14 September 2012

THE AGE OF DESIRE: “If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”

I am always getting closer to the idea of reading an Edith Wharton biography, without actually doing it. Since Jennie Fields' novel of Wharton's later years, THE AGE OF DESIRE, actually contains excerpts from her letters and diaries, this is probably the closest I've gotten.

This Edith is already a successful author, the toast of the Paris salons, but personally lonely: Her husband Teddy's health issues don't seem to be getting any better, and meanwhile he hates France and would rather be sequestered at their Massachusetts farm. Edith's new novel (that will, spoiler, become THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY) is troubling her, and her assistant Anna -- Edith's old governess and the only one she trusts with each fresh page -- knows that, but doesn't know how to advise her. Then Edith meets a younger journalist named Morton who flatters her and begins spending time with him, over Anna's objections for how it might look and its implications to her work.

THE AGE OF DESIRE is told alternately from Edith and Anna's perspectives (assisted by their many, many real life letters to each other, brought to light in a 2009 auction) for the Upstairs/ Downstairs perspective on what a successful writer's life would look like back then. (I'm guessing rare is the author these days who has someone else type her or his pages up for them.) I also appreciated the cameos from Wharton's longtime friend Henry James (stop following me everywhere!) and her admiration for a much younger Parisian countess whose shocking behavior makes Edith question the properness of her life.

The historical details were fascinating, but the relationship that develops between Edith and Morton is marked by an abrupt tonal change to syrupy, romance-novel-style scenes in which Edith is classically tortured by his absence, has never felt like this before, and so on. Its sogginess made it hard to root for, and the heightening of the stakes seemed excessive -- it was hard to believe that anyone would stop Edith from pursuing her interest, even though she saw the relationship as rife with obstacles. (Interestingly, we know very little about Edith and Morton's actual relationship, but what we do know stems from her letters to him -- letters she begged him to burn but he never did. This is convenient for the novel as Edith is constantly trying to measure Morton's ardor without being able to discern how he really feels about her, and I thought that tension worked.)

I didn't think of it while I was reading, but the Wharton novel THE AGE OF DESIRE most closely speaks to isn't THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, whose publication precedes its events, nor THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY but my personal favorite THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. (And it's... right there in the title.Sometimes I am not very observant!) Newland Archer is the Edith in this book, regretting past decisions, but with just enough freedom that they could be undone -- but at great personal cost. "We men may say more, swear more, but indeed: our shows are more than will," and all that. I don't know if THE AGE OF DESIRE is essential to all Whartonia, but if you've read this far, you will probably enjoy it with a little glossing over the swoony stuff.

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