The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields
In the first decade of the 1900s Edith Wharton’s name begins to rise amid the literary world as her novel The House of Mirth sees great success, thanks in part to the aid of her devoted secretary, her former governess and greatest friend, Anna Bahlmann. Living with the Whartons as a servant and yet held in a companionable station to both Edith and her husband, Teddy, Anna lives at the brink of two very different worlds, viewing Edith’s high society success from a position affording her no rank or attribution. Anna, though, gives no thought to her own recognition; she is interested only in lifting up her closest friend to the best of her ability. When Edith, struggling in her midlife, famously embarks on a tumultuous affair with the young journalist Morton Fullerton, the two women find their friendship precariously threatened by Anna’s disapproval. Edith claims that she never loved her husband, and as Anna’s heart solicitously goes out to the kindly, simple Teddy Wharton a new chasm is marked in their friendship, illuminating the stark differences in their personalities. Unable to detach herself from Edith’s life, Anna must summon her strength to endeavor through this lonely new territory while Edith herself must face the consequences of her actions. Intertwining passages from Edith Wharton’s diaries and letters, The Age of Desire depicts an iconic time in history from the perspective of two resolute and very different women. From Paris to England, Germany to New England, Wharton’s world comes to dazzling life under the skill of author Jennie Fields. Legendary talents take the stage to become delightfully lucid characters in this novelization of Wharton’s midlife scandal, most notably her lover, Morton Fullerton, and their very great friend, the lively and compelling Henry James. The presence of such creative entities as Anna de Noailles and John Galsworthy give finite illumination to the author’s beautifully crafted recreation of Paris in the early twentieth century. But perhaps the most irrepressible presence in the novel comes from the two women at the helm of the story: Edith and Anna. To tell their story is a bold choice, as the likeness between them is nearly impossible to discern; Edith’s actions often exude extreme self-centeredness while Anna’s open and charitable nature rank her highly in the reader’s esteem. But at the core of each woman’s story there is found an extraordinary examination of female nature and the unpredictable, often indecipherable roots of friendship. There was something in each woman that particularly resonated with me – Edith’s desire for a liberation she doesn’t quite know the shape of, Anna’s journey through the labyrinth of her own life lessons against the boundary of her timidity – and I felt the joys and sorrows of them both. Anna’s inability to separate herself from Edith, even despite Wharton’s negligence and apparent disrespect, illustrated a concept of the two women being tied together invisibly, an unbreakable bond that even they themselves don’t fully understand. It presented a journey extensive in its emotions and astonishing in its depth. Through it all I was enchanted, enriched by the author’s prose, and sated in the way that only literature is capable of.
What Jennie Fields achieves with The Age of Desire is an ambitious, luxuriant novel that transports the reader into a bright, decadent world of art and literature, society and scandal, introducing us to two larger than life women and sweeping us on a journey through their heartbreaks and joys as we come to witness the extraordinary strength of a life-encompassing friendship.