Unlike 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.”
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.