Author Talk: August 3, 2012
In her latest novel, THE AGE OF DESIRE, Jennie Fields tells the complex story of Edith Wharton and her beloved governess, Anna Bahlmann. She charts their relationship through Edith's passionate affair with a young journalist and describes how even a lifelong bond can be threatened by the very nature of love. In this interview, Fields talks about Edith and Anna's troubled friendship, Edith's love of Paris and what the city meant to her, and how Edith herself influenced Fields' own writing.
Question: The relationship between Edith and Anna is very complex. Did you always plan on making their troubled friendship central to the book, or did it grow out of your research?
Jennie Fields: It wasn’t until three months into the writing of the book that I decided to add a secondary protagonist, someone who could view Edith objectively. Anna Bahlmann seemed the perfect character as she was with Edith on and off since her days as Edith’s governess until the year Anna died in 1916. To have kept Anna with her so long, I assumed they must be very close, but biographers had hardly mentioned her.
Then after I’d already written many chapters of the book, a miracle occurred. Over 100 letters from Edith to Anna which had been moldering in an attic came up for auction at Christies! Everything I supposed about their relationship was true. They were loving and close since Edith’s childhood, and she trusted Anna with a great deal. I grew more and more intrigued with this shadowy figure.
Questions began to arise. Why, for instance, during the summer after the onset of Edith’s affair with Morton Fullerton, was Anna suddenly sent to Europe on a trip that was considered a gift from Edith? Earlier, in letters to other people, it was clear Edith was upset and even annoyed when Anna wasn’t around to help her, so why was it arranged for them to be suddenly so much apart? Though I have no hard evidence that Anna was disturbed by Edith’s relationship with Fullerton, many events suggested she’d been sent away. I wanted Anna to be the book’s conscience. If Edith was unhappy, disturbed by her splintering relationship to Morton, it made sense she’d send Anna off on a trip.
Another intriguing coincidence is that I had created a warm alliance between Anna and Teddy. After I’d written most of the book, I found letters from Edith to others that said that Anna was a calming influence over Teddy on his worst days, the only one patient enough to sit with him, that he was asking for her – exactly as I had written it.
Q: Anna supports Edith’s writing as a typist, early reader, and—in a way—editor. Did Edith ever include Anna in her Acknowledgements? How did Anna’s involvement in Edith’s work complicate their relationship?
JF: Though she never acknowledged Anna publicly as far as I know, in letters directly to Anna, she thanked her. In fact, in one letter early in Edith’s writing career, she sent Anna the check she received for a story saying, “The story is so associated in my mind with the hours that we spent in writing it out together, & I owe its opportune presentment & speedy acceptance largely to the fact that you were here to get it written out at a time when I could not have done so, that I have a peculiar feeling about your having just this special cheque & no other as a souvenir of our work together.”
In her published biography, A BACKWARD GLANCE, she spoke warmly about her relationship to Anna when she was a child “my beloved German teacher, who saw which way my fancy turned, and fed it with all the wealth of German literature, from the Minnesingers to Heine.”
But in a later autobiographical fragment that was never published she said, “My good little governess was cultivated & conscientious, but she never struck a spark from me, she never threw a new light on any subject, or made me see the relation of things to each other. My childhood & youth were an intellectual desert.”
If she is referring to Anna in this sentence, (I hope she is not) it saddens me a great deal. In any case, I believe Edith saw Anna as something of a servant. She certainly did straddle Edith’s world and the world of the household staff, as beloved and essential as she seemed to be. At the same time, Edith generously took Anna on foreign trips, out to dinner and to the theatre with her. Without Edith, her life might well have been merely that of a teacher.
As I have written Anna, she sees her place in life as a helpmate and accepts that Edith is the chosen one. She is proud of her association with Edith and content with her place in life.
Q: Edith Wharton is one of your favorite writers. How did that influence your writing?
JF: Well, I must say, I felt very conscious of the language I used. I wanted it to be appropriate to the era, hard-working and beautiful all at once. I could never dream of writing as exquisitely as Edith. I often get chills when I read her writing. If angels could write, they’d write as she did. The music of her language is instructive and breathtaking. But I tried to write in a way that I felt might please her. Also, I often started my writing sessions by reading a few pages of one of her books. I never get tired of her books, no matter how often I read them.
Q: The book follows Edith’s sexual awakening. What was it like writing sex scenes for such a well known writer?
JF: Not many people know this, but when Edith died, among her effects, her literary executor found some pornography that she’d penned. There’s was nothing shy about this work. It was bold, shocking, and also, of course, exquisitely written. While I did not use any of the language of this piece (named Beatrice Palmato, for those who are curious – and yes, it’s on the internet) it did instruct me as to how she viewed sex and passion, and gave me insight into what excited her.
Q: Paris figures heavily into the book. What did the city mean to Edith? What’s your relationship to Paris and did it figure into the writing of the book?
JF: Edith adored Paris. It was everything that New York wasn’t: culturally oriented, worldly, beautiful. She found New York society closed and stifling. She blossomed when she finally moved to France full-time, and her devotion to France is clear in how she helped the women of France during World War I with her workrooms and charities. (France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor for her work during the war.) She had loved Paris as a child, and even more as an adult. And of course, she fell in love with Morton while in Paris. That would forever insure a place for Paris in her heart.
There was a period where I did not like Paris. I found it jostling and sad. But about the time I began the book, I also began a new relationship to Paris, and fell in love with it all over again.
Q: By the end of the book, Edith’s husband Teddy is not a very sympathetic character. Did you know much about Teddy when you began this project? Did you find yourself taking sides?
JF: I knew nothing of Teddy when I took on the project, but it wasn’t long before I discovered that he suffered in later life from Manic Depression at a time when people didn’t know what to make of that or how to treat it. Truthfully, I see Teddy as a very sympathetic character who married a woman unsuited to him, and then, distraught, fell victim to mental illness (which seemed to run in his family.) If Teddy could have spent his later years at the Mount with his pigs and horses, he might have been a much happier man. Edith was an intellectual. Teddy was anything but. But he adored Edith. And for a long time, he was a kind and patient husband to her. Thinking of Teddy’s life saddens me.
Q: You were an advertising creative director before becoming a novelist. Both are creative, but in different ways. How did your past career help in your current one?
JF: My advertising career has affected my fiction writing in myriad ways. For one thing, I am always conscious of trying to tell a story in the least words possible. After years of cramming twenty thoughts into thirty seconds, one gets pretty good at writing minimally! Advertising also taught me to be disciplined, to work well under strict deadlines, and to work every day. What I loved in advertising also interests me in my fiction: to solve puzzles. The tighter the strictures of the assignment, the more intrigued I am. I love being creative in a small box. This came into play with this book. I had to tell a story that already existed but I had to shape it into a book. It was a Rubik’s Cube. The elements were all there, but they needed to be twisted into the right order to create a satisfying pattern. Also, I was forced to read between the lines. Edith kept such clear diaries; her life was mapped out almost daily. But what really happened at the theatre that night? Why did Anna leave at that time for New York? Why did Morton act the way he did? It was a delicious puzzle and I very much enjoyed solving it to my satisfaction. I hope I’ve done Edith’s life justice.
Q: What’s your writing regimen?
JF: Generally, I walk in the mornings and do errands. I write in the afternoons. Usually I read starting at 1 or 2 pm. (While I was working on THE AGE OF DESIRE I always read something by Edith). Then, with a strong cup of tea I get down to work by three. I write in my writing room, a large old sleeping porch with windows on three sides overlooking my backyard. I sit in a comfortable chair with an ottoman, my MacBook Pro on my lap. I rarely write more than three hours at a time, usually less. But it’s extraordinary what three dedicated hours can generate as far as pages. If I get five good pages a day, I’m thrilled. But not every day can be a successful day. I always take weekends off – perhaps a holdover from my years in advertising. My brain needs time to recharge!
Q: What’s next for you?
JF: I am writing a novel about Georgia O’Keeffe, another brilliant women. I find everything about Georgia fascinating, her refreshing natural independence, a very unusual trait for women at the time, contrasted with her interdependence on Alfred Stieglitz. He made her famous and then held her back in life. His unfaithfulness broke her heart. There’s an incredibly compelling story there, details of which I’m just discovering.