It is tempting, in light of Jennie Fields’ novelization of Edith Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton, to start a review that asks the reader to imagine Edith Wharton with no clothes on. For most of her fans this is a daunting task; the woman seemed to have been born wearing layers and layers of velvets, lace, buttons, corsets and ribbons.
Fields, however, has no problem imagining Wharton in the altogether. Still, The Age of Desire is about more than adulterous hijinks. Indeed, the book’s primary relationship isn’t between Wharton and Fullerton, but between Wharton and her now mostly forgotten governess and secretary, Anna Bahlmann. Called “Tonni” by her boss, she’s mousy, self-effacing and infinitely forbearing. She needs to be; the sometimes imperious Wharton switches between treating her like a beloved family member and a house elf. Still, this is rather better than Wharton treats her husband, Teddy, who spends much of the book not only being cuckolded, but suffering from what is now recognized as manic depression.
Fields makes us understand why Wharton would fall in love with a bounder like Fullerton. Wharton married the older Teddy because he was a gentleman of some means and it was the thing to do at the time. Their marriage is arid. Fullerton is beautiful, he’s as indifferent to public opinion as the rest of her friends, and he wants her, a plain woman in her mid-40s. All the while Tonni lurks in the background, watching and disapproving, yet ever steadfast.
Inspired by Wharton’s letters, The Age of Desire is by turns sensuous—Fields’ descriptions of Wharton’s homes and apartments are far more mouth-watering than her depictions of Edwardian rumpy-pumpy—and sweetly melancholy. It’s also a moving examination of a friendship between two women.
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