I was initially drawn into Jennie Fields’ clever imagining of Edith Wharton’s life and enticed by every one of the characters and settings. Encased within Edith’s sensuous, outrageous love affair with
young, dazzlingly handsome Morton Fullerton is a woman trapped in an sexless, empty marriage who was raised to be a “lady and not a woman.”
In Edith’s’ world of Parisian high society, we meet and are immediately attracted to the daring, sensual poetess Madame Anna de Noailles. Impressionable Edith is delighted and perplexed that Anna clearly wears no corset beneath her diaphanous gown. As Edith peers down at her own frilly bodice with its layers of constricting muslin and silk that “seem more like upholstery than clothing,” she views herself as old-fashioned and less than beautiful. Edith cannot imagine having the type of physical self-confidence that Madame de Noailles so clearly exemplifies.
Edith knows that her melancholy husband, Teddy, dislikes Paris and aches to return to the Mount, the house they built in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he’s happiest with the land and animals and mud on
his boots. Edith once thought Teddy a jolly man, but lately his chronic sullenness has begun to separate them. Anna Bahlmann, Edith’s loyal secretary, tries to give her employer some sage advice about honoring and obeying Teddy. Edith realizes she has no idea what this actually means.
Anna has spent a lifetime straddling a life of service to Edith’s world, often feeling “like a mother whose child has grown behind her.” Fifty-eight and feeling like “a crumbling old woman,” Anna views Edith’s scandalous friendship with Fullerton through the prism of her own pinched, spinsterish life. In less skilled hands, this approach could have become mere sordid melodrama, but Fields knows how Wharton’s society worked--who inhabited it, what it forgave, and what it could not pardon. In the Edwardian era, the privileged dreaded scandal more than disease. Certain affairs were pardonable, but not so real or perceived treachery.
Edith spends most of the story mortified by her own behavior but equally complicit as she blooms “like a struggling Parisian flower” in the arms of Morton. Thus ensues a delicate balance between the life Edith chose with Teddy, with whom she now realizes she has no emotional bond, and the life she would choose if she were more sure of herself. Anna tries to save Edith from her actions but dooms her friend to spend her nights grief-stricken that the dazzlingly handsome and unmarried Morton could ever see her as anything other than a friend. Edith is faced with a hard choice: she can remain loyal to Teddy and be completely accepted, or keep flying back to Morton and never have to wonder about the all the sex she might have missed out on.
While I found this novel a fairly taxing and repetitive read (perhaps caused by Fields’ overwriting of Edith’s more sensual ruminations), every character is memorable: from Henry James, whose rich, masculine voice fails to hide his femininity, to the
polished, self-possessed womanizer Morton, a man whose behavior is acceptable because he knows how to play the “game” and understands the polite politics of how things are done in Edith’s society.
Why give this novel four stars instead of three? Because of Fields' meticulous research and her clever inclusion of Edith's original letters. Despite her approach that Edith is too wounded by Teddy’s melancholy nature to be truly worthy of desire, Fields shows how Edith’s longings cut through to her very marrow and how a woman of her time could be unshakable in her pursuit of happiness.