Today I have a VERY FULL post! I have a review of Age of Desire, by Jennie Fields, which is a biographical dramatic fiction of Edith Wharton, the classic author of such titles as House of Mirth and Age of Innocence. The latter awarded her the title of the first female to win the Pulitzer Prize in the early 1900s, which was a time when most women were supposed to strive for marriage, not merit. Yet, Wharton overcame society’s bounds, leaving behind literary classics that have been re-published many times over, made into movies, and earned her a lasting place in history.
Then I have an AMAZINGLY informative interview and in-depth discussion with Jennie Fields about Age of Desire, Edith Wharton, and the turbulent time period which was the turn of the 2oth Century. First, let’s take a look at the book’s snippet and cover. Enjoy!
THE AGE OF DESIRE, Synopsis~
Paperback Publication Date: May 28, 2013
For fans of The Paris Wife, a sparkling glimpse into the life of Edith Wharton and the scandalous love affair that threatened her closest friendship.
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.
Review of The Age of Desire~
Jennie Fields’ The Age of Desire is an account of premiere female author Edith Wharton’s middle-aged private life, which is set as a fictional account, yet also very true to actual events (based on much research and reading of letters and diaries between Wharton and the people closest to her in life).
The title, Age of Desire, I believe to be a play on words to Wharton’s own Pulitzer prize-winning Age of Innocence, which was a novel featuring the upper-elite’s guarded values and portrayed innocence wrapped-up in their ironic hidden indiscretions. Fields’ book shows that Edith is very innocent and emotionally isolated until she reaches her forties, which becomes her “Age of Desire” as she becomes vulnerable to the love of a manipulative American journalist, Morton Fullerton, who works in France.
I was quite overcome with disgust for Edith Wharton at the beginning of the book, based on her actions toward her childhood governess, Anna Bahlmann, who by the time the book’s first scene opens had become her secretary and writing sounding board (her modern-day editor). Anna was a close friend, confidant, and yet, also her “servant” or her employee. There is a fine line between them, however. Anna has raised Edith, who had an awful relationship with her abhorrent mother, and Anna is more family to her than anyone–almost like a mother. However, she seems to not know the true way of how to treat familial loved ones, or as most, probably rebelled, just much later in life. Perhaps this is based on her own awful childhood and stems from her also being spoiled in many ways as a child? She never had a good relationship with her mother and probably doesn’t truly know how to love anyone deeply as she should. Her father was very rich (she was a Jones…ever hear the phrase, “keeping up with the Joneses?”) and Edith was somewhat of a genius in creative thinking and conversation. Her love of intellectual conversations, ironically, is what made her appreciate Anna. Yet, Anna also could be sent away at Edith’s whim and treated as the lower class servant she was paid to be even though Edith owed much of her beginning success to Anna. Eventually, I see that these are two very different ladies, each wonderful in their own ways.
See why society in the early 1900s makes no sense sometimes with its twists and turns? This is why Jennie Fields’ emotional story is so compelling and page-turning. Edith’s emotions are so hard to contain into the pages of the book. Her personality is so large, she screams off the paper. In this way, Fields’ character development of Wharton is superb.
There is so much to Edith’s relationship with Anna in this book, with huge segments of Anna disappearing. The book juxtaposed between Edith’s thoughts, and side of the story, and Anna’s thoughts. Anna was so much more reserved, calm, quiet and nurturing which probably not only complemented Edith in real life, but also did well for the reader in the novel (it acted as a balance for me). It gave me a breather from Edith’s emotional roller coaster. Most likely, as readers, we felt that Anna disappeared for a little while during our reading of the book because in Edith’s somewhat shallow and egocentric mind, she actually did! During this time though, Edith is entrenched in the slow-burning affair that Edith has with Morton Fullerton and quite honestly, I was too. Edith’s emotional capacity for love and lust blossom under the sweet romantic interlude she has with Fullerton. He kept her guessing, which kept the reader guessing. Edith’s conflicted mind kept swaying, which also kept the reader on pins and needles. It was very suspenseful.
Edith marries Teddy Wharton when she is young, on a quick whim, and knowing nothing of being intimate is scared from their initial time together when he seems to be rougher than his general demeanor. She lives from that time on in a loveless (on her end) marriage as she finds they have nothing in common intellectually. Fullerton gives her a longing and creates passion she didn’t know could exist, both mentally and physically. Meanwhile, Teddy becomes ill both physically and mentally, which leads to depression for him. Edith cannot stand this in him and continues to search out every moment of happiness she can find in love, life, travel to Paris, conversation, and friends. She does not want to hear from Anna what her “duties” are because she begins to believe that life is to be felt and enjoyed. Her love affair with Fullerton opens feelings and desires in her which last in life for her even after it becomes apparent that he is a playboy and fraud. This affair, though it doesn’t continue, allows Edith to be who she wishes to be without limits. To be free to be herself as a woman, bound by no demands or ideals outsider her own. She continues to do her best writing work, which seems to be more emotionally driven as well.
Fields’ portrays Wharton’s personality struggles, Anna’s comfortable demeanor, Teddy’s impatience and longing, Fullerton’s conniving, her friend (another well-known writer) Henry James’ fun-loving and entertaining quirks all so well that as a reader I feel I view each of them as if I was a fly on the wall. And to think that they were all real people living this extraordinary sequence of events!
I enjoyed a look into the fast, free, and creative lifestyle of 1900 Paris, compared to the slower moving and structured American high-society country life, with tidbits of travel to Missouri, Germany, and New York!
I certainly will be looking into more of Edith Wharton’s backlist and comparing her private life to her writing. As well, I also hope to enjoy the backlist of Jennie Fields, and her future works!
I highly recommend Age of Desire for a private look into the drama-filled life of one of America’s most trailblazing women authors, as well as for its sensual look into a stifling society and what it means for a creative woman to be freed from its proverbial cage. Engaging, exhilarating, and emotionally-wretching, this novel is a must-read for anyone liking literary works that showcase women finding their true natures and coming to terms with their innermost desires.
Edith Wharton, publicity shot, c. 1905. Edith Wharton Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Now to learn more about the writing of Age of Desire, please join me for an interview with author Jennie Fields!
Interview with Author Jennie Fields~
Hi Jennie! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m happy to have you join us and am looking forward to talking to you! Does the summer find you enjoying anything fun?
Jennie: I just returned from a gorgeous trip to Ireland and England with my husband. Now I’m enjoying being home: walking my puppy – we walk about 5 miles a day – and working on my new book.
Erin: I bet your trip was delightful and a well-deserved break! Let’s pour some tall glasses of iced tea, have a seat, and get started talking about your book, The Age of Desire, which is a fictional novel set in the early 1900s featuring author Edith Wharton.
Q: As I stated, your historical fiction piece is about author Edith Wharton and her complex life. How does society remember Edith Warton? What books did she write?
A: There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in Edith Wharton, maybe because her books were so timeless, her language so modern, though she wrote them 100 years ago. She’s most famous for The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome. But she wrote 40 books in her lifetime. I highly recommend some of the lesser-known books such as The Custom of the Country and The Mother’s Recompense. Great reads!
Q: When did you discover Edith Wharton? What gave you the inspiration to delve into her personal life and bring her story to the page?
A: I first read Edith Wharton in college when Ethan Frome was assigned. Like 90% of teenagers I just didn’t get it. It was so depressing! Then when I read The House of Mirth in college, I was hooked and have loved her ever since. My agent was the one who suggested I write about her life. I was struggling to find a subject for my fourth novel. My agent knew I adored Edith, and she said, “Check out her life.” That was the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.
Q: What do you think that readers find fascinating with historical reads that draw famous turn of the 20th Century artists, writers, authors, trailblazers, and so forth to light? Why do you feel it’s important to uncover their real lives beyond just remembering them for their “works or achievements?”
A: That first question is a great one. And I think the answer lies in the dramatic societal change that occurred between the turn of the century and the 1920’s. Think of the change in clothing. At the turn of the century, women were wearing corsets, long dresses, high collars. Modesty was essential. By the 1920’s, short skirts and little underwear was the norm. A shocking change. And as in many things, artists and writers were the first to openly break the rules, like the poetess Anna de Noailles, who is a character in my novel and was wildly bohemian before others dared. Sexual mores changed too.
Edith Wharton lived in a very prescribed society in the U.S. That’s one of the reasons she was so drawn to Paris where she was able to spend time with a more free-thinking Bohemian crowd. If she’d stayed in the US, she might never have met Morton Fullerton who became her lover. Why does her private life matter? Well, it gives us insight into the change in her fiction. Pick up The House of Mirth, you’ll see that there’s no real passion there. But if you read The Age of Innocence, written after her affair with Fullerton, you’ll see it throbs with passion. Had she never had her affair, Edith would never have encountered passion in her life, and we, as her readers, would have been the poorer.
Q: How did you begin your research on Edith Wharton’s life? Did you have a solid idea before writing the novel about the plot and characters involved, or did you write as you researched? What was the most surprising piece of research you uncovered?
A: I picked up three biographies to get the lay of the land, and then I did mostly primary research. I figured out early on that I was interested in her love affair with Morton Fullerton. It was so fascinating to me: an unhappily married woman who at the age of forty-five had a sexual awakening.
Fortunately, Edith left a treasure trove of information behind. She kept a diary at the time of the affair that is truly heart-wrenching to read. She wrote it in second person, almost like a love letter to Morton. It spoke volumes about her insecurities, her thrill at being wanted by a man who she deemed so desirable. It’s kept at the Lilly Library at Indiana University. And Morton kept all the letters she did write him, though she begged him to burn them. They are at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.
But my greatest find had to do with my secondary voice: Anna Bahlmann. Anna was Edith’s governess, then literary secretary. None of the biographers had written more than a few sentences about her, but I suspected the two women must have been close, having lived together for much of their lives. I found out all I could about Anna’s life and began to write. About two months in, I woke up one night and put Anna’s name into a search engine, as I had done many times before, but this night I discovered that Christie’s Auction House was selling 135 letters that very week from Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann! They’d been hidden away for a hundred years. I called Christies the next day and was allowed to read the letters. What a thrill. Everything I imagined about their closeness was true. Anna was almost a mother figure to Edith. Their loving friendship is the heart of my book. Those letters now reside along with many other letters from Edith Wharton at The Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Q: Your book also addresses historical situations of this time such as World War 1. Where does most of your book take place? What were some of the issues that your characters were struggling against? What can readers learn from the writing that surrounds your main romantic element?
A: The majority of the book takes place in Paris and at Edith’s estate in Massachusetts, The Mount. After Edith’s affair with Morton, she sold The Mount and spent the rest of her life in France. France felt free to her compared to her hermetically sealed life in the US, and she was very protective towards her adopted country. Which is why she became so involved in charities to help the French people during World War I. For her work, she was awarded The Legion of Honor. While the book is about Edith’s romance, I don’t want people to think it’s a romantic book. Her romance with Morton was not an easy one, and Edith was a complex and brilliant woman, not always lovable, and no romantic heroine. But the affair changed her forever, made her more confident, more bold, and a writer who understood the pull of passion.
Q: Speaking of the romantic element, it was actually an illicit affair that Edith Wharton had with journalist Morton Fullerton. Is this common knowledge? How much is documented and how much is purely fictionalized?
A: Her affair is common knowledge now, though she tried to keep it quiet at the time. The affair was extremely well documented in her diary and letters, as I said earlier. And I worked very hard to stick to the truth, while trying to understand the emotions that made it happen.
Q: How did you handle bringing the personality of Anna, her secretary and friend Anna Bahlmann to the story? She seemed to be her loyal guide, friend, and confidant, but also just an employee. How was Anna content with being the one behind the scenes? Do you think there really are people who are satisfied with never being the one that is front and center?
A: I think it’s terribly important to remember that while Anna was Edith’s friend and a member of her household, she was also a servant. This is something that’s hard for us to grasp today. If you compare her position to Downton Abbey, you might say that Anna’s place was both upstairs AND downstairs. Sometimes Edith was not very sensitive to Anna’s needs. Edith was a fairly self-centered person, as many geniuses are. And in that era, servants’ feelings weren’t considered important. It’s a painful truth. At the same time, there’s no doubt in my mind that Edith adored Anna. After all, she kept her close for years and years and was deeply affected when Anna died. Anna once told a friend of Edith’s that the only thing that mattered to her was making Edith’s life easier. I think even now, there are people who wish to support others, never wishing to place themselves front and center. Perhaps they are harder to come by these days, and few are as loyal as dear Anna.
Q: What approach did you feel you needed to take when writing about Edith Wharton’s “sexual awakening?” Do you feel that this was also true of the times, a time when women were discovering so many things about themselves, their needs, and in fact, that they were even allowed to have personal feelings and independence?
A: I’ll tell you a little secret: I had something of a guide. After her affair with Fullerton, Edith wrote some erotica – extremely x-rated erotica at that! It was just a fragment of a larger story found among her papers when she died. I found it extraordinarily useful when it came to understanding Edith’s her view of pleasure and orgasm. In The Age of Desire, I do set up Edith’s awakening to be a reflection of changing times. Anna de Noailles is a symbol of a new freedom Edith had never imagined possible for herself. In the book, de Noailles is a harbinger for sexual freedom and the pursuit of pleasure.
Q: Age of Desire is not your first book. What other types of books have you written? What are they about?
A: All my books are, in some way, about women trying find permission to be happy. Passion vs. duty. It’s a topic that Edith Wharton also often pursued. It took me years before I saw the parallel. If I were going to recommend one of my earlier books, I’d recommend Lily Beach, about a young artist in the 1960’s. I named Lily Beach as an homage Lily Bart, the main character in The House of Mirth. The characters are not alike, but it was my tip of the hat to Edith. It was my first book, and when my agent took me on, she recognized the parallel right away. That’s how I knew she was the perfect agent for me!
Q: Do you have more women in history that you’d enjoy writing a book about? If you don’t mind, can you name a few that might interest you, and why?
A: There are two women I considered writing about: Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Lee Miller. A very good writer is already writing about Georgia. I don’t know if she’s made it public, so I can’t share her name with you. And Lee Miller’s archive was closed because a movie is being made about her life. So I went on to yet another woman…
Q: Are you in process with another novel or have future plans for more books?
A: To finish the last thought, yes! I am writing about a woman who was world famous in the 1890’s. She was one of the richest women in the world, she had a great deal of power and used it to promote feminist causes. And she was a great art collector, one of the first Americans to collect Impressionist painting. But I’m not sharing her name yet!
Q: Do you write with an outline, or do you work as you go? How do you stay organized as a writer?
A: I never write an outline. I feel my way around a story. With biographical novels, I have the benefit of a life story already formed. For me, it’s really about finding the shape of a specific story within an already existing life.
Q: What is your favorite historical period and/or place? Why?
A: I’d definitely have to say the 1920’s in Paris. What an exciting time. Colorful. Groundbreaking. I still haven’t found a subject to write about during this time period who hasn’t been overused yet. But someday, I hope!
Q: You’re now an author, but spent many years in the creative field of advertising. As a marketing and public relations person myself, I have written a lot of advertising copy and pulled together visuals, yet am first and foremost a writer/journalist (both fun, but different). How do you feel that your background assists you in your work as an author? How has the transition been for you from copy writing to long form writing?
A: Ah, so you’ve experienced the world of marketing as well, Erin? It’s a tough world. But it can be a rewarding one, and it certainly pays better than writing fiction – unless you’re J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. But advertising was always secondary to me, a way to feed my family. I’ve always written fiction, long before I became a copywriter. And in a way, they’re very different disciplines. I feel they use different sides of my brain. Advertising is logical, puzzle-solving. Fiction seems to rise from my subconscious. But fiction too sometimes requires puzzle solving. I’ve always enjoyed working in tight parameters in both advertising and fiction. I call it Rubik’s Cube work. You have all the pieces dictated to you. Now you have to put them in a satisfying, creative, exciting order. I do find the discipline of working every day in advertising has taught me a lot about sitting down and creating whether I’m in the mood or not. The thrill of coming up with a wonderful idea is the same for both disciplines!
Q: Do you have any authors you enjoy? What type of book(s) do you like best?
A: No one inspires me more than Edith Wharton. I also enjoy Ian McEwan, Sue Miller, Anne Tyler, Khaled Hosseini and Barbara Kingsolver. I like all sorts of books, especially ones where the language just sings to me, and the characters feel real, complex and vivid.
Q: What do you feel you’ve most learned from any of the characters you’ve written about or created for any of your books? Please explain.
A: All the women I write about seem to be struggling with permission to be happy. I guess that something I’ve always struggled with too. I’d say it’s a common issue for women. Have I learned from my characters? Maybe I’m just older and happier. I’m not sure!
Q: Where can readers connect with you?
A: I love connecting with readers. Please “like” my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/jennie.fields.author?ref=hl
Connect with me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jfieldsauthor
And please check out my website which shows you photos of the characters from The Age of Desire: http://jenniefields.com/
There’s a place on my website to sign up your book group so that I can join you for an evening, in person if you live near me or via Skype if not. I’ve joined book groups all over the country and have had a great time-sharing evenings with such smart readers.
Q: Do you have plans for ongoing appearances with Age of Desire? List all the best places to purchase your books.
A: I have done two book tours for The Age of Desire, many book festivals and have even done readings in Paris! So I probably won’t be doing much more traveling. But if your library is interested, and willing to help me get there, I would love to come to your town. Some of my favorite readings have been at libraries. I have a serious crush on the Omaha Public Library, for instance!
I know it’s easy to buy my book on Amazon, and maybe even cheaper, but please, if you can, buy my book at an independent bookstore. We need to keep our independent booksellers alive! I have discovered such fantastic independents across the country. They are at the heart of a literate community and need our support. Pay an extra dollar so that they can keep their doors open! But if you don’t live near an independent, here are the links to my books online:
Erin: Jennie, it was a joy being able to interview you. The early 1900s is a growing interest for me as well as famous, creative women of this time. Age of Desire was very enjoyable! Best of luck with your continued career!
Jennie: Erin, what a pleasure to answer your smart, probing questions. And thanks for the iced tea!
Praise for The Age of Desire~
“Somewhere between the repressiveness of Edith Wharton’s early-20th-century Age of Innocence and our own libertine Shades of Grey era lies the absorbingly sensuous world of Jennie Fields’s The Age of Desire . . . along with the overheated romance and the middle-age passion it so accurately describes, The Age of Desire also offers something simpler and quieter: a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.” —Boston Globe
“One doesn’t have to be an Edith Wharton fan to luxuriate in the Wharton-esque plotting and prose Fields so elegantly conjures.” —Kirkus
“Delicate and imaginative . . . Fields’s love and respect for all her characters and her care in telling their stories shines through.” —Publishers Weekly
Beautiful … an imaginative tour-de-force with the best-written naughty bits I have ever read.” —UK Daily Mail
Inspired by Wharton’s letters, The Age of Desire is by turns sensuous . . . and sweetly melancholy. It’s also a moving examination of a friendship between two women. —Bookpage
“A fascinating insight into the life of my favorite novelist. Fields brings a secret side of Wharton to life, and shows us a woman whose elegant façade concealed a turbulent sensuality.” —Daisy Goodwin, author of The American Heiress
“With astonishing tenderness and immediacy, The Age of Desire portrays the interwoven lives of Edith Wharton and Anna Bahlmann, her governess, secretary, and close friend. By focusing on these two women from vastly different backgrounds, Jennie Fields miraculously illuminates an entire era. . . . I gained insight into both Wharton’s monumental work and her personal struggles—and I was filled with regret that I’d finished reading so soon.” —Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light and A Fierce Radiance
“In the vein of Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, Jennie Fields has created a page-turning period piece. Fields portrays a woman whose life was hardly innocence and mirth, but passionate, complex, and more mysterious than one might ever imagine.” —Mary Morris, author of Nothing to Declare and Revenge
Author Jennie Fields, Biography~
Born in the heart of the heart of the country – Chicago — Jennie Fields decided to become a writer at the age of six and produced her first (365 page!) novel when she was eleven. She received her MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop and published her first short stories while spending a postgraduate year at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. But needing to feed her family in the era just post-Mad Men, she became an early female copywriter at an advertising agency, soon rising to creative director and moving to New York. In her 32-year advertising career, she wrote and produced many well-known and award-winning commercials. People even now can embarrass her by telling her they grew up dancing to one of her McDonalds’ jingles.
Still, fiction was her great love. Writing during her lunch hour and after her daughter’s bedtime she penned her first novel, Lily Beach, which was published by Atheneum in 1993 to much acclaim. Since then, she’s written three more novels including Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and The Middle Ages. Her latest, The Age of Desire, is a biographical novel based on the life of the author dearest to her heart, Edith Wharton. An Editor’s Choice of the New York Times Book Review, it describes Wharton’s mid-life love affair with a younger, manipulative man. Why the affinity to Wharton? Because she wrote about people attempting to break society’s expectations for them – which is something Fields has been yearning to do all her life.
For more information, please visit Jennie’s website.
Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/theageofdesiretour/
Twitter Hashtag: #AgeOfDesireTour
I received a copy of this book from Historical Fiction Virtual Tours. All opinions are my own.