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Authors: Jennie Fields

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The Age of Desire

BOOK: The Age of Desire
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A Novel




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in 2012 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © Jennie Fields, 2012

All rights reserved

A Pamela Dorman Book / Viking

This a work of fiction based on real events.

Excerpts from the letters and diary of Edith Wharton are reprinted by permission of the estate of Edith Wharton and the Watkins/Loomis Agency. The letters are from the collection of Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin. The diary is from the collection of Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Excerpt from “The Imprint” by Anna de Noailles, translated by Catherine Perry. By permission of Catherine Perry.


Fields, Jennie.

The age of desire : a novel / Jennie Fields.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-101-58376-0

1. Wharton, Edith, 1862–1937—Fiction. 2. Bahlmann, Anna Catherine, 1849–1916—Fiction. 3. Authors, American—Fiction. 4. Private secretaries—Fiction. 5. Female friendship—Fiction. 6. Upper class—Fiction. 7. Triangles (Interpersonal relations)—Fiction. 8. Self-realization in women—Fiction. 9. Domestic fiction. 10. Psychological fiction. I. Title.

PS3556.I4175A44 2012

813'.54—dc23 2011042393

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

In memory of my parents, Belle and Ira Fields,
who taught me the power of words, books and ideas


The first person I must thank is my wonderful agent, Lisa Bankoff. I was struggling to find direction for a new novel when an e-mail from Lisa asked me to call her. That very day, for the first time, I had walked through the Paris neighborhood of my favorite author, Edith Wharton. Unaware that I was in Paris, she said, “Why don’t you write about Edith Wharton?” What beautiful serendipity! Because of Lisa, I entered a special and rarefied world that captivated me as no subject ever has. I will forever be in her debt.

I also want to thank my editors, Pamela Dorman and Julie Miesionczek, for their enthusiasm for the book and insightful editing. I am grateful for my patient and thoughtful first readers: Kare Godsell, Irene Goldman-Price (my favorite Wharton scholar), Lindy DeKoven and Susan Spano. Thanks also go to Chris Coover at Christie’s, who graciously allowed me access to the Wharton/Bahlmann correspondence before it came up for auction. (What a tremendous surprise and pleasure it was when those letters came to light just months after I focused on Anna as my secondary point of view.) And I want to warmly thank Laura Shoffner, Anna’s great-grandniece, who painstakingly transcribed Edith’s letters to Anna, put those letters up for auction so scholars could have access to them and very kindly answered my impertinent questions, telling me all she knew of her very special relative.

Thanks also go to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University; the Lilly Library at Indiana University; and Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin. And I am also indebted to two talented and painstaking biographers: Shari Benstock and Hermione Lee, whose years of thoughtful research helped to guide me along the way.

I am sure that I will step on some academic toes. I have attempted as much as possible to be accurate, and true to Edith Wharton’s story. But it is, alas, a novel, with dialogue and scenes that may never have happened. I hope that, as a novelist, the very private and proud Edith looks down on me with indulgence and does not rebuke me for telling her story in the best way I know how.



e stands at the edge of the salon, and Edith has the uncomfortable feeling he’s staring. A dark-haired man. Formal. Self-certain. There are ten roués like him in every café in Paris. But his sapphire eyes glimmer with a discernible intelligence. His coal black lashes are as long as a giraffe’s. Men should not
be allowed to have lashes so seductive. He leans on one leg, observing the room, calculating. How hard he seems to work at doing nothing!

Though Edith has been attending Comtesse Rosa de Fitz-James’s Paris salons for just over a month, she already knows most everyone in attendance. The Abbé Mugnier, with his comical fountain of white hair and bawdy sense of humor. (“
And there she was, wearing nothing but . . .
”) Playwright Paul Hervieu and poet Abel Bonnard arguing in the corner about what makes a human being beautiful. Russian ballet dancer Alexi Toplar with maestro Emmet de Carlo, who leans his head toward him too affectionately while Toplar’s wife stands sulkily watching. And their hostess, Comtesse Rosa, enthroned by the fire, her crippled leg propped on an orange velvet hassock. They say the late Count beat her and broke her leg on purpose. The fact that she is an Austrian Jewess did not stop the denizens of this bohemia from taking her long ago to their hearts. The French love nothing better than a female martyr.

Clotting together at the side of the room are the table-enders, hardly older than students, each waiting for a chance to say the witty thing that will make his mark. Ah, to be a young man, with the world laid before one! All a man needs is to be clever, and have some access to money, or a profession. When Edith was a girl, her only option was to marry Teddy Wharton. Now, she has managed to make a name for herself with her books. How gratifying that her most recent one has drawn such a reaction! No one paid the least attention to the others.

The nameless man glances up again through those absurd lashes and smiles vaguely as though he thinks he knows her. She refuses to walk over and speak to him and is relieved when Rosa beckons.

“Dear Edith, listen to that downpour.” Rain sheets the windows and the weak fire barely alleviates the damp chill. Rosa leans in and drops her voice. “The Bourgets usually arrive with you. Aren’t they coming?” Her eyebrows meet in the middle with disappointment. “And I’ve invited someone
special who’s failed to arrive as well. It must be the weather!”

Edith pats Rosa’s thin shoulder. “Well, I can’t speak for your ‘someone special’ but the Bourgets always come.” The Bourgets are Edith’s closest friends in France—and the ones who introduced her to the Comtesse.

“But the Bourgets are usually first,” Rosa says. “I’m worried.”

Reaching for the fire poker, Edith begins to nudge the guttering flames. Before she knows what’s happening, a man’s hand wrests the metal spear from her grip. Turning, irritated, she sees that the poker thief is her roué. Leaning across her, he jabs at the fire so fiercely it coughs up a constellation of sparks.

“Dear Rosa, I can’t remember the last time you weren’t worried about something,” he says in perfect French.

“Have you met Mr. Fullerton?” Rosa asks. She speaks his name tenderly, and with a French accent: Full-air-tawn. “Monsieur Morton Fullerton, Madame Edward Wharton. Edith.”

The man turns to Edith, sets the poker back in its stand and—his eyes filling with light—takes her hand. “Edith Wharton? So that’s who you are!” He pronounces “are” as “ah.” His accent is as broad and Bostonian as Teddy’s. He’s an American! In that perfect French suit. She never dreamed. “I’ve just finished
House of Mirth
! What an extraordinary book, Mrs. Wharton! The best I’ve read since . . .” He shakes his head.

“Thank you.” She hears a flutter in her voice. She still has not gotten used to the discomfort and thrill of hearing people she’s never met say they’ve read
House of Mirth
. As he lets go of her hand, she looks to see that her palm is sooty. Was it from the poker? He takes out a handkerchief, crisp white and embroidered, and gently wipes her fingers. She is astonished, as he seems to think it’s his right to take her hands in his. “I have to ask . . . did that lovely creature Lily Bart plan to . . . did she mean to . . . well, I nearly wept and it was quite a knock to my manhood.” Wiping his own hands, then folding the handkerchief neatly inward, he tucks it in his pocket, leans over and, nearly touching his lips to her ear, says, “Did she mean to end it all?”

Edith lowers her voice too, as though they are sharing the darkest of secrets. “I only tell my closest friends.”

“So hah! You don’t know yourself?”

She looks him in the eye. “Well, I didn’t say that.”

“No, I believe you
don’t know
. It would be very French of you not to know. To let your characters carry their secrets to their graves.” He glances away, but she sees that his mouth sucks on his mischievousness as one might savor a hard candy.

Edith smiles. “It looks to me as though you’ve managed to hold on to your manhood quite well, Mr. Fullerton. Only a man could look so pleased with himself.”

His blue eyes flash and he laughs. She didn’t expect he could laugh at himself.

“So,” she says, crossing her arms, thinking that perhaps she will not dislike him after all. “What do you do?”

“I’m a journalist for the
of London.”

“An American at the
of London?”

There is a sweet shyness when he nods. She did not expect that either.

“I’m impressed.” She notes his lustrous aubergine cravat stuck through with a perfect pearl. His starched shirt with its separate
. She was so certain he was French!

“How long have you been in France?” she asks.

“Sixteen years . . .”

“You’ve become a Frenchman, then?”

“Oh no. I’m an American through and through.”

“Even after sixteen years? France doesn’t feel like home?”

He shakes his head. “The French are a constant source of
you see.” He speaks the word with a French flair (soo-preeeez). “Of course, New England can be a bit of
as well. Going home feels like being dunked in ice water.”

“Yes, I’ve had a similar experience,” she says.

“We have a friend in common, you know.”

“Do we?”

“A certain Mr. James.”

Edith raises her brows. “You know Henry?”

“Intimately.” He smiles a devilish smile. “He tells me that you are great friends, which impressed me. He is very choosy about his friends.”

Henry James loves the company of stylish, attractive young men, whom he fawns over and to whom he imparts his wisdom. Edith isn’t blind to this. She enjoys the company of Henry’s fair friends as well. But there is a softness about the majority of Henry’s male entourage. A sense that they’d be more comfortable staying home embroidering. Mr. Fullerton seems uniquely brazen and masculine.

“Mr. James is coming to visit me this month,” Edith says. “We’re going on a motor trip.”

“So he wrote. He says motorcars have put the romance back into travel.”

Edith smiles. Those were the exact words she’d written to Henry to entice him to come! So Henry’s quoting Edith now!

She feels Mr. Fullerton appraising her, and it makes her self-conscious. While Edith Jones Wharton isn’t young anymore, she’s kept her youthful figure, her litheness. But lately, she’s seen signs of growing older. Her neck has subtly smocked with age. She hides it with fashionable high collars, or lace jabots. The crescents beneath her eyes, from years of breathing problems and intermittent nausea, have grown hollow and her cheeks gaunt, making her hazel eyes look larger, sadder. Orphan eyes, she tells herself. She still has a pile of lush auburn hair. It’s certainly more beautiful now than in her carrot-topped youth (the cause of much teasing from her brothers). But it has recently been reinforced with threads of silver.

“Listen,” Mr. Fullerton says, his voice very intimate, his face very close to hers. “Mrs. Wharton . . .” She feels a salty burn at the base of her throat as he touches her arm. “Do you think that we might . . .”

“The Bourgets at last!” Rosa crows, breaking the spell. Edith looks up to see Paul and Minnie step into the room, the crowd scattering to make way for them. Minnie shakes out her damp skirts. Paul greets everyone with bright eyes.

“My dearest dear,” Minnie says, coming directly toward Edith and, stepping in front of Fullerton, kissing her on both cheeks. “Sorry we’re so late. Paul needed to
himself.” She rolls her eyes sweetly and squeezes Edith’s hands.

“A man’s toilette is so much more complicated than a woman’s,” Edith says with a wry smile, assuming she has an audience. “By the way, have you met Mr. Fullerton?” Edith turns, but he is already gone. How had he slipped away so quickly? What had he meant to say?

“Oh, I’ve met him many times. Perhaps
many.” Minnie flashes an inscrutable smile. Edith is about to ask her what she meant when Rosa summons the guests with her chalk-squeak voice to join her in the dining room.

But before the party can move toward the elaborately set table, the drawing room doors fly open and a languid figure steps forth: a woman in a gossamer gown with parrot green feathers at the shoulders, dark, heavy hair piled on her head and eyes so large and fiery they could melt the room.

“Madame la Comtesse de Noailles,” someone whispers. It’s as though the heartbeat of the party stops for a lurching moment.

“Anna,” Rosa beams with pleasure. “You’ve come.”

Edith is stunned. All of Paris has whispered of Anna de Noailles, the young poetess whose daring, sensual poems have thrilled every true reader in France, whom painters are lining up to paint. She has never before come to Rosa’s. In fact, she has her own selective salon that not one of Edith’s friends has been invited to. Paul Bourget had shown Edith her most recent book of poetry with admiration and envy. The earthiness of the poems fascinated Edith and made her blush to her ears.

“Forgive me for being late,” Comtesse de Noailles says, taking Rosa’s arm and escorting her into the dining room. “It completely slipped my mind that tonight is Tuesday.”

Edith sees that Fullerton, now on the other side of the room, is watching de Noailles with interest, but then his gaze shifts to Edith and he flashes her a sweet, bemused grin.

The dining room is hung with finely woven tapestries the color of spices and priceless, delightful paintings. A David of a languorous, round-faced woman lounges over the fireplace. Anna de Noailles, with her peach like breasts, could have modeled for it. How plain and unworthy de Noailles makes Edith feel!

In the tradition of fashionable French dinner parties, Rosa sits in the middle of one side of the table, where she is in contact with the most possible guests. In very purposeful order, the diners fan out from her nucleus, seated on a spectrum from most to least important according to ancient and inflexible French traditions. Anna de Noailles, a comtesse by marriage, a Romanian princess by birth, is placed beside Rosa. Edith finds herself somewhere in the middle with Fullerton just opposite. Napkins are unfolded onto laps. Wine is poured. Edith glances across at Fullerton, who is no longer watching Anna de Noailles like everyone else, but Edith. Every time she looks up, his eyes are fixed on her face. She is praying her face won’t redden. How absurd for a woman over forty to blush!

Paul Hervieu says, “Did you read that Giosuè Carducci died?”

Abel Bonnard nods. “They gave him the Nobel Prize just in time.”

Edith herself wrote a poem “in the manner of Giosuè Carducci” a few years earlier. She’s sad to hear he’s died.

“Why do they give Nobels only to dying old men?” one of the table-enders asks.

L’Abbé Mugnier sips his wine and sets his glass down with a smile. “It takes a lifetime to be worthy of such a prize, young man.” He nods to himself, pleased he’s answered the challenge so neatly.

Anna de Noailles’s black eyes sparkle with mischief. “Since you are so wise, Monsieur Abbé, perhaps you can answer this question.” She drops her voice so that everyone must lean forward. “Why do they never give the Nobel Prize to a woman?”

“Ah . . .” The Abbé raises a finger. “You are mistaken, Comtesse. They gave the Nobel Peace Prize to a woman just the year before last. Can anyone remember her name?” There is an extended silence.

“Well, that makes the point!” Minnie says. “No one can recall her name.”

“What do I care for the Peace Prize?” de Noailles says. “I ask you . . .” She looks back and forth along the table so that each and every guest is graced by her gaze, then drops her voice to a near whisper. “Is there peace in the world? Not a shred. So why give a prize for something incomplete?” There is laughter all around. Even Edith can’t help but smile. “It’s the literature prize I’m speaking of. At least writers are required to finish

“Are you planning to win someday, Comtesse?” Minnie Bourget says.

“And why not, Madame Bourget? Am I less worthy than dusty old Giosuè Carducci because I have bosoms? I predict a woman will win very soon.”

Edith looks at Anna de Noailles and sees the world altering before her eyes. Her ease, her acceptance here are thrilling and disconcerting. She clearly wears no corset beneath the diaphanous gown. She is not afraid to show off those luminous bosoms to which she has called attention. Her glossy hair is dark and uncontrolled. Insubordinate hair, Edith thinks with amusement. Everything about de Noailles is made to seduce. There isn’t a man at the table who isn’t stirred by her. Even those who aren’t the least interested in women. She can see it in their rosy cheeks and burning eyes, as though just glancing intoxicates.

Edith peers down at her own frilly bodice, heavy pearls, and layers of boning and muslin and silk and wool with new dissatisfaction. It seems more like upholstery than clothing. She is old-fashioned and less than beautiful. Proper and stiff. She cannot imagine having the physical self-confidence that de Noailles projects. And then there is this: Anna de Noailles is a woman who knows the pleasures of the body—something Edith, encased in her sexless, empty marriage will never know. Edith was raised to be a lady, not a woman.

BOOK: The Age of Desire
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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