The Age of Desire
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“How ironic that a friendship so unwavering is the one most easily taken for granted.” (p. 346)
As The Age of Desire opens in 1907, the cold rain falling through the Paris darkness can’t dampen the glittering mood at Comtesse Rosa de FitzJames’s salon. Among the revelers is Edith Wharton, already a literary sensation across the sea. Edith’s attention tonight, however, is focused just across the room on a man whose smiling eyes are fixed upon her. This is the night Edith meets Morton Fullerton and embarks upon the affair that will shape the rest of her lifeand threaten to destroy the friendship she holds most dear.
From a childhood plagued by illness and a marriage doomed from the start, Edith has found solace in words and writing. She surrounds herself with wits and intellectuals; still, her life feels devoid of sparkle. Her governessturnedsecretary and closest friend, Anna Bahlmann, has been by her side and loyal through it all. But Anna sees a change in fortyfiveyearold Edith. Always one who loathes surprise, Edith is causing quite a bit of it as she trades her carefully structured existence for more sensual pursuits. With Edith increasingly consumed by her affair, Anna becomes concerned that their friendship, along with Edith’s marriage and career, will crumble. Sensing Edith no longer wants her presence, Anna considers leaving for a place where she will feel needed.
But the secret meetings in clandestine cafes that once thrilled Edith simply aren’t enough anymore. She yearns for the true love that Morton is either unwilling or unable to give. When they are together, she is dissatisfied. When they’re apart, she’s in agony. As the passion he awakened in her is replaced by cruel aloofness, Edith finds that her world has indeed begun to fracture. She’s unmoored from her work and estranged from the person who knows her best. How could she have been so foolish as to trade Anna’s pure heart for Morton’s fickle one? How can she possibly put her life back together? And how did she, of all people, allow herself to get here in the first place?
In her writing, Edith Wharton imagined consequences that were brought about by fortune or fate in stories that had beginnings, middles, and neatly tied endings. In The Age of Desire, Jennie Fields takes us beyond the words and shows us the woman behind them, a woman whose complicated, flawed, and entirely human life proves as fascinating as anything she could have plotted.
Jennie Fields received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the novels Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,; and The Middle Ages. An Illinois native, she spent twentyfive years as an advertising creative director in New York and currently lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee.
Q. What is it about Edith Wharton that makes her your favorite author? Which of her books is your favorite? Why?
I have loved Edith Wharton’s writing for more years than I can count. There are many factors that contribute to the thrill I get when reading Wharton. First of all, I can’t think of another writer who uses language more exquisitely. She always finds the perfect word or metaphor to bring a scene to life. Secondly, Edith understands people in a way that few writers do. She sees their frailties. She notes their quiet brave acts. And she understands how societal pressure makes people do things they never would consider doing without it.
It’s very difficult to choose a single Wharton novel as my favorite. I adore The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country, all for different reasons. But if I had to choose one, it would probably be The House of Mirth. Lily Bart is a woman raised to trade on her beauty in order to succeed in the world, literally in order to survive. Yet something better in her makes her reject the narrow path to which she has been consigned. The tragedy of The House of Mirth is that it’s the finer, deeper part of Lily that finally kills her. It’s the ultimate tragedy: a woman undone by the best part of her nature. The book shakes me every time I read it.
Q. What are some of your other favorite authors and books?
I always enjoy reading Willa Cather, Jane Austen, and the Brontės. But I am also impressed by Ian McEwan, Sue Miller, William Styron, Anne Tyler, and the short stories of John Updike.
Q. Does anyone read your first drafts and give advice, as Anna does for Edith? Whom do you trust to be a sounding board for your ideas? Do you often make changes as a result?
I never share first drafts. I don’t show a manuscript until I reach a fairly finished second draft. Rewriting is my favorite part. And my books don’t really work until I get there. I definitely heed my agent, Lisa Bankoff, who is an incredible editor herself. And of course my editor, Pamela Dorman. I also trust a few close friends, who in this case gave me excellent notes. After years in advertising, which is always a team effort, I’m open to suggestion and collaboration. In fact, I welcome it.
Q. Was writing in Edith’s voice intimidating? How did you go about perfecting the tone?
I don’t think I wrote the book “in Edith’s voice.” I wrote it in my own voice. In fact, Edith never wrote in present tense, a much more modern sensibility. But I tried to make sure that internal thoughts and dialogue were correct for the era. One thing of which I was extremely conscious, however, was to make the language as crafted as possible. Since The Age of Desire is a book about Edith Wharton, I felt it needed beautiful, musical language to tell its story.
Q. In delving into Edith’s letters and diaries, what were some surprises that you uncovered?
The thing that surprised me most was how selfeffacing Edith was with Morton. She was much less secure than one might expect from a woman who was already a successful writer. But I think that’s what’s so endearing: love makes us all so human, so utterly vulnerable. Also, after I had already written quite a few chapters, one hundred and thirtyfive letters from Edith to Anna Bahlmann came up for auction. They’d been sitting in an attic for a century. When I read the letters, I was struck by how tenderly Edith viewed Anna, especially when Edith was a young girl. Anna was the one person she believed understood her. It was incredibly touching.
One more thing-and this wasn’t found in a letter or a diary, but in Edith’s papers after she died: Edith, at some point in her life, wrote pornography! And it doesn’t hold back. It’s shocking, adventurous, and highly descriptive. It helped me see better how Edith viewed sex. Surely, she could never have written it before her affair with Morton!
Q. In what ways did writing this book change your perception of Edith Wharton and her work?
It made me love her more. She had a fairly hard personal life and, really, very little outward happiness, yet she never stopped writing, never stopped pushing herself. By the way, she was buried next to Walter Berry. I think, in the end, it was Walter she truly loved. He stood by her through her terrible divorce, and in a truly touching letter written forty years after they met, he told her that the only thing he ever regretted in his life was not declaring himself to her when they were both young. She kept the letter to the day she died.
Q. Why do you think Anna never found love? Is there historical evidence of her having feelings toward Teddy?
Anna considered herself a “peripheral person.” As an orphan from the age of two, she didn’t feel she had her own place in the world. Maybe that’s why she had a difficult time accepting Thomas’s feelings for her. What she loved most was being of use. And the person who always made her feel most useful was Edith. That is why the rift between them, described in the book, was so painful for her. As for Teddy, there is no historical proof that she had feelings for him. But I did discover in letters from Edith, well after I’d written the scenes about Anna comforting Teddy, that Anna was the one person who could calm him, the one person he asked for when he was most miserable.
Q. Edith speaks early on in the book about men having an advantage over women: “All a man needs is to be clever, and have some access to money or a profession.” (p. 2) How did women’s roles in society evolve during the time that the book spans?
I think in my book Anna de Noailles is an example of a new kind of woman, a woman who fights for her own place in the world, who doesn’t follow society’s strictures, who dresses as she chooses, speaks as she chooses. But the real change came after the war. Edith’s Jazz Age novels such as The Mother’s Recompense capture the change flawlessly. It’s in those novels that Edith’s familiarity with love and sensuality show themselves. Without Morton, I don’t think she could ever have written those books.
Q. Henry James is a wonderful character in your novel. His famed wordiness certainly comes through. How much of your portrait of him is based on reality?
I think he really was quite a character. I used his letters as a guide for his speech patterns. Evidence shows he was quite enamored of Morton, and I believe he encouraged Edith to have an affair with him. Edith, in this case, acted as his surrogate. I very much enjoyed writing about Henry, and when I had the opportunity to read a section of the book where he is in bed with a cold to some James scholars, they nodded and laughed and felt I had captured him. That was reassuring!
Q. What are some challenges that come with writing fiction populated by historical characters?
I think it’s essential that a person writing a biographical novel does a tremendous amount of research. I tried to be as accurate as possible. Edith left scads of diaries and letters. (She wrote six letters a day and many are now in libraries.) With all the information at my disposal, I could track what Edith was doing almost every day of the period about which I was writing. The hard part was reading between the lines. Why would she send Anna away when just the summer before she complained about living without her? That was the challenge, and the most fun part of my job. I also think it’s essential that a biographical novelist do primary research. For instance, most of Edith’s biographers made the assumption that Anna Bahlmann was born in Germany. I found out in one day that she was born in New York. And this was long before the letters between Edith and Anna appeared. Ancestry.com was a big help, especially when it came to births, deaths, and ships’ manifests.
Q. How do you think Edith would react to this portion of her life being remembered and, now, made into a novel? Were you tempted to leave out anything that might not reflect well on her?
Edith was a tremendously private person, always begging for people to burn her letters. (Almost no one ever did!) She might indeed be mortified by my use of her life. But I secretly hope that she’d be pleased by what a rounded novellike story it made. I felt it was my goal to tell this story. I didn’t want to leave anything out. I love Edith, but she wasn’t always the nicest person. Few geniuses are.
Q. Do you have plans yet for your next book?
I am writing a biographical novel based on the life of another female genius: Georgia O’Keeffe. What an extraordinary, cautionary tale comes out of her life, and oh the beauty she left behind her! I am already well into the research.
- Have you read any of Edith Wharton’s books? How has reading this book altered your perception of her or her work? If you’ve not read any of her novels, has this book made you want to? Why or why not?
- Lucretia Jones, Edith’s mother, is stern with her husband and her daughter. What aspects of Edith’s life and personality in this book might possibly be a result of Lucretia’s parenting? Does Edith put any effort into overcoming her mother’s influence?
- How might it have been possible for Edith and Teddy to reach some sort of equilibrium in their marriage? Was it poisoned from the beginning? Why do you think so?
- Edith ignores her friends’ warnings about Morton. Even as evidence mounts that he has a lot of skeletons in his closet, Edith continues to ignore the facts. What is the root of her denial? What are other aspects of her life that elicit denial? How else does denial wreak havoc in her life?
- If you had been Edith’s friend, would you have warned her against getting involved with Morton? Would knowing her reaction toward Anna influence your decision? Would you try to intervene if one of your close friends today were to fall for someone he or she shouldn’t?
- Why doesn’t Anna like Morton? What are some selfish reasons behind her dislike? What are the more justifiable reasons? What do you think of him?
- What is Edith hoping to gain from the affair with Morton? Does she succeed? What about Morton? What do you think he’s after? In what ways did Edith benefit from the affair? In what ways did it have a negative impact?
- At what point in the novel is the affair between Edith and Morton over? When does Edith finally realize it?
- Fame is a recurring theme in the book. When Anna sails on the Amerika, she’s surprised that no one recognizes the name of her famous employer. When Edith hears any news of her books’ success, she is buoyed. But fame always comes at a price. What are the consequences of fame in this book?
- Anna says that Edith mustn’t have had any choice, that the affair with Morton was inevitable. When looking back at unpleasant truths or impetuous behavior, it’s sometimes a comfort to believe we had no choice in the matter. What do you think of Anna’s assessment of Edith’s actions? What are some situations in the book where someone truly didn’t have a choice in his or her fate?
- If Anna and Edith’s friendship were to dissolve, who has more to lose? Why? Which of the two would be more likely to thrive?
- How do you think the story would have played out if communication were more instant, similar to the way it is today? What if, instead of waiting for a letter, Edith was anticipating a text message? How has modern communication affected romance?
- There are several moments in the novel where characters could take charge of their own lives and pursue happiness. Edith could have left Teddy. Anna could have confessed her love to Teddy. What stopped them?
- The quote at the beginning of the introduction suggests that the closest friendships are the ones most likely to be compromised. Do you agree? What are some experiences you’ve had with close friendships that were neglected?