The Age of Desire

9780670023684_p0_v1_s260x420Unlike Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s letters were not destroyed – as she might have hoped – but sold by her lover. Jennie Fields uses these primary sources to weave a fictional account of Wharton’s affair with an American in Paris during the early twentieth century in The Age of Desire. But if you are expecting a tale framed in the style of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, as the title suggests, you may be disappointed.

Fields uses Edith Wharton’s stale marriage and midlife fling with Morton Fullerton, a cad who ruined reputations, to reveal more heartbreak and embarrassment than history or significance.  The subplot of Edith Wharton’s relationship with her childhood governess, Anna Bahlmann, who later becomes her editorial assistant, offers some relief.  Anna disapproves of the proper society matron struggling to conceal and maintain her wild affair, and serves as Wharton’s conscience.

If you are a fan of Edith Wharton, the excerpts from Wharton’s love letters and novels will remind you of this revered author’s style…but Fields’  formulaic prose has the tenor of a pulpy romance novel.

“If Edith has known joy, it has never felt like this.  For this sensation is a mixture of ecstasy and misery she could never have foreseen.”

Related Post:  Celebrating Edith Wharton



Love, Fiercely – Manhattan Romance in the Gilded Age

Edith Minturn’s face was immortalized as the “New American Girl” in a portrait by a John Singer Sargent, and she was the model for the famous 65 foot high statue of Daniel Chester French’s Republic displayed at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. Using the painting as her inspiration, Jean Zimmerman reveals the lives of  Edith Minturn, heir to a shipping magnate, (nicknamed Fiercely by her brother) and her husband, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, in a story that reads like a fictional romance in Love, Fiercely.

At the turn of century that Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” fashion and propriety  ruled wealthy families.

“… Edith Wharton could have quite naturally placed the behaviors of the Minturn girls into one of {her} novels.”

Both Edith and Newton enjoyed the perks of the rich – European travel, posh surroundings, servants, tailor-made clothes.  Newton chose architecture over the family banking business, and  Edith rebelliously fought for women’s rights – she turned down his first proposal of marriage.  The famous portrait came to represent a new freedom for women, with Edith’s pose “with attitude,” the position of the well-placed hat and Newton’s fading into the background.

Using a conversational style, Zimmerman looks back at Manhattan’s history and the famous families who created the foundation for what it is today. Part of the Stokes family mansion still stands as the Morgan Library on 34th street (where I visited the Jane Austen collection not long ago) and their famous portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The couple who look out from the painting changed  Manhattan with a legacy that endures today – through buildings he designed,  reformation of low-income housing, Edith’s introduction of the new concept of kindergarten, and Newton’s Iconography of Manhattan Island – a six-volume visual history of New York that exhausted “its creator’s fortune, health, and grip on sanity.”

Whenever I can wander the halls of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. or the Metropolitan Museum in New York City,  the portraits always tease me with lingering questions – I wonder who were these patricians and did they do anything besides “sit” for the artist. Jean Zimmerman delivers a well-researched answer on one that reveals the personalities behind the paint. Edith Minturn Stokes and Newton Phelps Stokes are worth knowing.

History of a Pleasure Seeker

In the tradition of Edith Wharton, Richard Mason observes the wealthy and those who aspire to be like them in The History of a Pleasure Seeker. The novel moves from Amsterdam to New York and South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the upstairs/downstairs machinations provide excellent relief for those yearning for the return of Downton Abbey. But beware, Mason’s erotic descriptions are not for the prudish. At times, you will think you are reading a book that deserves a bodice-ripping cover instead of the staid back view of a young gentleman.

Piet Barol has yearned for a life of wealth with all its accompanying privileges, and his dead French mother has prepared him well with lessons on manners and music. With his first job, as tutor to young Egbert at the family mansion of a wealthy Dutch hotelier, Piet hopes to finally use his good looks and acquired charm to finesse a better life for himself. Mason uses Piet’s position as the tutor as the link between the upstairs and downstairs; he takes his meals and attends church with the family, while sharing bath water and camaraderie with the help.

Piet’s young pupil, Egbert, suffers from OCD and agoraphobia – the description of the boy’s infliction is as humorous as it is devastating. Charged with curing the boy, Piet ignores his mission until one of the mannered sisters of the house challenges his boasts of horsemanship, tricking him into a painful ride. His angry response which almost costs him his job, turns out to be the beginning of the cure.

Piet also enjoys amorous attention from the lady of the house, who repeatedly requests his sexual prowess, as her relief from her husband’s sexual indifference toward her – brought on by his secret religious pact to cease all intercourse after the birth of a son. Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts, the master of the house, has his own reasons for appreciating Piet…

“But as he looked as the young man who was now his tutor, who asked such intelligent questions and whose manners were commendably amiable and discreet, he began to feel optimistic about his son’s chances… and he felt a twinge of relief that responsibility for Egbert’s developing masculinity was no longer his alone.”

Although this sounds more soap opera than literary, Mason connects the plot to the undercurrent of differences between the classes. The historical perspective has World War I approaching and the New York banks failing, and Mason’s dialogue and descriptions transport the reader to the Belle Époque era,

When the possible discovery of Piet’s scandalous behavior with the lady of the house threatens Piet’s standing, he sails for South Africa and a new adventure begins on the long trip. He pays for steerage and yet enjoys some first class perks, thanks to the former footman who shared his bath water at the mansion and is now a waiter on the voyage. En route, Piet experiences his first true love with an actress singing in the ship’s opera, and his first sexual encounter with a man. All ends well, with Piet’s future looking promising once again.

Although Piet is clearly an opportunist, I couldn’t help cheering for him. Each time he loses everything and must start anew, Mason fortifies his character’s resolve and on he goes. The story starts slowly but as Piet’s fate evolves, the characters gets into a good rhythm (pardon the pun).

Celebrating Edith Wharton

When I visited Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Massachusetts – the Mount – I remember the docent telling how Wharton would stay in bed all day writing, strewing rejected pages on the floor for the maid to clean up, whenever Edith finally emerged from her self-imposed exile. The idea of staying in pajamas all day, having food delivered, and looking out on the lush garden outside her window for inspiration, was appealing to me.

Hearing that Wharton would have celebrated her 150th birthday in January (and I missed the party), I was inspired to revisit the world of Newland Archer and the Countess Olenska – so I am now rereading Wharton’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, “The Age of Innocence” – and finding it so much better now that it is not required reading for a class.

Have you read any of Wharton’s books – just for the fun of it?

Wharton used her native New York to frame her stories, but Dierdre Donahue in her column for USA Today lists two new books inspired by Wharton that base the action outside Gotham – “The Innocents” (based in London) by Francesca Segal and “Gilded Age” (in Cleveland) by Claire Millan.

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Bibliotherapy – Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

A book can always do something for a psyche – calm it down, cheer it up, instill some missing romance, provide an adventure, travel to an unknown destination – most of the time.  The secret to getting lost in a book may be the story, the writing, or the topic, but more likely it’s the reader’s inclination and willingness to give up the present and fall into another world – for better or worse.

When the real world becomes unbearable, and reading a book becomes preferable to doing anything else, no one worries; it’s acceptable to go off in a quiet corner to read and block out the surrounding world.

 Nina Sankowitch looked to books to help her cope with  the death of her sister.  Jan Hoffman of the New York Times describes Sankovitch’s plan to read a book a day as grief therapy, chronicled in Sankovitch’s book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair. 

“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure.”

She read Toni Morrison, Leo Tolstoy, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, and more.  Some books she found:

Stacks of books beckon – sometimes reading can just make you feel better.