Staff Pick – The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

Jennie Field’s Age of Desire (M) re-imagines the life of Edith Wharton in the first decade of the twentieth century when she had come into her own as a writer whose novel House of Mirth (M) had achieved great success and was less that twenty years away from becoming the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature for her novel Age of Innocence. (M)

Wharton was born to a wealthy and well-connected New York family who had planned her life as a socialite rather than as a writer and an intellectual. She made an unfortunate marriage to Teddy Wharton who, in addition to being most likely bi-polar, was far more suited to the life of a country squire than to cerebral debate in Parisian drawing rooms. Theirs was a sexless and disastrous marriage. In her forties, Wharton was to have her passionate nature awakened by journalist Morton Fullerton, and as their affair progressed, Teddy would slip deeper into illness and madness.

The actual Edith Wharton was an intensely private person and didn’t speak or write of her marriage or her affair during her lifetime. Wharton’s and Fullerton’s affair was graphically described in Age of Desire in a way that you could imagine to be intrusive for the reticent Wharton. This novel’s strength, in my opinion, is in the character Anna Bahlmann. Anna was Wharton’s companion from a teenager to Anna’s death in 1916. Their relationship began as governess and pupil with Anna teaching young Edith German language and literature. As Wharton grew into her fame, Anna’s role evolved into literary secretary and companion. Half of the story is told from Anna ‘s perspective and illuminates the inherent difficulty and inevitable hurt feelings with the servant / employer / friend relationship. As Edith’s and Fullerton’s relationship develops, Anna discovers a late-life friendship of her own which is the first to challenge her unwavering loyalty to her employer.

In 2009 the correspondence between Edith Wharton and Anna Bahlmann came to light for the first time and were then published as My Dear Governess: the letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann (Min 1912. It would be interesting to find out how much of her life was imagined. “An exciting archive came to auction in 2009: the papers and personal effects of Anna Catherine Bahlmann (1849–1916), a governess and companion to several prominent American families. Among the collection were one hundred thirty-five letters from her most famous pupil, Edith Newbold Jones, later the great American novelist Edith Wharton. Remarkably, until now, just three letters from Wharton’s childhood and early adulthood were thought to survive. Bahlmann, who would become Wharton’s literary secretary and confidante, emerges in the letters as a seminal influence, closely guiding her precocious young student’s readings, translations, and personal writing. Taken together, these letters, written over the course of forty-two years, provide a deeply affecting portrait of mutual loyalty and influence between two women from different social classes.” publisher

For another story of women’s friendship that crosses social barriers try Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (M) by Jennifer Chiaverini. “a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.” publisher

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