They say that behind every great man is a great woman. Behind Edith Wharton, there was Anna Bahlmann—her governess turned literary secretary and confidante. At the age of forty-five, despite her growing fame, Edith remains unfulfilled in a lonely, sexless marriage. Against all the rules of Gilded Age society, she falls in love with Morton Fullerton, a dashing young journalist. But their scandalous affair threatens everything in Edith’s life—especially her abiding ties to Anna.
At a moment of regained popularity for Wharton, Jennie Fields brilliantly interweaves Wharton’s real letters and diary entries with her fascinating, untold love story. Told through the points of view of both Edith and Anna, The Age of Desire transports readers to the golden days of Wharton’s turn-of-the century world and—like the recent bestseller The Chaperone—effortlessly re-creates the life of an unforgettable woman.
There are some novels that I am not able to get to for one reason or another until months or even years after they release. THE AGE OF DESIRE was one such novel, and I am very sad that I did not read it sooner because it consumed me in the best possible way.
The elegant cover invites the reader to enter Edith Wharton’s world–a sphere of abundant wealth and intellectual stimulation, but severely lacking in the warmth of romantic attachment. Trapped in a loveless marriage by duty and guilt, Edith’s only joys come from her writing, Paris, and her dear friends, most notably her loyal secretary, Anna Bahlmann.
When Edith meets Morton Fullerton–a journalist with a bad reputation and considerable charm–everything still and secure in her life becomes unsettled by the effect he has on her. As Edith finds herself opening to new experiences and awakening under his attention, Anna finds herself entangled in various relationships that betray the deep connection she has to her employer. As the years progress through the narrative–told in Edith’s and Anna’s alternating points of view–the stories converge in both tragic and touching ways.
I did not know much about the personal life of Edith Wharton before reading THE AGE OF DESIRE, but the novel has sent me on a quest to learn more. I have spent hours sifting through photographs of those depicted in the story, have revisited some of Mrs. Wharton’s novels on my shelves, and long to go to The Mount, Wharton’s home in the Berkshires. Fields’ interpretation of the characters brings them vividly to life, and moves the reader to anger, frustration, and adoration regarding their decisions, their mistakes, and their charity. Edith Wharton was clearly a complicated woman, and steals the limelight, but the heart of the novel lies with her stalwart secretary and friend, Anna.
For its enthralling portrayals of romance, friendship, and heartbreak amid well-rendered period settings, I give THE AGE OF DESIRE my highest recommendation. If you enjoyed THE PARIS WIFE, you will delight in this novel.
Have you read any of Edith Wharton’s work? Which is your favorite novel? If you have read this novel, I would love to hear what you thought.