Author Jennie Fields had three noteworthy novels in her portfolio, enough to lend credence to a fourth effort, but not enough to warrant a full-time writing career for the advertising executive, who commuted between New York and Nashville to be with her husband.
Then serendipity struck. Her literary agent, Lisa Bankoff, answered her plea for an assignment with the suggestion that she write about her favorite author, American-born Edith Wharton — on the same day that Fields first walked along rue Edith Wharton in Paris, France.
“Edith Wharton called something like that a ‘donne,’ a gift,” Fields said in a phone interview last week. “It was my best donne ever.” And it has proven to be a far-reaching gift.
It encouraged Fields to write the newly-released biographical novel, The Age of Desire, from which she will read Monday at Warwick’s. The novel is about Wharton’s life between 1907 and 1916, her former governess and then literary secretary Anna Bahlmann, and her romantic affair with U.S. journalist Morton Fullerton. (Fields’ title reflects Wharton’s twelfth novel, The Age of Innocence, which won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a woman, in 1921.)
Fields said, “I got the contract for this book, and that allowed me to quit my job and be with (her husband) in Nashville.”
And, Fields’ gift led her to stumble upon the existence of a theretofore unknown collection of letters from Wharton to Bahlmann that revealed Bahlmann’s importance to her employer.
Fields explained the discovery: “I had already decided that Anna was going to be my secondary character because I needed a character who would see Edith from the outside. It seemed to me that she was an important person in Edith’s life — she was with her for years. I couldn’t sleep one night.
“Just arbitrarily, I looked up Anna Bahlmann, and there were letters up for auction that week at Christie’s. As soon as daylight was up I called Christies. I got to hold those letters after 100 years. They were in the possession of a lovely person, Laura Shoffner, who was Anna’s great grandniece. When her grandmother had died, that’s when they found the letters. The whole thing was such a serendipity for me.”
The letters confirmed Fields’ assumption about Bahlmann, and her subsequent rendering of the two women brings the previously little-known details and dynamics of their relationship to life, revealing an intimate connection that withstands class, conflict and disappointment.
“There’s no question that (Edith) does see class distinctions. I think she did love Anna though, but Anna was her servant, and Anna was a very devoted servant. I think Edith was a brilliant, brilliant woman, one to admire, but she wasn’t easy to like. Having Anna allowed me to have a sympathetic character in the book. … Edith often said in her later life, ‘Oh, I was kind of a literary orphan. I found my own way, nobody wanted me to write books,’ and that’s absolutely not true. Edith was helped along the way. She had Anna.”
And she now has Fields — to bring Edith alive to another generation. Writing in present tense, Fields brilliantly evokes Edith’s voice and her era, from the first scene of the book, a formal dinner, where Edith catches the eye of the younger man who will awaken her long-repressed sexuality.
“I know that it kind of goes against the grain to write an historical novel in present tense, but I wanted it to feel immediate. I wanted you to feel that you are with Edith, that you are with Anna, seeing it through their eyes.”
Fields, who touched on a “difficult childhood,” was for years a working, single mother trying to write. The combination brings an empathy to her characters that reflects her own resistance against a society that attempts to force women “into a preordained future.” That compassion allows the reader to see a lush and intricate tale of two women, one who resists, one who does not, but who both love and lose.
Yet the reader knows that, like Fields, Edith will go on, but she will not go lightly. Her determined step will bear the weight of the “faint bruise on her soul” that love has left, and the heart of a woman — at times her secretary, friend, mother, but always Edith’s servant — who would do anything for her.
The Age of Desire is passionate, sorrowful, lovely. Thanks to the life, talent and serendipity of Jennie Fields.
***** ***** *****
Author reading Monday, 13 August, 2012, 7:30 p.m., reading at Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Info: 858-454-0347, warwicks.com
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books, Viking
Crossposted at the North County Times.
Anna Bahlmann image courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.