Edith Wharton’s Awakening
‘The Age of Desire,’ by Jennie Fields
By JUDITH MARTIN
Published: August 31, 2012
It is impossible to libel the dead; legal protection of reputation stops at the grave. But is it possible to embarrass the dead?
Modern writers keep trying. If anyone would have been humiliated by having his sexuality, or lack of it, explored in serious literature, it would have been Henry James. Fears of posthumous invasions of his privacy led him to a frenzy of letter burning, but the reams that he missed were enough to inspire such speculation by the critic Leon Edel and the novelist Colm Toibin, among many others.
There is no need to speculate about the personal life of Henry James’s friend Edith Wharton, the subject of Jennie Fields’s novel “The Age of Desire.” Wharton’s wild affair, in middle age, with the American expatiate journalist Morton Fullerton — wild on her part, that is, but routine on his — is well documented in the passionate and pathetic letters she wrote to him. Despite her pleas to return them, as a gentleman was obliged to do when a love affair ended, Fullerton, well known as a serial cad to assorted besotted ladies and gentlemen, kept and eventually sold letters from both Edith Wharton and Henry James.
There could hardly be a more apt theme for a novel of manners than the struggle of a prominent and respectable lady to disguise her inflamed feelings in order to meet the conventions of society. It is not only her frantic yearning for her lover that is portrayed here, but the fallout expressed in her irritation with her husband and her editorial assistant for unknowingly getting in the way.
A secondary novel-of-manners theme, developed from the author’s research, concerns the relationship between Wharton and Anna Bahlmann, her childhood governess, who became her editorial assistant. With no clear social definition covering such a development, the women vacillate between behaving as friends and colleagues or as mistress and servant.
Authentic letters are quoted to bolster the pitiful way in which Wharton was reduced to writing like a lovesick teenager, snapping “Don’t write me again!” in her anger that Fullerton had, in fact, not written, and a week later pleading that he should have known she didn’t mean it. Bahlmann’s letters pointedly ignore the slights she suffered, as if acknowledging she was in no position to complain. There are credible scenes dramatizing the resulting volatile behavior.
The flaw in this otherwise interesting novel is that its title, mimicking Edith Wharton’s own title, “The Age of Innocence,” presupposes an understanding not just of these personal lives but of the times in which they were lived. Wharton’s novels, including those set in later periods like “The Children” and “The Mother’s Recompense,” are rich with examples of conventions in flux as they symbolize evolving social attitudes. Fields’s novel is rife with examples that are anachronistic and therefore misleading. By the time Edith Wharton’s posthumous love letters were published in the 1980s, it would not be terminally embarrassing for a lady in a dissolving marriage to have a lover. But it’s safe to say that this particular lady would have been embarrassed to see herself and the Parisian society she enjoyed inadvertently portrayed as ignorant and provincial.
The novel’s opening scene takes place in 1907 at an intellectual French salon where, in what passes for arch conversation, the poet Anna de Noailles demands, “Why do they never give the Nobel Prize to a woman?” Someone counters that one had been awarded the peace prize (that would be Bertha von Suttner in 1905). It’s left to the frustrated reader to shout “Marie Curie!” at this supposed hotbed of Parisian sophistication, where no one seems to know that a female 1903 physics winner is toiling in a nearby suburb, on her way to winning her second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry.
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