edith begins to nudge the guttering flames. Before she knows what’s happening, a man’s hand wrests the metal spear from her grip. Turning, irritated, she sees that the poker thief is her roué. Leaning across her, he jabs at the fire so fiercely it coughs up a constellation of sparks.
“Dear Rosa, I can’t remember the last time you weren’t worried about something,” he says in perfect French.
“Have you met Mr. Fullerton?” Rosa asks. She speaks his name tenderly, and with a French accent: Full-air-tawn. “Monsieur Morton Fullerton, Madame Edward Wharton. Edith.”
The man turns to Edith, sets the poker back in its stand and—his eyes filling with light—takes her hand. “Edith Wharton? So that’s who you are!” He pronounces “are” as “ah.” His accent is as broad and Bostonian as Teddy’s. He’s an American! In that perfect French suit. She never dreamed. “I’ve just finished The House of Mirth! What an extraordinary book, Mrs. Wharton! The best I’ve read since . . .” He shakes his head.
“Thank you.” She hears a flutter in her voice. She still has not gotten used to the discomfort and thrill of hearing people she’s never met say they’ve read The House of Mirth. As he lets go of her hand, she looks to see that her palm is sooty. Was it from the poker? He takes out a handkerchief, crisp white and embroidered, and gently wipes her fingers. She is astonished, as he seems to think it’s his right to take her hands in his. “I have to ask . . . did that lovely creature Lily Bart plan to . . . did she mean to . . . well, I nearly wept and it was quite a knock to my manhood.” Wiping his own hands, then folding the handkerchief neatly inward, he tucks it in his pocket, leans over and, nearly touching his lips to her ear, says, “Did she mean to end it all?”
Edith lowers her voice too, as though they are sharing the darkest of secrets. “I only tell my closest friends.”
“So hah! You don’t know yourself?”
She looks him in the eye. “Well, I didn’t say that.”
“No, I believe you don’t know. It would be very French of you not to know. To let your characters carry their secrets to their graves.” He glances away, but she sees that his mouth sucks on his mischievousness as one might savor a hard candy.
Edith smiles. “It looks to me as though you’ve managed to hold on to your manhood quite well, Mr. Fullerton. Only a man could look so pleased with himself.”
His blue eyes flash and he laughs. She didn’t expect he could laugh at himself.
“So,” she says, crossing her arms, thinking that perhaps she will not dislike him after all. “What do you do?”
“I’m a journalist for the Times of London.”
“An American at the Times of London?”
There is a sweet shyness when he nods. She did not expect that either.
“I’m impressed.” She notes his lustrous aubergine cravat stuck through with a perfect pearl. His starched shirt with its separate plastron. She was so certain he was French!
“How long have you been in France?” she asks.
“A fascinating insight into the life of my favorite novelist. Fields brings a secret side of Wharton to life, and shows us a woman whose elegant façade concealed a turbulent sensuality.”
—Daisy Goodwin, author of The American Heiress
“With astonishing tenderness and immediacy, The Age of Desire portrays the interwoven lives of Edith Wharton and Anna Bahlmann, her governess, secretary, and close friend. By focusing on these two women from vastly different backgrounds, Jennie Fields miraculously illuminates an entire era. . . . I gained insight into both Wharton’s monumental work and her personal struggles—and I was filled with regret that I’d finished reading so soon.”
—Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light and A Fierce Radiance
“[Fields’] portrayal of Edith Wharton in love is imaginative and bold and offers a touching view of Wharton. . . . Fields immerses us in Wharton’s household, her social milieu, and her most private self.”
—Irene Goldman-Price, editor of My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann
“In the vein of Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, Jennie Fields has created a page-turning period piece. Fields portrays a woman whose life was hardly innocence and mirth, but passionate, complex, and more mysterious than one might ever imagine.”
—Mary Morris, author of Nothing to Declare and Revenge
“Somewhere between the repressiveness of Edith Wharton’s early-20th-century Age of Innocence and our own libertine Shades of Grey era lies the absorbingly sensuous world of Jennie Fields’s The Age of Desire . . . along with the overheated romance and the middle-age passion it so accurately describes, The Age of Desire also offers something simpler and quieter: a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.”
“One doesn’t have to be an Edith Wharton fan to luxuriate in the Wharton-esque plotting and prose Fields so elegantly conjures.”
“Fields supplements the story with fascinating excerpts from Wharton’s actual letters and includes appearances by other authors of the period . . . to re-create the exciting literary landscape of Paris and New York in the first decade of the 20th century. . . . the novel should . . . appeal to those who enjoyed Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.”
“Delicate and imaginative . . . Fields’s love and respect for all her characters and her care in telling their stories shines through."
Inspired by Wharton’s letters, The Age of Desire is by turns sensuous . . . and sweetly melancholy. It’s also a moving examination of a friendship between two women.
“Fields bases her perceptive novel on Wharton’s own diaries and letters. . . . [THE AGE OF DESIRE] sheds welcome light on the little-known private life of a famous woman and her closest relationships in early-twentieth-century Europe and America.”
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