EDITH 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.
The Age of Desire
by Jennie Fields
Ebury, 368pp, £14.99
Despite her pleas to return them, as a gentleman was obliged to do when a love affair ended, Fullerton, a serial cad, kept and eventually sold them.
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. Here Jennie Field described not only Wharton’s frantic yearning for her lover but the fallout expressed in her irritation with her husband and her editorial assistant for unknowingly getting in the way.
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 dramatising the resulting volatile behaviour.
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 such as The Children and The Mother’s Recompense, are rich with examples of conventions in flux as they symbolise evolving social attitudes. Fields’ 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.
At this gathering, Edith Wharton meets Morton Fullerton – and almost immediately asks him, “What do you do?” Even now, in Europe, that’s considered a blatantly rude question, equivalent to demanding to know how much money a person has. It would also have been unthinkable in the American stratum of society Wharton knew, which maintained the snobbery that only a gentleman with embarrassed finances would be forced to “do” something.
Such small false notes continue throughout the book. Twice the rule is cited that it would be rude to show up for an impromptu visit without writing or telephoning first. Nowadays, that would be true, but then it was exactly what fashionable people did. Few had telephones, and writing would have required sending a footman and waiting for his return. Paying unheralded personal calls, a routine Wharton describes as tedious in her autobiography, was obligatory in her class, where protection from unwelcome visitors took the form of a servant claiming, often mendaciously, that Madam was not at home.
Why does any of this matter? Because if Fields’ novel is intended as anything beyond already rehashed gossip about a literary celebrity, it should illuminate her character in terms of the daily ways she reacted to the restraints of the time. Human passions may be eternal, but social context keeps changing, and so, therefore, does the interaction between them.
In “The Age of Innocence,” Wharton had come to understand that the Victorian society she once condemned as mindlessly stifling was actually more vigilant in requiring discretion than morality, and more shocked by financial shenanigans than sexual ones. In 1993, a film version reflected its own time, treating the sacrifice of romance for the sake of sparing a blameless spouse and preserving the family as emotionally wasteful, if not foolish. Perhaps now that statistics are showing the economic advantages enjoyed by intact families, society’s attitude might change again.
In “The Age of Desire,” we get the desire, but not the age that shaped it.
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